Could you see the likes of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko as secret agents for the Central Intelligence Agency?
Well, neither could those radical artists. But, unbeknownst to them, the CIA spent millions pushing their artwork as a foil to the former Soviet Union’s heavily controlled cultural environment. And the agency still depends on art today in creating an image for itself.
Where does our improbable abstract-expressionist story begin? An October 1995 article in UK newspaper The Independent looks to 1949. That’s when Tom Braden, the CIA’s first chief of its International Organizations Division (IOD), was executive secretary of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When he took the reins of IOD in the ’50s, he carried that MOMA cultural attitude with him. He told The Independent in ’95:
We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War.
For decades both rumors and jokes cited the CIA as using art as a clandestine weapon. The ’95 article claims that a former CIA case officer, Donald Jameson, finally spilled the aesthetic beans. He told the newspaper:
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! But I think that what we did really was to recognise the difference. It was recognised that Abstract Expressionism 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…
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.
In 1958-59, MOMA toured the abstract expressionists in eight European cities via highly influential “The New American Painting” exhibit. It featured 17 artists including Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning, Gorky and Rothko. That was organized by the CIA, as were other exhibits like “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century” (1952) and “Modern Art in the United States” (1955).
The CIA also features art today–not in a clandestine international way–but in an internal public relations method: the CIA’s Intelligence Art Collection. The agency explains its rationale for the collection on its website:
By the end of 2008, 52 percent of CIA’s workforce will have entered on duty since 11 September 2001. CIA’s history and museum programs provide institutional cohesion to communicate CIA’s corporate culture and identity during this demographic revolution. Recent additions to the Agency’s historical holdings include intelligence-themed paintings and sculpture that record for posterity the experiences of intelligence officers in peace and war.
The website also provides examples of its art collection, including Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir by Jeffrey W. Bass and Cast of a Few, Courage of a Nation by James Dietz.
Bass’s painting, a World War II scene, portrays Virginia Hall of the Office of Strategic Services in the early morning hours, radioing London from an old barn near Le Chambon sur Ligon to request supplies and personnel.
Dietz’s artwork shows CIA operations in Afghanistan following Sept. 11.
The most recent addition to the collection appeared in March: a painting titled “ARGO – The Rescue of the Canadian Six.” According to the CIA website:
The painting’s unveiling coincided with the 33rd anniversary of the ARGO operation. In this operation, CIA and Canadian officials smuggled six American diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The painting depicts two CIA officers preparing alias documents used by the Americans, known as the “Canadian Six,” in their escape from Iran.
The ARGO painting is the 17th artwork hanging in a prominent hallway at the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, west of Washington, DC.
The CIA’s fine arts program has been administered by its Fine Arts Commission since the 1960s. It “has benefited over the years from donations of sculptures and paintings that celebrate historical accomplishments in intelligence,” the website notes. “The commission reviews donation proposals and, when it finds them appropriate, officially recommends works for acceptance.”
Will one of the future artworks portray the CIA’s controversial drone program that implements President Obama’s secret “kill list”? Time will tell.