Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An unlikely alliance

Abstract Expressionism and the CIA make for very improbable bedfellows, but bedfellows they apparently were during the Cold War (even if Abstract Expressionism and its chief proponents didn't actually know it...).

It's not that the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others was used by the US as an instrument of torture, in the same way that they've used the music of Metallica, Deicide, Eminem and, er, David Gray. On the contrary, their art was seen as embodying a positive value: intellectual and artistic freedom.

The logic went something like this. Dismayed at the continued allure communism and socialism seemed to hold for Western artists, and the widespread belief that capitalism fostered only cultural philistinism, the CIA sought to flag up the "communist ideological straitjacket" that imposed restrictions on Soviet artists and, by contrast, the creative liberty afforded to their American counterparts.

That led to the curious situation of both Western artists who were openly critical of and inimical to capitalism, and their art - controversial, confrontational, radical - being covertly endorsed by the capitalist establishment in a policy known as the "long leash". What Pollock et al would have made of being unwitting pawns in the Cold War game of chess can be imagined, but it's fascinating to think that they might owe at least part of their success to the CIA's surreptitious behind-the-scenes machinations.

(Incidentally, if you're trying to track down Hidden Hands, the Channel 4 programme that inspired the Independent article, good luck - the article actually dates from 1995...)

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