January 10, 2005

Abstract Impressionism and the CIA

I'm trying really hard not to laugh at this:

Enduring Art

Do you find modern art baffling and depressing? Have you ever wondered if it's all a ridiculous hoax? Don't worry. It's meant to be baffling and depressing, and it is a ridiculous hoax. According to American leftist James Petras's review of Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders,

[the]CIA and its allies in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) poured vast sums of money into promoting Abstract Expressionist (AE) painting and painters as an antidote to art with a social content. In promoting AE, the CIA fought off the right-wing in Congress. What the CIA saw in AE was an "anti-Communist ideology, the ideology of freedom, of free enterprise[...]

So the whole hegemony of boring decadent rubbish art that has been inflicted on us for fifty years, from Jackson bloody Pollock to Damien fucking Hirst, has all along been a CIA plot.[...]

Considering the way abstract art has been the target of right-wing attacks since before I was born - and the way abstract sculpture in particular has been a corporate favourite for decorating lobbies and head offices - I'm trying really hard not to laugh out loud at my computer. All of a sudden the whole thing makes sense. It neatly encapsulates the divide between social and business conservatives. Inoffensive and arguably meaningless, abstract art has been the perfect expression of the commercially commissioned art. It really is the art of free enterprise. The social right, on the other hand, loves realism in the model of Norman Rockwell: the socialist realism of anti-socialism. This guy is probably making a killing.

Posted 2005/01/10 11:01 (Mon) | TrackBack

A cultural critic named Philip Slater (Earthwalk, Pursuit of Loneliness) made this point decades ago. I think it's valid. Art-world people I meet usually have a very thin, apolitical left politics mostly based on personal liberation, sexual scandal, and attitude-projection. They have to be careful not to offend the money people.

Avant-gardists also seem to have been defining what they do in more or less the same way since about 1917. The pursuit of newness, reframing, decontexting and recontexting, various forms of violent juxtaposition.

I'm the only person in the world who doesn't like Frank Zappa. Around 1965 he bundled the whole avant-garde package together with a bunch of youth culture. It was supposed to be revolutionary, but everything he did was from somewhere else, and it was anywhere from 10 years old (rock n roll) to 60 (Dada).

Posted by: John Emerson at January 11, 2005 20:27

I see your point about Zappa, but I'm mostly on the side of the decontextualisers and juxtaposers (juxtaposeurs? - ah, meaningless wordplay!). It's just that if you're going to root for the forces of creative destruction, they've got to actually be destroying something. I can see what the early abstractionists were tearing down, but now the whole business seems to have no implications at all.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 12, 2005 13:45

I especially mean negativity, skepticism, estrangement, and debunking as the core value (which actually is what dogmatic liberalism or secularism is).

The nastiest forms of rightism I know of mimic the estranging / reframing movement and direct it at Martin Luther King, Social Security, humanitarian sentiments about the third world or the poor, etc. Some come from unhappy liberal families and are taking revenge on conventionally-liberal parents who they feel failed them by offering nothing positive.

I'm not saying that this is an enormous demographic, but it's people I run into a lot, and they are very obvious and open about the way they're "turning the guns around". I find their rightwing cynicism impossible to shake.

It remains true that suburban kids raised in malls and in the new prosperity-gospel churches **do** need to have their world questioned, as do small-town kids with limited experience. But I've spent the last 30-40 years with conventional left-liberals, often avant-garde types, and I think that the liberating potential of that is gone by now, especially for people who've grown up with it.

Posted by: John Emerson at January 12, 2005 15:56

Unfortunately, I'm afraid I agree. This is certainly one of the core problems with the intellectual left. If I had a mission with this blog, I think trying to remedy it would be it.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 12, 2005 17:50

Speaking as an art historian who has some familiarity with this issue. Basically: yes and no. It's a lot more complicated than that.

The Abstract Expressionists were a bunch of leftists whose art was meant to sustain their political values, which included maintaining a space for art outside of capitalist mass culture (non-marketable art as a space of resistance to captialism through its mere existence; this is basically Theodor Adorno by way of Clement Greenburg). Yet after they became celebrated in the art community, the CIA secretly funded exhibitions of their art abroad so as to propragandize in favor of individual liberty and liberal democratic capitalism. CIA-backed organizations put together Ab-Ex shows all across Europe including the Soviet Union for this purpose. I'm not aware of any evidence that they propagandized within the US this way. And it is an ironic fact that the CIA was using Ab-Ex art for purposes entirely opposite to what its creators intented. Basically, the CIA and US Gov't appropriated and redefined what Ab-Ex meant. And this appears to have been done entirely without the knowledge of any painter whose work was thus used.

Posted by: Ranjan at January 25, 2005 4:40
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