Why I care that the CIA manipulated Western European Culture
Why, I ask myself, am I disturbed to discover the influence that CIA money had on the world of art, literature, poetry and political thought. It is true that Stalin was doing terrible things in Russia to people whose views were different to the party line. Artists and writers were being shipped off to the Gulags in their droves. The CIA were keen to show, by contrast, that people in America were free to say and do anything, they wanted to present a picture of a vibrant and radical culture where life was prosperous and good.
Of course it was propaganda. In reality America was profoundly conservative about art and civil rights. McCarthy was conducting witch hunts characterized by heightened political repression against communists and the civil rights movement in the USA were still contesting segregated buses and schools. Things were not as bad as in Russia, to be sure.
Many argue that it was all legitimate, given the scary days of the cold war. Some say that it was the best thing that the CIA did, it harmed no one.
So why do I still feel concerned?
Well I was around at that time, an ignorant schoolboy with a passion for art. The art world we looked to then was European. When we looked at radical art, we looked at cubism, surrealism, dada and fauvists. Much of this work I found profound and exciting, the circle of artists and poets around Picasso and Braque for example were discussing the maths of Poincare and the physics of Einstein. Surrealism was undoubtedly linked to the new science of Freudian psychoanalysis and so on. European radical art was profoundly political; it arose among people with enquiring minds and social consciences.
Then suddenly it all changed. I became aware of the change around about the time when I was thinking of art college. The art world seemed to shift focus. New York became a dominant influence on the art scene and abstract expressions appeared on the scene. It seemed to affect everything in the art world like frenzy. Art colleges seemed to change their orientation, along with the dealers, art critics and major museums. It was all very bewildering. Suddenly European artists began to realign – after the big buck themselves.
I find it rather spooky now, looking back with informed hindsight, that a subversive organisation run by clever fellows from Harvard and backed by endless amounts of dollars can control culture to such a powerful extent. Personally I don’t find much of the work they backed very interesting. It was vigorous, it was new to be sure, but abstract expressionism was not profound. It said nothing. It was about nothing. It, and the subsequent development in pop art, was flippant art that detrimentally affected popular culture.
Abstract expressionisms greatest success was in the word of fashion, fabric design and wallpaper. It opened the door for less competent people to become artists. Art colleges stopped teaching drawing skills. Traditional techniques declined. Much of modern art became flaccid and flippant and it was accompanied by language that is verbose intellectual twaddle.
Art is a big church of course, there are all sorts. My own interest is in art that deals with big subjects in profound ways. Much of what goes on today I regret, it gives art and artists a bad name. I blame much of the decline in quality on the subversive influence of that time during the cold war when abstract expressionism was promoted. A similar process has gone on with dealers like Charles Saatchi whose advertising skills and enormous wealth have enabled him to manipulate the market. Large corporations are joining in the game too, and it won’t be long before Nike and the like start to enter the art museums. I notice that the fashion houses are about to take over the V&A as they have the MOMA in New York.
Bernard Barnes 18/09/2014