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But by combing through archives and unpublished manuscripts and interviewing several of the principal actors, Saunders has uncovered many new details and gives the most comprehensive account yet of the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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The battle for art

Commemorating its tenth year, the opening of the CCF’s second Berlin conference in June 1960 featured (L to R): George F. Kennan, Raja Rao, Willy Brandt, Jacques Maritain, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and J. Robert Oppenheimer

Commemorating its tenth year, the opening of the CCF’s second Berlin conference in June 1960 featured (L to R): George F. Kennan, Raja Rao, Willy Brandt, Jacques Maritain, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and J. Robert Oppenheimer

‘As we have seen, negation had to be replaced by positive integrating factors once the removal of the “offending element” from the social arena had made negation pointless. …

“The battle for art” was by no means a National Socialist invention. The slogan and the issue had been of central concern in German cultural life for decades. But the National Socialists were the first to make this battle for art a focal point of political conflict and to define an individual’s position in it as evidence of his approval or rejection of National Socialist political goals and principles. This issue became a touchstone for determining who were the friends and who the foes of the Third Reich.

Paul Schultze-Naumburg expressed precisely this view in 1932 in his book Kampf um die Kunst (The Battle for Art): “A life-and-death struggle is taking place in art, just as it is in the realm of politics. And the battle for art has to be fought with the same seriousness and determination as the battle for political power.”

This statement, which at first glance seems exaggerated and, indeed, absurd in view of the actual importance of art in the overall social structure, assumes reality only if art and art criticism are used as weapons in a political struggle.’

From Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, Trans., Robert and Rita Kimber, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1974

*   *   *

In her new book Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granata), Frances Stonor Saunders tells the fascinating story of the vast postwar Kultur-kampf, the Cold War conflict over cultural values and ideologies amid which several literary and cultural generations grew up. It pulled in books and magazines, congresses and concerts, artists and writers, political visions of economic growth and social progress. And it dawned when the US, the one outright victor from World War II, suddenly found itself a superpower, found it had somehow entered history.

Needing a culture to match, it stared over the wire at Russia (which had pursued intellectual politics since Catherine the Great) and sought worldwide intellectual admiration and support. As the Cold War froze and ideologies divided, the US government poured huge resources into a cultural propaganda campaign. It was covert. As Saunders explains: “A central feature of this program was to advance the claim it did not exist.”

Yet there was nothing covert about the overall enterprise; the decision to revive flattened Europe and develop democratic institutions through the enormous program of aid – economic, political and cultural – has shaped it to this day and explains its federalism and its Americanised shopping-mall culture.

So came the Marshall Plan, the “special relationship”, the Atlantic Alliance, the denazification in Germany and Austria, the long-term presence of US troops and bases. There was also the Fulbright program, the US Information Agency, the Amerikanhausen all over Germany, promoting jazz, movies and Saul Bellow, and the growth of an academic subject that was new even to Americans: American studies.

The program was aided by the defection of many western intellectuals who had been red in the 1930s. Alienation began with the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi-Soviet pact; by the late 40s, Marxism was the god that had failed.

In cultural warfare, the US seemed at first to have small resources. “What is America but millionaires, beauty queens, gramophone music and Hollywood?” asked Adolf Hitler. Many European intellectuals felt a similar cultural distaste for the land of chewing gum and Mickey Mouse.

Hence the Kulturkampf, which Saunders traces back to Berlin in the time of denazification and to three key figures. Michael Josselin and Nicholas Nabokov (Vladimir’s musician cousin), both emigres, were with the US military command and working on denazification and cultural policy in the psychological warfare division. Then another soldier, Melvin Lasky, urged on the US government a policy designed to win over the often passionately anti-American European intelligentsia. The magazine Monat was established and the culture war began.

In 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was founded: in its early days it resembled the clubby, patrician, pipe-smoking, senior common room spirit of the wartime intelligence community. It had excellent contacts with the NCL (non-communist Left), the “new liberals” and the emigres who, having fled the Europe of Hitler and Stalin, had become a powerful force in the US.

