Monthly Archives: September 2015

Everybody was on the same page

This was a revisionist interpretation of art history, and it had two prongs. The first was the suggestion of actual collusion between MOMA and the C.I.A. The evidence for this has always been largely circumstantial. The man who directed cultural activities at the C.I.A. in the early years of the Cold War, Thomas Braden, had previously been the executive secretary of MOMA. According to Saunders, a number of MOMA trustees were also on the board of the Farfield Foundation, a C.I.A. front. The president of the museum in the nineteen-forties and fifties was Nelson Rockefeller, whose family had supported MOMAfrom the beginning, and who had close ties to the intelligence community and an unabashed commitment to the patriotic uses of art. (It was Nelson who had demanded the removal of Diego Rivera’s murals from the walls of Rockefeller Center, because they depicted Lenin.) During the war, Rockefeller had been the Roosevelt Administration’s coördinator of inter-American affairs; the head of the art section in that office, René d’Harnoncourt, joined MOMA in 1944 and became its director.

What this suggests, though, is simply that the leaders of MOMA, like the leaders of most mainstream institutions in the United States after the war, were anti-Communists. As Saunders acknowledges, there were no explicit arrangements between the government and the museum, and the reason was that there didn’t need to be. Everybody was on the same page. Rockefeller and Alfred Barr, the founding director of MOMA, who, after the war, served as chairman of the painting and sculpture collections, did not have to be encouraged to use American art to promote the nation’s image abroad. They never pretended that they were up to anything else. Barr was a lover of European modernism, but he was on a mission to persuade Americans that theirs was a modern culture—a mission that he pursued by mounting exhibitions on modern architecture and design, and starting the museum’s department of film, headed by the formidable Iris Barry and dedicated to the proposition that Hollywood movies were part of the modern movement in the arts.

(source)

But, you know, it’s still a wacky conspiracy theory to say that everyone was on the same page.

The geopolitical uses of abstraction

What would have been the geopolitical uses of abstraction? The theory, as it was proposed in articles published in Artforum and other journals in the nineteen-seventies, and then elaborated in Serge Guilbaut’s “How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art” (1983) and Frances Stonor Saunders’s “The Cultural Cold War” (1999), is that abstract painting was an ideal propaganda tool. It was avant-garde, the product of an advanced civilization. In contrast to Soviet painting, it was neither representational nor didactic. It could be understood as pure painting—art absorbed by its own possibilities, experiments in color and form. Or it could be understood as pure expression—a “school” in which every artist had a unique signature. A Pollock looked nothing like a Rothko, which looked nothing like a Gorky or a Kline. Either way, Abstract Expressionism stood for autonomy: the autonomy of art, freed from its obligation to represent the world, or the freedom of the individual—just the principles that the United States was defending in the worldwide struggle. Art critics therefore developed apolitical modes of appreciation and evaluation, emphasizing the formal rigor or the existentialist drama of the paintings; and the Museum of Modern Art favored Abstract Expressionists in its purchases and international exhibitions, at the expense of art whose politics might have been problematic—the kind of naturalist art, for example, that was featured in the “Advancing American Art” exhibition.

(source)

The New York Times

A handful of liberal and socialist writers, led by philosophy professor Sydney Hook, saw their chance to steal a little of the publicity expected for the Waldorf peace conference [the ‘Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace’, a pro-Moscow event organized by a CPUSA front group]. A fierce ex-Communist himself, Hook was then teaching at New York University and editing a socialist magazine called The New Leader. Ten years earlier he and his mentor John Dewey had founded a controversial group called the Committee for Cultural Freedom, which attacked both Communism and Nazism. He now organized a similar committee to harass the peace conference in the Waldorf-Astoria.

Hook’s new group called itself the Americans for Intellectual Freedom. Its big names included critics Dwight MacDonald and Mary McCarthy, composer Nicolas Nabokov, and commentator Max Eastman. Arnold Beichman, a labor reporter friendly with anti-Communist union leaders, remembered the excitement of tweaking the Soviet delegates and their fellow conferees: “We didn’t have any staff, we didn’t have any salaries to pay anything. But inside of about one day the place was just busting with people volunteering.” One of Beichman’s union friends persuaded the sold-out Waldorf to base Hook and his group in a three-room suite (“I told them if you don’t get that suite we’ll close the hotel down,” he explained to Beichman), and another union contact installed 10 phone lines on a Sunday morning.

Hook and his friends stole the show. They asked embarrassing questions of the Soviet delegates at the conference’s panel discussions and staged an evening rally of their own at nearby Bryant Park. News stories on the peace conference reported the activities of the Americans for Intellectual Freedom in detail. “The only paper that was against us in this reporting was The New York Times,” recalled Beichman. “It turned out years later that [the Times reporter] was a member of the Party.”

(source)