Art and Convenience: Reflections on The Cultural Cold War

Cultural freedom did not come cheap. [Between 1952 and 1969], the CIA was to pump tens of millions of dollars into the Congress for Cultural Freedom and related projects. With this kind of commitment, the CIA was in effect acting as America’s Ministry of Culture. – Frances Stonor Saunders

In July 2012, I wrote:

Did you know the 1950s CIA patronized Abstract Expressionism indirectly? Neither did I! But according to [Lewis] Hyde, the whole story is detailed in a book titled The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, by Frances Stonor Saunders. 

I need to read this book.

Thanks to a mysterious sender, the book appeared on my desk a week later. I started reading it right away, finished a few months later, and let it sink in for a few months more. The Cultural Cold War is a dense, difficult, painstakingly-researched book, and it blew my mind.

Because the book was so dense and difficult—Biblical in its litanies of names, dizzying in its quick cuts between poorly-illuminated scenes—I can’t recommend it without reservation. To get a flavor of the weirdness, I’d suggest this (much) shorter news piece by the book’s author, instead: “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’”. But if you’re looking to thoroughly upend your understanding of art, prestige, and the role of government, and you’re tireless in your search for truth, this is the book for you.

At the outset of the Cold War, a sliver of the US elite identified the appeal of Communism to European intellectuals as a risk. They perceived high culture as a serious front in the struggle—one to be defended and surveilled. To fuel these efforts, they turned to counterpart funds.

Under the Marshall Plan, governments receiving U.S. funds were required to deposit a matching amount; 5% of that amount “became, upon deposit, the property of the US government.” (p. 105) As a result, “a secret fund of roughly $200 million a year [was] made available as a war chest for the CIA.” (p. 106) They called it “candy,” because it came unburdened by the threat of outrage from US taxpayers. It was free money, and the CIA spent a lot of it on art.

[The Congress for Cultural Freedom] was not to be a centre for agitation, but a beachhead in western Europe from which the advance of Communist ideas could be halted. It was to engage in a widespread and cohesive campaign of peer pressure to persuade intellectuals to dissociate themselves from Communist fronts or fellow travelling organizations. It was to encourage the intelligentsia to develop theories and arguments which were directed not at a mass audience, but at that small elite of pressure groups and statesmen who in turn determined government policy. (p. 98-9)

The spending was entirely indirect; of course the CIA couldn’t be seen funding grants and symposia, even though that’s exactly what they were doing. They funneled the money through believable benefactors such as Julius “Junkie” Fleischmann, whose “personal wealth and varied artistic patronage made him an ideally plausible angel for the CIA’s sponsorship of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.” Tom Braden, an official in the CIA, “later described Junkie as one of the many ‘rich people who wanted to be of service to the government. They got a certain amount of self-esteem out of it. They were made to feel they were big shots because they were let in on this secret expedition to battle the Communists.” (p. 126) Covert action agent William Colby described the mechanism further:

We generally reached out to find Americans who would consent to take the money into their accounts and then use it to contribute in various ways…If you went to any American institution, company, anything else, and said “Will you help your country by passing this money?” they’d salute and say “Absolutely, I’d be delighted. It’s easy to pass money around the world to the desired end objective. It might not be one bulk payment but various small payments going in the right direction. (p. 133)

Serving one’s country in secret, gaining more of the prestige afforded by philanthropy in public; what could be better? Fleischmann, in particular—”a multi-millionaire famed for his stinginess”—had a ball “dishing up CIA money an taking all the credit for it.” (p. 119) Case officer Lee Williams unpacked the motivations of these “quiet channels” further: “There sas a commonality of purpose that seemed to us to dissolve any major concern about the morality of what we were doing.” (p. 134)

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of success? Joseph McCarthy. While the CIA was vigorously promoting the tenets and exemplars of American free expression abroad, McCarthy’s campaigns began to undermine that freedom at home.

