Modern art and the CIA

The recent post forward by Amandeep of a review of Saunders' book on CIA funding of the Arts was very worthwhile reading. I am going to have it printed out for my students on the American Cinema course. However I think we need to be cautious about being urged to laugh at what the CIA did. Certainly we should feel scorn for the corrupt artists such as Stephen Spender, and it is good to deride John Wayne and Ronald Reagan's military pretensions. I am less inclined though to laugh at Robert Lowell going mad in Argentina. I am well beyond laughing at anyone's psychosis.

But the real point of this post is to suggest that the CIA dollars were not wasted. Now I know Marx talks in the Manifesto of the Chinese walls being battered down by the cheap commodities of capitalism. However the intellectual moral high ground is always crucial in any struggle, and this was given to the Americans in part by their support for artistic modernity. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood's anthology _Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas_ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) is a great source book for plotting this process, especially the section 'Art and Society' pp 630-680. Methodologically speaking Harrison and Wood provide a pre-reading of the period, nevertheless, their selection seems representative to me.

I am especially interested in the contrast between the conservative anti-communism of Senator Dondero and that of the liberal Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Dondero attacked modern art as being decadent and corrupting the American way of life. Someone must have pointed out to the idiot, that in Russia the Zhdanovists were making the exactly identical attack on modern artists as well. He made a second speech in which he acknowledged that within Russia modern art was under attack but repeated nevertheless that the Russians were exporting the menace of modern art to America. Harrison and Wood claim that Truman, Dondero and McCarthy all shared this conservative hatred of modernity (p 654).

Schlesinger took a different tack. He supported artistic modernity against the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. Within this scenario America emerged as the bastion of artistic freedom and innovation; the New World versus the decadent old. He also drew upon Hannah Arendt's 'totalitarian thesis' to argue that the Nazis and the Soviets preferred the same kind of art. Well it is now history that Schlesinger won out. Dondero and the other reactionaries were quietly wheeled off the stage.

What was behind the victory of the liberals? Well, I think it was actually capitalism. It is obvious that the Art industry needed innovation and the stimulus of investment. That is where the CIA came in. But as Marx pointed out in the Manifesto, left to itself the market is extremely radical, revolutionary even. So market forces in the guise of liberalism swept through the conservatives. If Phillip is reading this I can see him smiling in agreement at my recognition of the dialectics of capitalist modernity.

There was though at least one caveat here. The artists had to turn away from content and move towards form. It is here that we must locate Sontag's 1962 attack on interpretation and call for a turn to the analysis of form. Realism of the social or socialist variety was no longer "marketable". Lou in his posts on Warhol and Pollack has shown that the artists were not slow on the pick-up. They knew where the money was.

I will finish with an interesting quote from the sculptor David Smith (1906-65) delivered in 1952

"Present-day, contemporary America is producing masterpieces - a virile, aggressive, increasing number of painters and sculptors not before produced here. (H&W, 1992: 579).

I just love that virile bit. If you had a dollar for every gay in the American Art Scene you would be fairly comfortable. Still it was all machos to the rescue of civilisation, from John Wayne to Jackson Pollack. Today all the confidence that Smith articulated has disintegrated. Form without content, and the deep seated and thorough corruption of America's artists by the CIA have done their work. The male hero of the fifties has made way for the figure of Jeff Koons, the artist-entrepreneur, who films himself having sex with his wife and shows it for the thousands to queue up to watch. One witty review said he would starve if he had to make a living as a pornographer.


Gary McLennan