Clare Martin writes about the CIA’s covert support for abstract expressionism, the Cold War battle over the stories that define us, and how to rescue truth from the Jackson Pollock splatter of the digital age.
In 1994, former CIA officer Donald Jameson admitted what had long been rumoured in the art world but never confirmed: that the secret service had covertly invested in abstract expressionism. From 1940 – 1958 they funded numerous art exhibitions, conferences and publications, around the world. Perhaps the most famous beneficiary of the CIA’s largesse was the renowned abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
At first glance, the alliance between the CIA and abstract expressionists looks unlikely, to say the least. Many of the painters the CIA funded had socialist sympathies. Some were anarchists. And artists like Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, and Motherwell, weren’t just left-leaning critics of American political life. Their unorthodoxy ran deeper than that. They were consummate rebels and outsiders. Often complex characters with turbulent lives, they daubed their anguish across their canvases for all to see. Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic who’d spent time in a mental institution. A lifelong recluse, he had a volatile temper, and the spectre of alcoholism never left him. He died at 44 in a drink-driving accident.
CIA-funded art exhibitions traveled across Europe and the US throughout the 1950s. Often celebrated on the continent, these exhibitions were unpopular back home and helped to spark a widespread anti-art backlash. It’s one of the more exquisite ironies in this irony-saturated story that the artworks which the CIA used to promote American values were the ones most hated by actual Americans.
None of this mattered though – or, actually, it mattered, just in a counter-intuitive way. Because the whole point of this culture-war offensive was to promote a story about the expansiveness of American freedom. This was a freedom so generous that it included its own critics. More than just including them, it uplifted and celebrated them. By contrast Soviet art of this period was constrained by a mannered realism that looked boxed in. Put the paintings side by side and you see these competing stories about two different worldviews. One is uniform across artists and canvases. This style imposes a sense of order. It depicts a shared reality, a social reality, where the individual has less importance than the group.
The other canvas shows the individual writ large. This is pure subjectivity, with all its outer clothing ripped off. Any sense of a shared social reality is far in the background. Nor is this just a symbolic concept encoded in the work to make a point. It doesn’t matter if you can wrap an interpretation around these paintings or not. What’s most alive in them is the thing that defies interpretation. You may not know what a Pollock painting is about, but it hits you in the face. It’s messy, it’s human, it’s uncontainable. It’s a libidinous splurge of surplus energy. It’s the opposite of society. It’s a tortured, alcoholic recluse flinging himself away from himself, again and again, confessing the intimate shape of his gestures, so charged with his pain and longing. It’s this raw energy that wins the war of narratives. Nothing that’s contrived or obedient could ever compete with the charisma of these canvases. What more eloquent way could there be to say that America represents freedom, where the Soviet empire represents enforced conformity?
How successful these narrative war-games in the world of high art were, I have no idea. Did they make any difference to the balance of the Cold War in the 1950s? Frances Stonor Saunders in her book Who Paid the Piper, the CIA and the Cultural Cold War, suggests they didn’t. Neither the destiny of abstract expressionism, nor the success of the Cold War, rested on this campaign. Pollock would have found his audience anyway, and the Cold War was fought on many fronts.
But it’s a story I’ve found myself going back to a lot lately. Narrative warfare has moved on a long way from when Yale-graduates at the CIA clinked glasses with museum curators in the corridors of high art. Where once cultural warfare was fought in art exhibitions and literary magazines (many left-wing writers also benefited from the CIA’s covert support, including George Orwell), now it’s fought using algorithms and social media platforms, troll factories and media outlets. The digital revolution has generated a whole new arsenal of weapons, which are used in very different ways in the service of different worldviews.
Take the war in Ukraine. Polls show that a majority of ordinary Russians support the invasion, and that approval for Vladimir Putin has grown since the war started. This is hardly surprising given that state-controlled media has delivered a continuous diet of misinformation about Ukraine. Many Russians believe Ukraine is led by a fascist government that started the war in a false flag attack against its own people. In the hands of an authoritarian state, digital tools create near-limitless possibilities when it comes to propaganda. You can pummel people on their TVS and social media feeds with a single, unified narrative that blocks out everything else. This is the 21st century version of a Socialist realist painting. It’s a way of telling a story from the top down. A story that enforces conformity to the state’s agenda.
But digital media looks very different in democratic states. Here, our commitment to free expression is what unites us. But the concept of free expression wasn’t designed for the digital age. Some futurists say that it simply can’t survive it. Where once you needed access to a printing press, or a media outlet – be that TV, radio station or newspaper – to mass produce narrative content, now all it takes is a phone and some WIFI. Now the awesome power to reach and influence millions of people at the click of a button is at everyone’s fingertips. And everyone’s at it. From foreign states and corporations, to private vested interests, from activists to trolls, from Big Tech to just ordinary citizens: it’s a narrative warfare free-for-all.
Any given event in the real world is now refracted into a million shards online. An orgy of freedom has turned on itself, and started to implode. The Jackson Pollock splatter has surged beyond the frame and overtaken the whole of the landscape. No longer a vision of the lonely individual, his canvases speak to the unholy mess of these times. A swirling permacrisis in which nothing feels secure, and a sense of chaos pervades the collective psyche.