This book shows in splendid detail how CIA policy went everywhere. Awash with funds, the CIA turned into the covert Maecenas, the new crypto-patron of an age when the old private patrons had disappeared. Artists, writers, intellectuals, seminars, concerts and magazines were supported by “foundations”. It was the age of get-me-a-grant-while-you’re-up. Scholarships, travel grants and exchange schemes shipped European intellectuals across the Atlantic for their graduate education.

Meanwhile, US writers, plays, books, concerts and art exhibitions came in profusion to Europe. A key instrument was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, administered by a band of leading European intellectuals. It circulated ideas, ran congresses, aided magazines. In Britain, it published Encounter, the leading intellectual and cultural review of the day, and simply indispensable. By various labyrinthine means, the CCF and much else had CIA funding.

The charge is that organisations celebrating “cultural freedom” were steered by the US arm of espionage, that writers who were attacking the trahison des clercs were themselves traitors, that a systematic attempt was made to intrude on intellectual independence. The injection of money into US intellectual reviews by the Ford Foundation and much else is traceable to the CIA.

In 1967, the edifice effectively collapsed. The Camelot court mood, as a result of which American intellectuals had rallied to John F. Kennedy, was gone. The Vietnam War brought wide-spread protest, the intelligentsia was increasingly at odds with government and nation. When Ramparts magazine blew the story, it opened an era of intellectual guilt and embarrassment, and a suspicion of much in modern intellectual life.

As Saunders says, much of western intellectual life and many individual figures were compromised. Yet the situation was filled, as she notes, with strange ironies. Saunders asks: Who paid the piper? But how does the piper call the tune if you don’t know who the piper really is?

Many intellectuals and artists went to the US on the Fulbright program, contributed to the lively and intelligent literary magazines, attended conferences, concerts and exhibitions sponsored by various unusual foundations. In many cases, it is quite possible to argue that the CiA innocently financed much radical, indeed anti-American, opinion as well as a whole new experimental era of the arts. For writers, John Updike’s Bech books best capture the atmosphere: the radical, unreliable American writer wanders a divided Europe on cultural tours, a CIA spook on one side, a Communist Party apparatchik on the other, looking for truth, love, literature, decency, the smell of independence and freedom, and maybe just a little irony.

Another irony is more obvious. American spooks could have had little idea of the strength of the culture they were out to promote. Yet they were sponsoring an American Risorgimento. This was the great age of American writing, music and art – the age of Arthur Miller, Bellow, Updike, Norman Mailer, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Jasper Johns. The culture was worth selling and it was not innocent: subversive, self-critical ironic, ambiguous, it caught the uneasy corruption rather than the innocent wonder of the American age. The CIA was, so to speak, the promoter of postmodernism, the investor of a new culture.

The last irony is grimmer. What began as part of a high-cultural Americanisation of Europe turned into the commercial globalisation of Europe and the larger world. America Americanised itself as a vast franchise or global corporation, to which all Europe became party. The oddest truth is that the age of cultural and counter-cultural politics was one when literature was serious, tense, politically charged, morally dangerous and mattered. Now it doesn’t: we live in the age of the logo and the corporate sponsor.

How compromised was postwar US and European culture? Certainly there were those who enjoyed walking in the shadows with the devil while they seemed to be walking in the sun. There were the amazingly innocent and the bitterly deceived. Saunders’s book overestimates the degree of compliance and conformism, and often suspects motives that were not impure. Throughout, the US continued to be an intensely self-critical society, challenging its own conformities, dismayed by its own lonely crowds. Those who worked with government agencies often passionately challenged McCarthyism and defended liberals.

Yet Saunders is right. This reality is a crucial story, about the dangerous, compromising energies and manipulation of an entire and a recent age.

Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Spooks in the Culture’, The Weekend Australian 21-22.08.99

Part one/to be continued…

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