December 10th, 2006


The CIA calls the tune and the tune is called freedom

Well, we're on a roll with this "politics hidden in apparently non-political art and design" stuff. Yesterday we looked at how General Motors, in 1958, attempted to weld Modernism to the American Way. Today, let's look at a similar attempt to mix apparently-neutral cultural forms with politics that was going on at the same time. On November 29th Arte television aired When the CIA Infiltrated Culture, a documentary based on three years of research into a secret, highly ambitious "Marshall Plan of culture": the CIA's efforts to promote "the freedom of individual choice" in postwar Europe by... subsidizing the arts.

Using front organizations like the Farfield Foundation and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA channelled millions of dollars into the European cultural scene during the 1950s and 60s in an attempt to alter the intellectual DNA of the continent. If you wanted the CIA on your side, paradoxes abounded: "no ideology" had to become your ideology. You had to banish politics from your work for entirely political reasons. You were free to be anything except critical of "freedom", and you could pick any individual stance except a pro-collective individual stance. What's more, your anti-government, pro-market position had to be bankrolled by the government and protected from the market.

Since the aesthetic favoured by pro-Soviets in Europe tended to include stuff like political commitment, realism, melody, and representation -- the communists deplored "decadent formalism" above all -- the CIA (somewhat incredibly, to our eyes) threw its weight behind atonal music and Abstract Expressionism. Concerts and exhibitions of the most inaccessible, anti-populist, non-commercial avant garde artists flourished. "The ideology of the CIA was that the West had to be the most modern of the modern," says Gunter Grass, interviewed for the documentary. "The result was a sort of Kandinsky kitsch."

One direct result of the CIA's efforts was a series of literary journals which attacked European intellectuals who aligned themselves with communism. There was, it seems, one in each major European country. There was Preuves in France, Encounter in the UK, Tempo Presente in Italy and Der Monat in Germany. Presided over by impressive intellectuals like Heinrich Boll, Arthur Koestler, Solzenitsyn, Raymond Aron, Isiah Berlin, Ignazione Silone and Steven Spender, these journals regularly attacked even more impressive intellectuals who also happened to be leftists -- Jean-Paul Sartre, Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Miller, Pablo Neruda and even Thomas Mann. In the campaign against Neruda's writing, the CIA stressed that the magazine shouldn't attack him on political grounds, but "on the quality of his writing". The mud didn't stick; Neruda won the Nobel Prize in 1971.

Meanwhile, in France Preuves competed head-to-head with Sartre's journal Les Temps Modernes. Raymond Aron, the editor of Preuves, had clashed with Sartre at the Ecole Normale Superieure, so it was very much a personal as well as an ideological battle for him. But Aron had American taxpayer's money giving his magazine immunity to market imperatives (ironically enough) and allowing him to pay his writers better. CIA money was also secretly buoying up -- and altering -- such venerable cultural institutions as the ICA in London and the Musee Nationale D'Art Moderne in Paris.

"We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, artists, composers, to demonstrate that the West and the USA would give opportunities for intellectual achievement without anyone dictating to them what they had to say and think, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union," says Tom Braden, the patrician CIA officer who was chief of the International Organizations Division of the Directorate of Plans, the office that ran the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter magazine. The CIA did, however, dictate what the recipients of its money could say and think. A negative article on America by Dwight Macdonald for Encounter was vetoed by the bosses in Paris. "The Congress for Cultural Freedom believed in all freedoms except the freedom to criticize the United States," remarked one cynic.

The CIA renounced its role as a patron of the arts only when the Vietnam war polarized politics, breaking up the middle ground and shattering the illusion that something as indirect as art could foment gentle, benign political swings. As Michael Rogin wrote in The Nation:

"With the exposure of CIA secret influence and with the divisions over the war in Vietnam, the utility of the non-Communist left in the cultural cold war had come to an end. When some of the same faces resurfaced a decade later, first in the Committee on the Present Danger (the group of intellectuals and politicians instrumental in heating up the cold war) and then in the Reagan regime, they would speak as neoconservatives."