congress of cultural freedom

Robert Motherwell, View from a High Tower, 1944–45. Tempera, oil, ink, pastel, and pasted wood veneer, drawing papers, Japanese papers, and printed map on paperboard
Left: Robert Motherwell, View from a High Tower, 1944–45. Tempera, oil, ink, pastel, and pasted wood veneer, drawing papers, Japanese papers, and printed map on paperboard; Right: El Lissitzky, Untitled, ca 1920s.

I recently read this article outlining the involvement of the US government in the promotion of American Abstract Expressionists during the Cold War titled “Modern Art was CIA ‘Weapon'”.


Essentially, the CIA devoted a branch, called the Congress of Cultural Freedom toward promoting US artists in Europe… we’ll get to that.

The immediate lingering question in my mind became: What does this mean for the pedagogy of American art history?

Abstract-expressionism is (at most) a free relation between the artist’s internal dialogue and the canvas, a rejection of realist form and the establishment, and (at least) a mythic (and misogynistic) repositioning of the American male artist as a tortured genius, unleashing his untouchable soul upon an unwitting canvas.

Does this reveal of subversive government backing change the narrative? Does it do anything to change the value of American abstract-expressionism? Would these artists have been canonized had it not been for sanctioned patrons lurking in the dark?

In the end, to my eye, it doesn’t matter. The work does speak for itself, and the concept and execution remain valid, regardless. Ultimately, the more striking revelation is the doubling of American and Soviet tactics of cultural dissemination. Lets go there.

Aleksander Rodchenko, Cinema Eye, poster 1924
Aleksander Rodchenko, Cinema Eye, poster 1924


In the wake of World War I, Russian visionaries like Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky, Vavara Stepanova, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Rodchenko constructed architectural visions, designed clothing, created luminous industrial design and painted geometric canvasses that defined 20th century modernism. Focusing on color, shape and the relationship of art to industry, the movement became, literally, the poster for post-October revolutionary Bolshevik government.

clothing design by vavara stepanova
clothing design by vavara stepanova

Starting from an essentially blank slate, this group of artists were able to construct their own reality of Russian civil life (the constructionists were bedfellows with the Proletkult movement, which advocated for an entirely new cultural life in Bolshevik Russia.) Pushing aside the previously upheld boundaries of art as a classist enterprise, the constructionists rallied for an art of necessity. Vavara Stepanova, for example, designed graphic futuristic working clothes intended for mass-production (more on Vavara.)

This avant-garde would eventually be suppressed in favor of a new state-sponsored Soviet Realism, which depicted the working proletariat in realistic renderings on oversized canvasses. Amazing paintings, yes, but they certainly didn’t contain the revolutionary progresive energy of the constructivists.

Women of the Kolkhoz, artist unknown. Example of Soviet Realism.

During the Cold War, the primary battlefront was conceptual. As Communist party leaders depicted the United States as culturally devoid, the US devoted an arm of the CIA toward promoting the US as the heir of European artistic traditions. This branch, titled the Congress for Cultural Freedom engaged in all sorts of vicarious promotion of American artistic progress.

The CCF promoted American avant-garde musicians such as John Cage and jazz artist Louis Armstrong, while diverting attention from classical composers such as Bach and Mozart, artists apparently associated with authoritarian fascism.

The CCF also covertly funded Encounter magazine, an arts journal that remained in existence, and funded by the CIA until 1991.

Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 70, 1961 Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991) Oil on canvas; 69 x 114 in.
Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 70, 1961
Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991)
Oil on canvas; 69 x 114 in.

Most interestingly, for our purposes, was the CIA involvement in the spread of American modernist painters and sculptors during the 1940s and 1950s. Artists like Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, unbeknownst to them, were receiving government funding through vicarious and labyrinthine methods. The idea was to set up American Abstract-Expressionism as a free and fluid counterpoint to the rigidity of Soviet Realism.

In 1947, the State Department openly funded a touring exhibition titled “Advancing American Art” which was slated to tour through Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia. This open diplomatic effort was decried and the exhibition eventually fell through before its tour. [1]

But the CCF had a long-leash effort designed specifically to keep even the artists they promoted in the dark. In an article by The Independent, former CIA case officer Donald Jameson says:

“Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes so that there wouldn’t be any question of having to clear Jackson Pollock, for example, or do anything that would involve these people in the organisation. And it couldn’t have been any closer, because most of them 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.” [2]

220px-Anticommunist_Literature_1950s That the CCF was promoting left-leaning, sometimes radical artists to Europe, Latin America and Asia parallel to the internal war of McCarthyism is an irony not lost.

Paradoxically, the US was simultaneously regurgitating the tactics coined by early Communist support of the avant-garde constructivists during the Bolshevik revolution. Stylistically, the work of El Lissitzky and Robert Motherwell share many similarities. Obviously, abstract expressionists are overtly aware of the artists hand while the constructivists cling to geometry– but the foregrounding of shape and color and disregard for realistic representation bind the two.

Similarly, after abstract-expressionism’s heyday, American artists moved heavily toward pop-art. Arguably, this move could be linked to Soviet Realism, in that pop-art depicts a more realistic portrait of American life under capitalism.

I recognize the straw-man effect of this argument, but couldn’t help but think of constructivism’s political project after having read the article by The Independent. Consider this a rough draft of thoughts relating to this article, and feel free to leave comments.


2 thoughts on “congress of cultural freedom

  1. fascinating. what a different time. cultural arts are now considered a non-essential.
    in today’s climate i dont think it would occur to a govt. agency to be concerned with the artistic rigidity of another culture. even to thwart an enemy, i cant see art playing any role in the machiavellian plotfests conducted by the current c.i.a. although i heard they play justin bieber and selena gomez duets to disperse dissenters overseas.

  2. thanks for reminding me of stepanova. big influence on eighties fashion. really enjoyed this post – the topic, your writing and accompanying photos were all top notch.

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