The CIA as Art Patron

Who Paid The Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders (London: Granta Books)

Francis Stonor Saunders’ book is a major contribution to knowledge of the inner workings of the CIA in its first two decades. Versed in the scholarly literature, she interviewed surviving CIA figures and their collaborators in the arts and sciences.

Saunders describes the initial cadre, vets of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, spies in “the last good war.” Franklin Roosevelt put 144,000 innocent Japanese-American citizens into concentration camps, but the “Oh So Social,” lead by wealthy cultured WASP Ivy Leaguers, had no difficulty convincing themselves that America’s capitalist democracy, racism, corruption and all, was morally and intellectually superior to the Fuhrer-staat. When Joseph Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship over the proletariat became Wall Street’s rival for world hegemony, one agent again saw them as Yankee capitalism’s “order of Knights Templars.”

They came out of WW II with an enormous industrial plant on a planet in ruins. Life magazine publisher Henry Luce declared that the 20th century “must … become an American century.” But Wall Street had to confront its wartime Soviet ally in 4-power occupied Berlin.

They didn’t argue with Nazism, they fought it. However Communism appealed to values held by renowned cultural figures. Pablo Picasso and others joined their Communist Party because it led the underground. The French and Italian CPs grew to massive proportions. Unless they acted rationally, much of western Europe could fall.

The ideological war could only be waged effectively by ex-lefts who knew the theories and jargon of these milieus. The ones to do it were Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, with extensive ties to Europe’s Social Democrats.

The crucial secret collaboration of the Jewish-led ILGWU with the intelligence apparatus is a prime illustration of the post-Holocaust full admission of Jews into America’s ruling circles. The public sign was constant official speechifying about “the Judeo-Christian way of life,” a scholarly phrase pre-war liberals had taken up against Hitler. Now Washington was guarding invented in America Judeo-Christiandom, night and day, against atheist Communism.

Unfortunately, God didn’t play well with Europe’s left. To win them to “the free world,” Washington needed propaganda about free trade unions and vanguard art. But you couldn’t do that openly without outraging domestic McCarthyites, artistically Norman Rockwell fans. Hence the covert action.

Saunders’ book deals with the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, particularly its political-literary contingent. However her “Yanqui Doodles” chapter on CIA patronage of Abstract-Expressionism is its high point.

Tom Braden, the retired International Operations Department director, authored “I’m glad the CIA’s Immoral,” an outraged 5/20/67 Saturday Evening Post answer to attacks, which dealt with funding European exhibits for artists, anathema to Congress because of past left ties.

In 1936, Jackson Pollock studied under David Siqueiros, the Mexican Stalinist muralist who later tried to assassinate Leon Trotsky. There is a photo of Pollock posing by a 30s CP May Day float. True, cold war Pollock was anti-red, but he had taken to dribbling red paint off a stick onto a canvas on the floor. Unfortunately, Harry Truman hated “lazy, nutty moderns.”

Braden showed more understanding. The new ‘Rome’ needed a ‘sophisticated’ art to flaunt before the decadent ‘Greeks’ of modernist Europe. Happily, Manhattan’s Cedar Tavern art set had its theorist. Nation critic Clement Greenberg, formerly close to Trotskyism, explained why Pollock was “the greatest American painter of the 20th century.”

According to Greenberg, Picasso, in successfully distorting reality, showed that a canvas had always been a flat surface, and that three dimensional images were arbitrary intrusions on it. Once perspective was excluded, painting logically had to stop depicting anything outside that two-dimensional field. Unfortunately Picasso never abandoned representation. The surrealists were even worse since, let’s be honest, a limp watch is a watch. “It makes no difference that the creatures, anatomies, substances, landscapes, or juxtapositions limned by the Surrealist violates the laws of probability: they do not violate the modalities of three-dimensional vision – to which painting can now conform only by methods that have become academic.”

Even Wassily Kandinsky was retrograde. “His best work remains those paintings in fluid contour and gauzy color that he executed between 1909 or so and the early twenties…. The abstract … paintings he turned out from the middle twenties represent a misconception … of the very art of putting paint on canvas…. (H)e came to conceive of the picture uberhaupt as an aggregate of discrete shapes…. Kandinsky would go on to allude to illusionistic depth by a use of color, line and perspective that were plastically irrelevant.”

Enter Truman’s incompetent modernist. “My drawing, I will tell you frankly, is rotten. It seems to lack freedom and rhythm.” (“Seldom has so sumptuous a showcase been awarded to such tentative, graceless art.” – NY Times reviewer Holland Carter, re a 1997 Met exhibit of Pollock’s early sketchbooks). “Jack the dripper” was exactly what Braden needed. After all, the CIA’s International Ops head had been the Executive Secretary of the Museum of Modern Art, the command post of the war against anti-capitalist art.

