Abstract Expressionism was a fringe movement, until the feds stepped in.
In 1946, the U.S. State Department organized an international exhibition called Advancing American Art that showcased paintings by artists such as John Marin, Ben Shahn, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Not everyone was a fan. The paintings weren’t abstract -portraits, still lifes, nothing that would be out of place at an exhibit of mid-century work today- but they were “modern.” The tour was cut short amid criticism from the American Artists Professional League.
This news delighted top government officials. President Truman called the works “the vaporings of half-baked lazy people,” adding, “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” Other officials thought the exhibit was a ruse: House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Taber complained to the secretary of state that the paintings were made by Communists to “establish ill will” toward the United States.
The CIA disagreed. The newly formed agency didn’t see modern art as anti-American; it saw the movement as a powerful Cold War weapon that could stoke patriotism at home and win the sympathies of left-wing intellectuals abroad. Unlike Soviet art, which was tightly controlled by the government, modernism embodied the American ideal of freedom, the liberty to express wild ideas. To the CIA, Abstract Expressionism was proof that American artists enjoyed the widest range of creative latitude.
“Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of nonconformity to its own very rigid patterns,” Donald Jameson, a former case officer told the Independent. “Anything they criticized that much and that heavy-handedly was worth support one way or another.”
But the CIA knew that many Americans hated modern art too. People found it ugly, and many recoiled at the splotchy trademarks of Abstract Expressionism. So the CIA schemed ways to combat domestic resentment.
In 1950, the agency created the Congress for Cultural Freedom, or CCF, a secret multinational group of anti-communist intellectuals. Their job? To sponsor exhibits and publish magazines that covered abstract art positively. The CIA asked wealthy people to establish foundations so the government could pipeline funds. For example, when Britain’s Tate Gallery wanted to display the CCF’s The New American Painting exhibit, the millionaire Julius Fleischmann “paid” for it.
By the late 1950s, critical opinion had turned positive without the public or any artists noticing the government’s involvement. It’s hard to measure how much influence the CIA had; bigwigs like Fleischmann probably would have supported modern art without the CIA’s prodding. But the agency certainly boosted the style’s profile, helping make Abstract Expressionism America’s first major international art movement.
The article above by Meg Robbins appeared in the November-December 2016 issue of Mental Floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.