Abstract Painting as a Cold War Weapon?

Of all the saints and martyrs in the pantheon of modern art, "action painter" Jackson Pollock is the one grabbing the most attention lately. The hagiography extends to his Long Island home where, in the words of art critic Robert Hughes, you can find his relics: "the holy Coffee Can with a bunch of the Miraculous Brushes sitting in it; the sanctified shoes, encrusted in paint." The painter's halo has been burnished even brighter lately, with the recent biopic starring Pollack lookalike Ed Harris.

I never got Pollock's drippy paintings. They look quite meaningless to me, like something a temperamental Siamese might do on the rug if it met with a gallon of housepaint. I suppose that's the whole point: Pollack's explosions became a cottage industry for thinkers. Critics could read virtually anything into them, and they did: Roscharch blots from the American collective unconscious; beat-poet graffiti about the Bomb, or even chaotic illustrations of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. But there's another angle to Pollock and his paintings that isn't found in the standard biographies or the accompanying catalogues: the spy angle. This astounding chapter in twentieth century history is told by Frances Saunders, arts editor of the British magazine
New Statesman, in her book The Cultural Cold War.

Some background: into the shambles of Postwar Europe, America arrived like an avenging street preacher, carrying cartons of cigarettes and the doctrine of John Foster Dulles. The contest between the US and the Soviet Union wasn't just for real estate, but for the moral high ground. In this department Soviet propaganda was having some success: America was painted as a land of Negro-lynching southerners, and fat bankers dragging money bags behind them like Scrooge McDuck.

The Central Intelligence Agency decided to counter the misperception of America as a cultural backwater by getting into the arts. From the fifties to the sixties, America's spook network poured millions upon millions into junkets by symphony orchestras, authors, and artists. Money was laundered through funding bodies such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and front organizations like the Farfield Foundation and the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Through myriad projects, from big-money prizes to magazines such as Encounter and international conferences, the beneficiaries included luminaries from both sides of the pond: WH Auden, AA Milne, Isaiah Berlin, Arthur Koestler, Irving Kristol, Robert Lowell, Henry Luce, Andre Malraux, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Stephen Spender, and many others - including Jackson Pollock. While many were unwitting participants in the CIA's cultural cold war, Saunders asserts that others were willing collaborators. (There is no evidence that Pollack had a clue what was going on.)

With the lure of cash, the CIA intended to co-opt the anti-communist left with a vision of the West - and the US in particular - as being on the forefront of existentialism, avant-garde music, and abstract art. Pollack was perfect to promote for the latter, for several reasons. For one, he wasn't some effete dandy from a rich East Coast family; he was a prole from Wyoming with chiseled features. (With little effort, you could imagine Pollack wielding an M-16 as much as a brush.) His particular oeuvre -abstract expressionism - was frowned on by Stalinists as bourgeois decadence, making it a ready-made weapon. Plus, it was impossible for political sentiments to intrude into work as non-representational as Pollock's, ensuring whatever message the paintings contained weren't likely to go off in untoward populist directions.

Through its various founding bodies and public relations outlets, the CIA got to work promoting the doctrine of abstract expressionism as the Word, and Jackson Pollock as its Prophet. I don't have the space to do justice to the full story; for that you'll have to consult Saunder's witty and well-written book. Suffice to say it's an instructive tale. An alcoholic painter from Cody, Wyoming, whose career was pushed by spooks in Langley, Virginia? I don't think you could find a weirder plot than that on The Lone Gunmen.
Geoff Olson