Abstract Expressionism was a CIA plot

In this 1995 Independent article, you can read about the former CIA officer who admitted that the Agency secretly funded and promoted Abstract Expressionism as a way for avant-garde, lefty types to reconcile their worldview with American values, rather than Soviet-style Communism. They operated in secret to avoid "the public hostility to the avant-garde," and hid their actions from conservative Congressmen who hated that long-hair junk.

The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.

The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America's anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism...

Until now there has been no first-hand evidence to prove that this connection was made, but for the first time a former case officer, Donald Jameson, has broken the silence. Yes, he says, the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it.

"Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I'd love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!" he joked. "But I think that what we did really was to recognise the difference. It was recognised that Abstract Expression- ism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions.

"In a way our understanding was helped because Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns. And so one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticised that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another."

Modern art was CIA 'weapon' [Frances Stonor Saunders/The Indepedent]

(via Kottke)


  1. Hmm, so does this mean the cuts to public arts funding is partially due to the end of the Cold War?  

    1. No, that started in Reagan’s term.  Arts were cut due to anti-intellectualism and in reaction to Robert Mapplethorpe.  

  2. Wow — when I was a kid, my parents had some friends we used to go over and see. The father was a psychiatrist who was doing hush-hush work for the government (turned out to be CIA LSD experiments). And the mother was a painter, an abstract expressionist. Never put the two together before. Well, not that way, anyhow.

  3. The title of this post exaggerates the relationship between the two.  It has long been established in that the U.S. promoted abstract expressionism in Latin America as a means to challenge social realist and popular art and push the imperialist agenda. But this is by no means the only example of a government appropriating an art movement for political means; look at Mexican Muralism, Russian Constructivism, and Italian Futurism.

  4. This is interesting to me partially because Eric S. Raymond has claimed essentially the opposite, that the Communist Party in Russia told the CPUSA to promote non-representational art because it was ugly and demoralizing.  Of course he doesn’t bother with any citations and I can’t find any references to this anywhere (though I haven’t tried particularly hard).  If anyone knows where ESR was getting this stuff I’d appreciate the pointer.

    The scenario where both the Soviets and the CIA are simultaneously promoting abstract expressionism at cross purposes is amusing to think about.

    1. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that you can’t find any citations anywhere except the Cato Institute.  It’s because they just make shit up to justify Conservatism.

      1. Well the Cato bit is just an op-ed piece by ESR who is in no way an expert on history or communism.  In fact, he’s more of a red-baiting hippie-punching crank.  It doesn’t feature any citations.

        Following up I’ve found a few potential sources to corroborate the claims he makes but haven’t had the chance to read closely to determine whether those claims are actually justified.

        Mostly I’m amused by the idea that the CIA and Soviets were working together without knowing it to promote art that both parties would only ever disavow in public.  I don’t think it’s even particularly far-fetched.

  5. The title really sensationalizes the content of the linked article. The CIA didn’t invent abstract expressionism; in fact the article states, “Would Abstract Expressionism have been the
    dominant art movement of the post-war years without this patronage? The answer
    is probably yes.”

  6. I’ve always assumed that every artistic movement since the late ’40s was created by the CIA.

    1. Probably explains why Jasper Johns made so many paintings of the American flag. And who paid so much money for Warhol’s early work that it created a buzz in the art world? Was it a man in a trench coat with a briefcase full of cash?

      1.  Nah, it was someone who made all of their revenue via vending and laundromat machines.

  7. So let’s see- on one hand, you have two completely untrustworthy governments trying to out-propaganda each other. On another hand, you’ve got an artistic movement with some validity on its way to becoming the esoteric, academic and over-priced jumble hogwash. On a third hand, you’ve got an uneducated public that is nevertheless more and more correct about the elephant in the room. It sounds like a great black comedy Kubrick never made, and it’s all… true? 

    So basically, the government, whom the hipsters hated, paid for an art movement that the hipsters loved, in order to convince a public that hated the hipsters that we were better than the hated communists because the hated hipsters were free to make something the public completely hated? 

    1. Hipsters of that time loved abstract expressionism? I thought they loved jazz. (And, actually, jizz.)

  8. I think that’s brilliant. Leading with the carrot rather than the stick. Makes one wonder if something similar could be done with America’s current problems.

  9. The CIA would love them some content-free art.  And nice that there’s plenty of CIA art money for “fighting communism”, but the State Department’s wildly successful cultural exchange programs have to be fought for nickel and dime.

  10. I had a music professor in grad school that was, most likely, on the CIA payroll during the Vietnam war. And the US state department is still doing this kind of thing–promoting avant guarde art  as a way of advancing US interests. I really don’t see it as all that sinister. Governments have always used art as a propaganda tool. Same goes for the space program.

  11. CIA hi-jacked Abstract Expression, but did not create it.; Kandinsky
    was for real. Early Soviet art and design was actually often very
    avant-garde but was dropped in favour of socialist realism, which was
    more practical for propaganda. Another twist of irony – the CIA also
    switched to supporting pop art for the same reason – realistic images
    are more easily used for propagandistic purposes.

  12. There are similar arguments about avant-garde and postmodern literature in the US, namely, that publishers felt ideologically more comfortable with works that were about style, that were more-or-less apolitical, that were formally challenging but tended to affirm the status quo, etc. All this so folks wouldn’t read John Fante and the Beats and whatnot and, um, revolt or something. Like Soviet worker art, realism was seen as too much about class, wealth, labor, poverty, etc., so it got relegated to the margins–in pulp genres like noir–whereas artsy bougie types got to read lovely but empty things like Barthelme in their weekly New Yorker. Wish I could cite a source other than “tenured-radical hippy professors whom I listened to halfheartedly whilst in graduate school.”

  13. Did/does the CIA have a legitimate reason to be influencing citizen political thinking (ie oppose communist leanings)? I get that there was fear of the USSR, that communism was conflated with that, so I’m guessing the ostensible reasoning behind opposing communism at home was a fear that citizens national allegiance might be changed by their political beliefs. (And I’m aware that this was back in the day when the CIA was much less restrained from targeting US citizens.) But the obvious justification seems like a facile hand-wave for abusing power to shift the public towards one’s own political persuasion, and making trouble for people you see as ideological enemies. It doesn’t seem to touch a genuine national interest.
    Does the CIA have any legitimate business targeting the domestic political process?

  14. The version of this story I read was about Pollack and how he became the poster boy for American Art. The US had all these great artists, yet most of them were European, having fled the war. Pollack was American. Pollock got promoted above all the other abstract expressionists of the time. 

    In this version of events, it is assumed that the CIA was pioneering the use of art and culture in asserting national status. Today everyone does it. Although today it would be Hollywood instead of art. Of course, it’s more sophisticated today. Today the CIA are involved in actually *making* the movie about *themselves* and exporting *that* around the world, which also carries the message, “We will fucking kill you,” without having to actually go and kill anyone.”And we’ll give it a real macho name like, “Fear Up 9” or “Zero Dark Thirty” ;-)

    1. hollywood – *instead* of art. ouch man. just because you choose to watch *Battlefield Earth* doesn’t mean that we’re not making *Half Nelson;* make an effort already. now if you’ll excuse me i have a Pixar call about a movie in which a misunderstood American eagle saves a bunch of silly arabs. um,  so we’re using the asterisky thing instead of the quotey thing now right?

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