Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Culture War In A Different Era

This article (via Manan Shukla) provides a fascinating description of the CIA' s exploitation of modern art during the cold war with the Soviet Union.  The intent was to draw a clear contrast between the rigidity and orthodoxy of the Soviet Union and the openness of the US and the West to freedom of expression and intellectual achievement.  According to a leader of that program in the US it played an enormous role in the Cold War.  Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother's art museum was used in the program, called the modern art that was promoted by the CIA "free enterprise painting".  In addition to the use of the CIA's Congress For Cultural Freedom in the cold war with the Soviet Union,  it was part of a longer term effort in the US to move the center for artistic expression from Paris to the US. 

The CIA did a masterful job of keeping the program secret and covert.  The funding of the expensive program was provided by the CIA, but it was funneled through charitable foundations.  The CIA would contact a wealthy individual and set up a foundation in that person's name.  The foundation would then be used to sponsor domestic and international art tours that promoted contemporary art.

The artists, whose art was promoted by the CIA, were unaware of the CIA's sponsorship of their work.  Most of the artists were non-conformists and may not have cooperated if they had known that the CIA was responsible for the program.  It was also important to keep the program secret from Congress.  Americans had a dim view of avant-garde art and members of Congress are not typically very far removed from popular opinion.  The program also occurred during the McCarthy era when avant-garde art and intellectuals were attacked for being sympathetic towards socialism.  The CIA at that time was led by graduates from Ivy League colleges who understood the importance of taking the cultural high ground as well as the low ground that was occupied by McCarthy.

This story reminded me of a couple of things that happened in my childhood that may also have been part of the Cold War in the US.  A Freedom Train toured the US which displayed the Constitution, The Bill of Rights and other examples of our commitment to freedom and democracy.  A new course was also made a requirement in High Schools in my state.  It used a text with a title something like "Our Economic World".  It extolled the virtues of a free market economy.  The CIA may not have been behind the Freedom Train or the requirement for a public school course in economics, but there was a concerted effort by our government during the Cold War to draw a bright line between the US and the Soviet Union.

The cultural war that we are having today in the US is more like the McCarthyism of the Cold War than the war conducted by the CIA.  Popular culture is glorified, along with a host of things that might fit under the label of "family values".  One is not a "true American" if one does not share the values that are more commonly held by those who responded positively to McCarthyism.  On the other hand, this article demonstrates the ability of government to covertly promote whatever it chooses to promote.  Its easier to do so when we have a common enemy against whom we can conduct a popular war.  We seem to be struggling to find a replacement for communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conversion of China to a form of  state capitalism.  I hope that we find one so that we can stop the internal war of Americans against Americans.

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