Over the years, the CIA has been engaged in many dangerous, illegal and deplorable illicit acts. But in the 1950s, a lone event stands out as a moment when an awkward and improper analysis of the world’s last truly significant artistic movement led the CIA to promote something they ought to have condemned, given their agenda.
When one looks back on it, the move ought to help art critics in the West to reappraise the Soviet art of the mid-20th century which they continue to deride at their own expense.
Here’s what happened:
In the first three decades of the 20th century the most important art scenes were in France and in Russia.
Many in the West know about the vibrant Parisian art scene of the era, yet few talk about Russia. However long before the October revolution, a revolution in modern art occurred in both St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Russian artists formed a variety of traditions which challenged the aesthetics of the past, broke boundaries in terms of ideas, and created works of art that remain internationally cherished. Whether it was Kazimir Malevich’s minimalist suprematism, Eugène Konopatzky’s fauvism, Varvara Stepanov and Alexander Rodchenko’s constructivism, Vladimir Baranov-Rossine’s cubo-futurism, or Wassily Kandinsky’s works which explored and created a myriad of styles, Russia was miles ahead of much of the world in the early decades of the 20th century.
In the 1930s Soviet art changed. From the manifold art culture of the earliest decades of the 20th century, art in the Soviet Union evolved to have a unique voice. Collectively, this was known as Socialist Realism.
The movement in many ways ought to be thought of as something which combined the most abstract features of modern architecture with the neo-realism of the Marxist-Leninist dialectic.
Many in the West foolishly deride this art as simplistic, focusing solely on the large scale paintings of Communist leaders and idyllic socialist scenes.
This is wrong on several levels. The paintings of Socialist Realism cannot be views in isolation. They form an important piece of a larger artistic puzzle in which they would interact with architectural spaces, be shown in tandem with often abstract sculpture, and moreover, they were created to offer both contrast and symbiosis with their natural environment.
Consciously produced ‘street art’ so to speak.
Fast forward to late 1940s America. It was there where young American artists, many of them inspired by Soviet ideas, created what would become the last truly meaningful and profound movement in modern art.
This movement was Abstract Expressionism, a style of painting which was paradoxically deeply reflective and introspective, but also monumental and extroverted. It was at once methodical in its scope, and occasionally improvisational in its construction. Whilst viewed as an antithetical movement to Socialist Realism, in many ways the two were two sides of the same coin, created by likeminded left-wing/communist artists reflecting the realities of their different societies.
The artists of Socialist Realism set out to reflect the newness, boldness and revolutionary spirit of their political system. It was their aim to combat the propaganda of the West,which sought simplistically to deride the achievements of the Soviet Union, both at home and abroad.
Because of this Socialist Realism was art which was difficult visually to ignore. It was often gripping and memorable.
Several years ago I personally spoke to a prominent London art dealer and explained that he should mark my words that the next art movement to be revisited by critics and at long last taken seriously as an innovative, beautiful and important artistic movement, would be Socialist Realism. This is now slowly starting to happen.
By contrast the Abstract Expressionists of America retreated inwards as they saw a country in the grips of McCarthyism, ‘red scares’ and a burgeoning military-industrial complex.
Where Socialist Realists felt pride in their revolution, American Abstract Expressionists felt shame and isolation. Their works reflect a desire to make the intimate and mysterious into the unavoidable. It was their way of challenging the status-quo through visual means. It represented a socialist and radical rebellion against the corporatist conformity of post-war America, whilst Socialist Realism represented a clarion victory cry of a movement that had triumphed in the October Revolution.
If Socialist Realism was born of optimism, Abstract Expressionism was born of disillusionment with post-war hyper-capitalism.
Interestingly one of the most prominent Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko, was born in Russia to a secular Jewish family. Much of his childhood would come to influence both his political philosophy and his works. Needless to say, upon emigration to America, he was not the kind of American who fit into Joseph McCarthy’s stereotype of the ‘all American anti-communist’.
Robert Motherwell did several paintings dedicated to the Spanish Republicans who fought the fascist Franco. They remain the most important pieces of painting commemorating the Spanish Civil War after Picasso’s renowned Guernica.
Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning are the other mainstays of the movement. Each pursued radical ideas which challenged both a political and artistic establishment.
The CIA however had other plans. They, like much of the western artistic establishment, refused to see Abstract Expressionism as the other side of the Socialist Realist coin, a movement which simultaneously contrasted with and complemented the Soviet style. Instead they saw a movement which at the time was misunderstood by many in the West and reviled by others (including by President Harry Truman) as a way of saying ‘America is better than the Soviet Union’. This even though the Abstract Expressionist artists themselves were saying the opposite!
Like contemporary forms of music, such as the broad jazz movement, the CIA promoted Abstract Expressionism abroad, whilst the American mainstream establishment trashed it at home.
This all culminated in an exhibition of Abstract Expressionism in London in 1959.
The 1959 exhibition is currently being celebrated at London’s Royal Academy of Arts with a new retrospective exhibition of Abstract Expressionism. What they won’t tell you is that the 1959 show had a sponsor and it wasn’t Pepsi Cola or the Royal Bank of Scotland. The sponsor was the CIA!
The CIA funnelled money to useful idiot Julius Fleischmann in order to finance the show. The British authorities thought they were dealing with a generous patron. Instead they were dealing with the Central Intelligence Agency!
Abstract Expressionism never created a political revolution in America. However its works hold a special place in the annals of post-war American radical art alongside Beat poetry, modern jazz, left-wing folk music, and early rhythm and blues music. Each of these movements represented a left-wing often pro-Soviet rebellion against an increasingly right-wing and anti-Soviet military industrial complex.
There are important lessons for today, which can be ascertained by a study of the events of the 1950s.
America has made the mistake of promoting vulgar, commercial culture throughout the Middle East as a means of showing how ‘America is good and Arab culture is bad’. By contrast Russia is respectful of Arab culture and is careful to show the Arab world the most refined elements of Russian culture.
This recently culminated in an orchestral concert held in Syria’s newly liberated Palmyra under the leadership of Russian maestro Valery Gergiev.
Modern abstract art from both Russia and the West ought to be more widely exposed to the Arab world for the simple reason that they like it there.
The traditional realism of many of the pre-modern artists of the West is deeply out of sync with the Arab world simply because much of it was based on the idolatry which was gradually adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, something which runs contrary to the Koran and Hadith, which forbid idolatry. Modern abstract art therefore is popular amongst Arabs as it is an expression of the human soul without denigrating the human form.
It is an important lesson but one which doubtlessly will fall on deaf ears in the West….just like most good ideas.