The Look of Freedom? – Modern Art as CIA ‘Weapon’

Posted: October 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

The Abstract Expressionists emerged from obscurity in the late 1940s to establish New York as the centre of the art world – but some say they became pawns of US spies in the Cold War.


“Societies, like Soviet Russia, without any outrageous modern art of their own, seem to us to be only half alive.”

— Leo Steinberg

Willem de Kooning
Woman, 1949
Oil on canvas with enamel and charcoal
152 x 121 cm
private collection

Modern Art as CIA ‘Weapon’

Revealed: How The Spy Agency Used Unwitting Artists
Such as Pollock and de Kooning in A Cultural Cold War
The Indepentent
By Frances Stonor Saunders
Sunday, 22 October 1995


For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art – President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” As for the artists themselves, many were ex- com- munists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.

Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.
(learn more)

Guston Moma
Philip Guston
Painting, 1954
Oil on canvas
63 1/4 x 60 1/8 inches
Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 11.36.51 PM
Franz Kline
Orange and Black Wall, 1959
Oil on Canvas
66 3/4 x 144 1/2 inches
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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