Was Modern Art a CIA Weapon?

Conspiracy fact or theory?

Read time: 6 minutes

Can paintings be the tools of psychological operations, or is that just wild conspiracy theory?

Some claim the CIA practically invented the genre of modern art. Others scoff at the idea as pseudo-historical speculation.

Whether or not you believe that the CIA used abstract art as an anti-Soviet weapon, what’s certain is that art has the power to influence minds and shape nations.

So, did the CIA fund modern art? How could this have shaped the culture we live in?

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So Crazy, It Just Might Work

For many, the idea of the CIA manipulating the currents of twentieth-century art sounds like an episode of The X-Files.

When you put the idea in context with the CIA’s other operations, though, it becomes more plausible: from buying elections to igniting revolutions.

Consider that the CIA’s 77-year history includes:

  • Buying an entire Asian airline company

  • Using inflatable adult dolls to help agents escape the eye of the KGB

  • Creating a film studio to extract Americans trapped in terrorist-controlled Iran

But the CIA’s more creative solutions to the world’s political crises are less well known. With an open mind and a sense of humor, let’s break open the story…

The Art of War

The 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” — funded by the CIA

America’s first coordinated intelligence organization rose out of the challenges of WWII. Once the threat of the Axis had dissolved, so did the intelligence Office of Strategic Services, leaving America disarmed in the world of covert operations.

As the chill of the Cold War spread across the world, America’s leaders realized this struggle would be one of spies, information, and secret missions. In 1947, President Truman organized the permanent Central Intelligence Agency. 

The nascent organization launched operations to peer behind the Iron Curtain, but also attacked the Soviet Union on another front: propaganda.

The USSR bolstered its own image by portraying itself as intellectually and culturally superior to the West — that they were the true inheritors of the European Enlightenment. It derided America as a cultural wasteland whose democratic principles led to artistic degeneracy.

The CIA knew that to win the Cold War, it would need more than spies and codebreakers. It would need the staunch support of the American people, with patriotism and morale at an all-time high. The USSR’s propaganda was a threat to American national pride, and it couldn’t go unanswered. 

America struck back, hard. First, the CIA funded an animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, flattening complex themes into an easily digestible anti-communist narrative. But America needed a deeper, more organic cultural renewal. 

That’s when the CIA turned to the up-and-coming movement of abstract art.

Socialist Realism was the rigid, official art form designed to glorify Soviet life

Modern American art was the perfect foil for Soviet propaganda: whereas Soviet art was harsh, rigid, and full of blocky figures and hard angles, abstract art was flowing, creative, and mysterious. Soviet art bludgeoned the viewer with an ideological message, while American art evaded easy interpretation.

The CIA saw this anti-representational art movement as the ideal expression of American values: individual expressiveness, democratic access, and freedom from restraint. It was the path forward for American culture. 

Through the CIA, the American government supported abstract art by funding art shows and offering platforms to sympathetic art critics. This theory is supported by the fact that abstract art gained popularity with radical speed, and soon New York, not Paris, became the site of exciting new artistic developments.

In 1957, The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a Jackson Pollock for a shocking $30,000, far beyond the conventional price for contemporary works:

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), Jackson Pollock (1950)

As ex-agents have testified, it all had to be done at a distance. The CIA couldn’t be known to be promoting modern art: not only would this undermine the operation, but the abstractionist movement itself was antithetical to establishment and authority. Artists and viewers alike would recoil from the CIA’s ironic involvement. So, the CIA used the “long-leash” principle to pass money through several layers of intermediaries.

The work of promoting modern American culture didn’t stop there. The CIA organized international exhibitions, sent symphonies on world tours, and started publications to celebrate America’s cultural achievements — anything to showcase America as the land of free expression. 

The covert op paid off. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko became household names, and abstract art even took hold behind the Iron Curtain.

But America paid a heavy price: the public absorbed the message that art is merely self-expression; a claim which would have untold downstream consequences for American culture.

Abstraction Takes Shape

The roots of abstract art well preceded the 1950s… (e.g. Caspar David Friedrich)

While the story of the CIA’s heavy-handed manipulation of the art world is ratified by testimonies of former agents, it’s also the target of much criticism. One issue with this theory is that modern art didn’t begin with the CIA; in fact, it has been around much, much longer — a fact that raises its own questions about the meaning and purpose of art.