The museum was the Rockefeller family passion. Mother Abby loved the works of Mexican Diego Rivera and other revolutionaries, sweetly unconcerned about their politics. “Get them artistic recognition” and they will stop opposing capitalism.

In 1933, son Nelson eagerly hired Rivera to paint an entry mural in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Soon the most ominous painting since the finger wrote on Belshazzar’s wall began to appear on Rocky’s wall. Rivera described the suddenly militarized ideological world after Hitler came to power. When Vladimir Lenin was painted in as the workers’ symbolic leader, the guards gave the universally acclaimed artist his check and he was thrown out. In February 1934 the horrified art world watched Hitler crush German modern art. But for one day its attention turned to Manhattan’s privatized gleichgeshaltet as the mural was jack-hammered into history.

The cold war put MoMA’s president on the spot again. Picasso’s Guernica, his immortal response to the town’s Spanish civil war bombing, then hung on its wall. Rocky could hardly take it down. But the fight against red art was on and Abstract Expressionism became his beloved “free enterprise art.”

There was resistance among MoMA patrons. But trustee Luce was won over. The 8/8/49 Life, then selling five million copies weekly, devoted a spread to “the shining new phenomenon of American art.” Pollock became world famous.

The CIA initially relied on Irving Brown to help the Congress organizationally on the culture front. After 1950, MoMA people ran Washington’s covert art operations. MoMA chair John Hay Whitney was on the Psychological Strategy Board. William Burden of the museum’s Advisory Committee, was President of the Farfield Foundation, the CIA’s prime money-laundering foundation. By 1954, Rockefeller was Special Adviser to the President for Psychological Warfare.

Braden is still proud of their efforts: “I’ve forgotten which Pope … commissioned the Sistine Chapel, but I suppose that if it had been submitted to a vote of the Italian people …. I don’t think it would have gotten thru the Italian parliament, if there had been a parliament …. It takes a Pope or somebody with a lot of money to recognize art and support it. And after many centuries people say, “Look! The Sistine Chapel, the most beautiful creation on earth.”

Well said. Except that the entire people of Florence turned out for their beloved Michelangelo’s funeral.

Russian expert Donald Jameson laid it out: “We recognized that this was the kind of art that did not have anything to do with socialist realism, and made socialist realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was …. (F)or matters of this sort (it) could only have been done through the … operations of the CIA at two or three removed, so that there wouldn’t be any question of having to clear Jackson Pollock … or do anything that would involve these people in the organization – they’d just be added at the end of the line …. (I)t couldn’t have been any closer … because most of them were people who had very little respect for the government … and certainly none for the CIA.”

Since their America stood for artistic experimentation, the CIA also promoted 12-tone music via a 1954 Rome CCF International Conference of Twentieth Century Music. However 12-tone music was about as popular as a 4 AM car-alarm concert. It only demoralized the assembled freeloaders.

The American Committee for Cultural Freedom was successful with another project. West Germany was part of the free world, but its musical world was full of Nazis. Protests made Walter Gieseking give up a late 40s Carnegie Ha ll date. Jewish musicians forced the Chicago Symphony to kill a contract with Wilhelm Furtwangler. In the good old days, conductor Herbert von Karajan opened concerts with the beloved party anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied. A Zionist group demonstrated when he appeared in New York in 1955, but the ACCF convinced the American Federation of Musicians to oppose protests. In the Committee’s name, ex-Trotskyist James T. Farrell declared von Karajan’s past “deplorable,” but the demo “ignored the fact that the Berlin Philharmonic … symbolizes the courageous resistance of the people of Berlin to Communist Totalitarianism.”

The book has weaknesses. Saunders is sometimes a muscle-bound researcher. She overloads us with quotes about events, written later by other writers, personally uninvolved in them. Sometimes its hard to follow who’ saying what about who, and when. Occasionally she buries a quote in a footnote instead of developing it in the story proper. Arthur Schlesinger’s admission about serving “as a periodic CIA consultant,” is too important for minor treatment. Nevertheless she certifies him a prime Agency accomplice in its suborning of the intellectual world.

She writes about things before her time and her lack of substantial practical political experience is occasionally evident in interpretations of those events. Braden claims he forgot that he took a swearing-in oath of secrecy. The CIA knew that his article was about to be published but didn’t stop him. Braden said he “had it in the back of my mind that they wanted it (patronage of the anti-Communist left – LB) killed, but I can’t prove it.” She accepts this. But a major casualty of his expose was the AFL-CIO. It is silly to think that they wanted him to humiliate its head, George Meany, whose domestic class struggle docility was precious to them. Its more reasonable to believe they thought Braden would go public, no matter what they did.

In the end, such errors of interpretation don’t detract from the impact of the interviews. They are must reading for anyone interested in the CIA, but MoMA’s got the most explaining to do. Unhappily for its present administration, their predecessors did that for them.

LENNI BRENNER, editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis, can be reached at


Lenni Brenner is the author of Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators. He can be contacted at