What’s interesting to note is how digital tools amplify the foundation stories of each civilisation to a point of caricature. The Soviet propaganda machine enforces an ever greater uniformity of opinion and social conditioning. Meanwhile, the ‘freedom’ story of the West has been driven completely berzerk. Where the ‘conformity’- story can use digital tools to shore itself up domestically, strengthening, rigidifying itself, the ‘freedom’ story is more vulnerable to attack. Without top-down control, the internet gives unimaginable power to any vested interest who wants to exert control over the psyche of the West. And people are using that power. It’s well documented now that Russian troll farms generate culture war fodder on both sides of divisive issues to inflame local conflicts in the US. This is just one example among many. Whatever crises of confidence that Western societies are going through internally, these in turn create huge opportunities for foreign states and vested interests to leverage those weaknesses to their own purposes.
Pollock never knew he was used as a pawn in a culture war offensive. He was gamed, and he never knew. Would it have mattered to him if he did know? Would it have changed how he painted? It’s weirdly touching, the lengths the secret service went to, to protect Pollock and other artists from finding out where the money came from.
We’re gamed too, and just like Pollock, most of the time we’ve got no idea. He was the unwitting instrument of an elite cabal of intelligence officers who believed that the grand narrative of the West was a matter of international security. In our case it’s the big tech apparatchiks, the troll farmers, the instagram influencers. And for us the same question applies. What do we do when we know? Do we do anything differently? What would it look like to know, and to respond skilfully? I think it’s a question worth dwelling on.
If the digital age has dismantled the frame round the Jackson Pollock painting so the splatter’s gone everywhere, then perhaps our best defence is to secure the frame within ourselves.
I recently stumbled across Keith Critchlow’s design sketches for St Ethelburga’s Bedouin tent and courtyard surround. Critchlow was one of the foremost scholars of Sacred Geometry in his time. For him, sacred geometry was the hidden language scripted into all creation. ‘Light, sound and geometry are eternal principles,’ he wrote, echoing Plato’s famous description of geometry as the ‘art of the ever-true’.
The circle, the square, the line, the single point: all of nature expresses these universal forms. Whether it’s the cave paintings of Lascaux or the Soviet realism of 1950s, these principles are underneath it somewhere. Even movements that seek to rebel against them, such as abstract expressionism, are dependent upon them and could not exist without them.
And just as there are shapes that are deeper than any artwork, upon which every aesthetic movement relies, so there are fundamental shapes that give structure to our psyches, and upon which all collective social formation ultimately rests. It’s to these fundamental shapes that we need to retreat now, when culture itself is in turmoil.
There are natural virtues inside all of us that spring from a place deeper than social conditioning, deeper than the grand stories that define who we are as people and as nations.
Take the images above, which show how Critchlow worked with the symbolism of essential forms and their meanings – square, circle, triangle – to arrive at the final tent design. Imagine the square is your own firm commitment to your inner values, such as love, humility, truth, courage. You overlap these, layering them one upon the other, to create a firm and elegant structure. The curvature around the sides is your committed practice to do what is needed to protect your inner life. And the centre point, from while all of the dotted diagonals radiate forth, is your remembrance of what’s most sacred.
Here, we have the beginnings of a work of inner framing. And for me, this is the antidote to the Wild West of our truthosphere in these weird times. It isn’t about retreating within and barricading ourselves inside our inner practice. It’s about recognising the dangers posed by a civilisation out of kilter with itself, and a time when truth is under threat. It’s about attending to our own inner framing, creating a container that can help protect truth inside of us. It’s about diving as deep as we can go, beyond the maelstrom of cultural messaging, to the most ancient and eternal place within us. And caring for this place with the sensitivity with which you care for something that’s beautiful but moveable, like a tent. Something that’s liable to fray around the edges, spring holes in the goat hair fabric of the roof, and generally suffer from wear and tear.
In his writings on the tent design, Critchlow points out that ‘a tent is a place of meeting, of shelter, of hospitality and conviviality by tradition,’ but also reminds us that ‘a tent is also traditionally a place of migrancy – not expecting to be fixed to any place.’ It’s worth meditating on this image of the inner life as a tent, a migratory space that has no permanent abode. In an age of cultural unraveling, many of us feel unmoored. A tent is a modest space that can only hold a small group. It’s a space that’s scaled to the individual, and to those near enough to gather in person. It’s intimate, delicate, and yet, if it’s well cared for, can give warmth and shelter, even in the darkest storms – and last a lifetime.
Clare Martin is Co-Director of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.
JOIN US on Friday 7 October for a one-day workshop exploring Sense-making in a post-truth world. This is for you if you are a facilitator, peace maker, or community organiser who is seeking to navigate cultural conflicts in the spaces you host.We hope to see you there!
* With thanks to Jon Allen for his help sourcing imagery for this post. Architect Jon Allen worked in close collaboration with Keith Critchlow on St Ethelburga’s tent’s design.