The Soviets—and indeed much of Europe—were saying that America was a cultural desert, and the behavior of US Congressmen seemed to confirm that. Eager to show the world that here was an art commensurate with America’s greatness and freedom, high-level strategists found they couldn’t publicly support it because of domestic opposition. So what did they do? They turned to the CIA. And a struggle began to assert the merits of Abstract Expressionism against attempts to smear it. (p. 257)

As for the artists—of course they sometimes wondered where all the money was coming from. But it was in their interests to not question the money too closely. Why shouldn’t the Fleischmanns of the world devote their fortunes to art? Here, I found Donald Jameson’s remarks so striking that I’ll include them in their entirety and add a few points of emphasis:

I think that almost everybody in a position of significant in the Congress [for Cultural Freedom] was aware that somehow or other the money came from some place, and if you looked around there was ultimately only one logical choice. And they made that decision. The main concern for most scholars and writers really is how you get paid for doing what you want to do. I think that, by and large, they would take money from whatever source they could get it. And so it was that the Congress and other similar organizations—both East and West—were looked upon as sort of large teats from which anybody could take a swig if they needed it and then go off and do their thing. That is one of the main reasons, really I think, for the success of the Congress: it made it possible to be a sensitive intellectual and eat. And the only other people who did that really were the communists. (p. 345)

That’s it, isn’t it? We all want it to be possible to be a sensitive intellectual and eat. I want that. Most of my friends want that. Who wouldn’t? For almost two decades, the prestige and credibility afforded by art were valuable to the CIA; priceless, almost. In the scheme of things, funding art was small potatoes. The CIA could afford to spend a few million dollars for the chance to change important people’s minds.


When I mentioned this book to a friend, he replied: “oh, art historians hate it.” I don’t know how widespread that sentiment is, but I buy into its basic premise. That the entire art apparatus of the United States could be swayed by “candy” (a sliver of a sliver of the money that went into the Cold War) and patriotism calls into question the entire endeavor. In fifty years, what patrons of today (governmental or not) will we come to understand as puppeteers of prestige? 

Saunders deals with this question head-on. In fact, her book is motivated in part by a desire to show that CIA motives really did make a difference in what art was produced; that even if “quiet channels” weren’t instructing artists, they built enough preferences into the whole machinery of magazines, grants, and publishing that their favored perspective was sure to win out. In the introduction, she writes:

The defense mounted by custodians of the period—which rests on the claim that the CIA’s substantial financial investment came with no strings attached—has yet to be seriously challenged…But official documents relating to the cultural Cold War systematically undermine this myth of altruism. (p. 4)

And later in the book, she quotes Jason Epstein as saying:

It was not a matter of buying off and subverting individual writers and scholars, but of setting up an arbitrary and factitious system of values by which academic personnel were advanced, magazine editors appointed, and scholars subsidized and published, not necessarily on their merits—though those were sometimes considerable—but because of their allegiance. (p. 323)

Saunders attempts to reconcile art as independent and art as a kept field by explaining:

It is hard to sustain the argument that the Abstract Expressionists merely ‘happened to be painting in the Cold War and not for the Cold War’. Their own statements and, in some cases, political allegiances, undermine claims of ideological disengagement. But it is also the case that the work of the Abstract Expressionists cannot be reduced to the political history in which it is situated. Abstract Expressionism, like jazz, was—is—a creative phenomenon existing independently and even, yes, triumphantly, apart from the political use which was made of it. (p. 277)

But I’m still left with a wary feeling: how much are creators driven by convenience? Constraints aren’t always bad, but shadowy ones worry me. If you knew that a rubric existed and you could see its outlines by the actions of emergent winners, wouldn’t you be tempted to lean into the skeleton as it surfaced?

What I really want is a movie version of The Cultural Cold War—something riveting and troubling that we can all see and talk about. As it stands, the message is locked away in 427 difficult pages that even I would be hard-pressed to read again. Yet perhaps the chief of the CIA’s Covert Action Staff, quoted by Saunders on page 245, was onto something: “one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.” 

If The Cultural Cold War were a movie, I would file it away in my mind as fiction. In reality, it’s all too true.

This post concludes the Mysterious Book cycle.