THE DEPTHS OF FINE ART
by William R. Carr
Ever wonder what happened to art? I have, because at one time I thought I might become an artist. Art, (or native drawing ability) happens to run in my family. Like my father and his brother before me, and now my son, I was gifted with the ability to draw what I saw, and whatever I could imagine, with a considerable degree of realism—or surrealism as my pleasure might be. None of us became professional artists, however. My uncle, George Carr, came closest. He worked on the Federal Arts Project during the depression. He has produced a considerable volume of good work, (both watercolors and oils) and gained a local reputation as an artist, but never earned his living at it after World War Two. He became a junior high school industrial arts teacher instead, and spent the greater part of his life teaching students the simplest levels of woodworking skills. Not a dishonorable calling by any means, but it fell far short of developing and fulfilling his true artistic potential, for George Carr not only possessed true artistic genius, but the drive required to produce without regard to monetary reward.
During my school years, I could never figure out the popularity of abstract art. It made no sense. To me most abstract expressionism was, and still is, merely a form of juvenile doodling taken to absurd, yet very serious, lengths and called art. At best, I considered it as a modern version of "primitive" art—or an artistic regression toward our more primitive roots. In my opinion, literally anybody "determined to become an artist" can become an abstract artist. Native art, or drawing, ability is no longer a requirement. (Picasso did have abundant art ability, but he was also a mercenary with a great sense of humor, and gave a foolish public what it craved—junk—and laughed all the way to the bank several times.) The fact that abstract expressionism had become a coveted "art" form, and the ability to do realistic work downgraded to "mere" illustration, discouraged me from seriously attempting to pursue art as a career. I didn't have the artistic sense of humor of a Picasso, nor the singular focus that would have been required to overcome my sense of alienation from the contemporary popular art mainstream. I became a merchant mariner instead.
My son possesses more talent than I ever had, yet he reported that almost none of his school teachers ever even commented favorably on his drawing and artistic ability. Thus he was not encouraged by our school system to value his ability. I assume it is considered socially insensitive, in this day and age, to praise real talent in the public schools. It is feared that would reflect unfavorably on the untalented who, after all, have just as much right to become artists as the talented. This is in stark contrast to my experience in school in the 50's, at which time talent was still openly and regularly praised. I never had a teacher that did not praise my artwork and encourage me, even though I was as likely as not to do my drawing in English or math class. I actually thought I would someday be a famous artist. But then, as time went by, reality set in.
Modern art has continued to "progress." Now we see crucifixes in glasses of urine, ("Piss-Christ") and American flags as foot-wipes honored and praised as fine art, not to mention some really swell looking junk piles that pass for great sculpture. Of course a lot of modern art is interesting, colorful, eye-catching, and even attractive. I suppose it is art, since art has by now attained a rather broad definition.
When I came across the following article by Frances Stonor Saunders, (which appeared in the London "Independent on Sunday," on October 22, 1995) I understood what had before been totally puzzling. It sheds some light on why abstract art attained it's initial popularity in the United States. It had help from an unsuspected quarter. No doubt other strange things that tend to baffle some of us have become popular for similar reasons. I've reproduced the article here in its entirety.
Of Spies and Splatters
F or decades in art circles it was either a rumor or a joke, but now it has been confirmed. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art—including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko—as a weapon in the cold war. In the manner of a Renaissance prince--except that it acted secretly--the CIA fostered and promoted American abstract expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.
The connection is improbable. In the 1950s and 1960s, the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art. President Harry Truman summed up the popular view when he said, "If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot." As for the artists, many were leftists barely tolerable in the America of the McCarthy era and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive U.S. government backing.
Why did the CIA support them? Because this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of America's creativity, intellectual freedom, and cultural power. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.
The decision to include culture and art in the U.S. cold-war arsenal was made as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many Western intellectuals, the agency set up the Propaganda Assets Inventory that could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines, and public-information organizations.
Then, in 1950, the International Organizations Division was set up under Tom Braden. This office subsidized the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm and sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra's international touring program. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, and even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we know, it promoted America's anarchic avant garde movement, abstract expressionism.
Philistinism, exemplified by Truman's Hottentot remark, combined with Joseph McCarthy's hysterical denunciations of all that was unorthodox, discredited the idea that America was a sophisticated, culturally rich democracy. To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in. It was a haven of liberalism when compared with a political world dominated by McCarthy or with J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. If any official institution in a position to celebrate the collection of Leninists, Trotskyites, and heavy drinkers who made up the New York School, it was the CIA. To pursue its underground interest in America's lefty avant-garde, the CIA had to be sure its patronage could not be discovered. "Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes," explains Donald Jameson, a former CIA case officer. "Most of [the artists] were people who had very little respect for the government, in particular, and certainly none for the CIA. If you had to use People who considered themselves one way or another to be closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps."
The centerpiece of the CIA campaign became the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a vast Jamboree of intellectuals, writers, historians, poets, and artists that was set up with CIA funds in 1950 and run by a CIA agent. It was the beachhead from which culture could be defended against the attacks of Moscow and its "fellow travelers" in the West. At the congress's height, it had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines.
The Congress for Cultural Freedom also gave the CIA the ideal front to promote its covert interest in abstract expressionism. The congress would be the official sponsor of touring exhibitions, and no one, the artists included, would be any wiser.
Because abstract expressionism was expensive to move and exhibit, millionaires and museums were called upon to help. Preeminent among them was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded New York's Museum of Modern Art. His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organize most of its important art shows. The museum was linked to the CIA by other bridges. William Paley, the president of CBS and a founding father of the CIA, sat on the members' board of the museum's International Program. And Tom Braden of the CIA's International Organizations Division was executive secretary of the museum in 1949.
Now in his 80s, Braden lives in Woodbridge, Virginia, in a house packed with abstract expressionist works. He explained the purpose of his International Organizations Division: "We wanted to demonstrate that the West and the United States [were] devoted to freedom of expression and intellectual achievement, without and rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the cold war.
Braden confirmed that his division acted secretly because of the public's hostility to the avant-garde: "It was very difficult to get Congress to go along with some of the things we wanted to do--send art abroad, send symphonies abroad, publish magazines abroad.
Would abstract expressionism have been the dominant art movement of the postwar years without the CIA's patronage? The answer is probably yes. Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that when you look at an abstract expressionist painting, you are being duped by the CIA.
But look where this art ended up: in the marble halls of banks, in airports, city halls, boardrooms, and great galleries. For the cold warriors who promoted them, these paintings were a logo, a signature for their culture and system that they wanted to display everywhere that counted. They succeeded.
Frances Stonor Saunders, "Independent on Sunday" (centrist), London, Oct. 22, 1995.
Quoted from the WORLD PRESS REVIEW · JANUARY 1996.
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