The battle for art – part two: art and ideology

Mark Rothko, White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, oil on canvas, private collection, Qatar

Mark Rothko, White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, oil on canvas, private collection, Qatar

Laurence Zuckerman, ‘Book tells how commie-hating CIA became a patron of the arts’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1.4.00

George Orwell’s Animal Farm has a chilling finale in which the farm animals look back and forth at the tyrannical pigs and the human farmers and find it “impossible to say which is which”.

That ending was altered in the 1955 animated version, which removed the humans. Another example of Hollywood butchering great literature? Yes, but in this case the film’s secret producer was the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA, it seems, was worried that the public might be too influenced by Orwell’s pox-on-both-their-houses critique of the capitalist humans and communist pigs. So after his death in 1950, agents were dispatched (by none other than E. Howard Hunt, later of Watergate fame) to buy the film rights to Animal Farm from his widow to make its message more overtly anti-communist.

Rewriting the end of Animal Farm is just one example of the often absurd lengths to which the CIA went, as recounted in a new book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press) by Frances Stonor Saunders, a British journalist.

Much of what Saunders writes about, including the CIA’s covert sponsorship of the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom and the British opinion magazine Encounter, was exposed in the late 60s, generating a wave of indignation.

But by combing through archives and unpublished manuscripts and interviewing several of the principal actors, Saunders has uncovered many new details and gives the most comprehensive account yet of the period between 1947 and 1967.

This picture of the CIA’s secret war of ideas has cameo appearances by scores of intellectual celebrities like the critic Lionel Trilling, the poets Ted Hughes and Derek Walcott and the novelists James Michener and Mary McCarthy, all of whom directly or indirectly benefited from the CIA’s largesse.

Travelling first class all the way, the CIA sponsored art exhibitions, conferences, concerts and magazines to press its larger anti-Soviet agenda.

Saunders provides ample evidence, for example, that the editors at Encounter and other agency-sponsored magazines were directed not to publish articles directly critical of Washington’s foreign policy.

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles (Number 11,1952), Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles (Number 11, 1952), Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

She also shows how the CIA bankrolled some of the earliest exhibits of abstract expressionist painting outside the United States to counter the socialist realism being advanced by Moscow.

In one memorable episode, the British Foreign Office subsidised the distribution of 50,000 copies of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s anti-communist classic. But the French Communist Party ordered its operatives to buy up every copy of the book, giving Koestler a windfall in royalties.

The agency also changed the ending of the film version of Orwell’s 1984. 

In the book, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is entirely defeated by the nightmarish totalitarian regime. At the end, Orwell writes, Winston realised that “He loved Big Brother”.

In the film, Winston and his lover, Julia, are gunned down after Winston defiantly shouts: “Down with Big Brother!”

Such changes came from the agency’s obsession with snuffing out a notion then popular among many European intellectuals: that East and West were morally equivalent.

But instead of illustrating the differences between the two systems by taking the high road, the agency justified its covert activities by referring to the unethical tactics of the Soviets.

Some of the participants, like Arthur Schlesinger, who knew about some of the CIA’s cultural activities, argue that the agency’s role was benign, even necessary.

Compared with the coups the CIA sponsored, he said, its support of the arts was some of its best work.

“It enabled people to publish what they already believed,” he said. “It didn’t change anyone’s course of action or thought.”

The New York Times

Part two/to be continued…

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