Every art movement flows from its predecessors. While American modern art may have descended from continental Cubism, that in turn owes its origins to 19th-century impressionism. So if Pollock’s Number 1 Lavender Mist is a great-great-grandchild of Monet’s The Water Lily Pond, why do traditionally-minded art critics frown on the former and not the latter?

What changed between the 1890s and the 1950s? Or, in other words, what’s the problem with modern art?

There’s no issue with non-representational art in itself. Art from the Middle Ages drew almost exclusively from ancient Christian iconography, which didn’t concern itself with visual accuracy. Instead, it used a language of symbols to convey meaning, creating images almost as mysterious as Pollock’s work.

Closer to our day, the 19th-century German Romantic master Caspar David Friedrich painted landscapes so minimalist that they foreshadow Mark Rothko’s blocks of color, earning him the title of the first abstractionist. 

Non-representational art has a proud history. The problem isn’t the style or techniques of modern art — it’s the modern philosophy of “art for art’s sake.” Art that exists only to indulge the artist’s ego can’t help but be a shallow expression of the human experience.

While the CIA may have been right to oppose the USSR’s propagandic rigidity, the modern art movement went too far in the opposite direction. Mired in the weeds of “self-expression,” modern art lacks depth, meaning, and discipline — all elements that form the core of any stable culture.

Operation Restoration

Works by Willem de Kooning were among those used by the CIA

It wouldn’t be the first time that rulers weaponized art, nor the most unorthodox war strategy ever executed. But this isn’t just a story about the CIA’s efforts to manipulate world events.

The escalating dangers and fracturing belief systems of the twentieth century left the American people increasingly distant from their government. No longer confident that their rulers shared their values, Americans grew suspicious and distrustful.

Whether American art was manipulated by its government or developed organically, the outcome was the same: a culture reduced to fragments, in large part thanks to shallow, meaningless art.

Some members of the inner ring of this art-spiracy defended their work, pointing out that artists have relied on wealthy patrons for millennia. Without the financial support — and accompanying political agendas — of kings, popes, and noblemen, we would never have created the Sistine Chapel, the Bayeux Tapestry, and countless other works of incalculable cultural significance.

At the same time, the idea that it’s up to a few arbiters to decide what art should be popular is troubling. 

So where does that leave us? Scared to invest ourselves in art movements lest they turn out to be the pawns of some higher power?

There’s no need to fear culture, but this story is a good reminder to refresh our awareness of how we interpret it.

Bankrolling of the arts almost never comes without strings attached. Despite that, the art of yesteryear still managed to ennoble and inspire generations. Political forces don’t have to be the death of great art.

If the art we see today lacks the power to inspire, it’s time to recognize that self-expression isn’t enough. What you express — the meaning, the values, and the struggles — matters.

When you keep your eye trained on the transcendence that great art leads us toward, you have a strong chance of creating something worth seeing — whether you use Michelangelo-esque marble or Pollock-style paint splatters.

Art of the Week

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt (1907-1908)

Klimt’s masterpiece, published long before the CIA snuck its fingers into modern art, is an exemplar of the best elements of abstractionism. 

The painting takes no pains to represent its figures with visual accuracy: the couple are bent around each other in a way that expresses the experience of a passionate embrace, not the way it objectively appears. Surrounded by a golden radiance, the couple transcends the everyday world in a moment of extraordinary bliss.

Klimt’s characteristic golden luminosity was influenced not only by his father, a gold engraver, but also by his experience of Byzantine churches. The golden background that surrounds saints in Byzantine icons flows into his own paintings, linking his figures to a heavenly realm.

Despite the celestial atmosphere, the woman’s toes are clinging to the edge of a cliff: the couple’s passion threatens to topple them into an abyss of disaster. Martin Scorcese picked up on this hint of danger when he used The Kiss as inspiration for a beautiful shot in his dark mind-bender Shutter Island.

In a word, this is modern art done right. Klimt blends insightful connections to art history together with unexpected visual texture, creating a startling masterpiece that conveys something beyond words.

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