Assassins of the Image: the CIA as Cultural Gatekeeper

Photo by Christopher Michel | CC BY 2.0

“There was a conversion of cultures between the milieu of the underworld and the world of the clandestine operative.”

– Alfred McCoy

“I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene… that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.”

― Mark Rothko

Recent writing on CIA’s role in the kulturkampf against the Red Menace paints an image of debonair spooks recruiting the most interesting Western artists and using them, unbeknownst, as a liberal wedge against radical movements at home and abroad. The Agency created cultural institutions, magazines and, most importantly, a financial market to support movements such as Abstract Expressionism; it penned articles in favor of a liberal-leftish ideology of self-expression that could exist only in the ‘democratic’ West; it organized exhibits, printed books, organized press conferences and it paid grants. Episodes from the operations resemble the work of a paranoid comic programmer with sinister preoccupations. It is as if Thomas Pynchon, MK GRVTI 49, was behind the whole thing, perhaps working both sides against the middle, like one of his characters.

The Dec 4 Guardian piece on the Berlin House of Cultures of the World, an incubus created by Allan Dulles’ sister Eleanor, even credits the CIA with excellent taste in art. What the hell is ‘taste’ anyway? Perhaps the spooks were a little chic, in the sleek and slippery manner of The New Yorker, proficient at the recall of provenance and dates, at now-dated art terminology; semi-professional bullshitters able to fool other bullshitters – just the opposite of the way a bright child might think about art. It’s more likely that the CIA merely trolled the galleries and ‘signed’ anything marked controversial or edgy in the press, in the same way that record companies signed late ‘60s rock bands, carte blanche. Simply pinpoint a trendy controversial critic like Clement Greenberg and there you have a list of accessible properties for use in the cultural Cold War.

In addition to Black Sites, CIA also has an abstract art trove. Apparently, it is just down the hall from The Intelligence Art Collection and the stiff portraits of dead Agency czars. Information on the collection and its supposed ‘secrecy’ devolves into the usual smoke-and-mirrors labyrinth like anything connected with Langley. It’s now available online for the first time (Here is a typically ridiculous account of visiting the installation itself). They got their artwork through third parties. Perhaps. “Personally, I would never have sold a painting to the CIA”, said Secret Agent Barnett Newman. Inside Orange, Agent Orange…

Long before the first spook-art revelations appeared, communist and Poet Kenneth Rexroth identified the angle of the CIA’s rabidly self-obsessed assets. In his introduction to Mai Mai Sze’s The Tao of Painting, an extraordinary manual of Classical Chinese painting, he wrote that: “Nothing could be a better answer to the problems and dilemmas of modern abstract expressionism. Nothing could be a better antidote to the enervating poisons which have debilitated modern painting.” The counterfeit self-expression of contemporary American art simply mirrored the dark proposition that each human being is a solitary economic actor, an autonomous spec in the vast sea of capital whose ‘freedom’ is best expressed through voting for crooks and the fetishized relations of commodities. This grim worldview was what the CIA offered the Vietnamese when its hired counterinsurgency guru, David Galula, suggested that they might want to come up with something as a counterweight to Ho Chi Minh’s socialism. When Vietnam didn’t embrace Milton Friedman, the CIA ran amok; finally, they simply ran.

The tricky nihilism of Mark Rothko is a perfect case of the happy confluence between the anti-pictorial umbra of the times and CIA’s mission to fabricate an idea of the Artist as a lonely intelligence operative. It matters not at all that CIA had a hand in creating such a desperate landscape, that Rothko’s paintings may be its most accurate reflection, or if the artist’s inner life was tormented by outer reality (Like almost all of these artists, Rothko was a leftist – a great asset for the Agency, which was embarrassed by the anti-intellectual rants of Joe McCarthy and the Right). The death of the image announced by Rothko’s school was a projection of Western power in decorative matter: full-spectrum dominance depicted in a triumphant haze over the world, over the collapsed images of previous millennia, especially potent because this Edward Teller-like display appeared to be a critique. If there is no image in a painting, then something must take its place as a focal point. This something resembled nothing more than a RAND data chart – equal parts suicide, threat, and ruinous space. Wooly phantasmagoria projected onto a canvas-palimpsest map of the world where zones of influence are rendered in watered-down ochre, a near-transparency of the old Pauline picture of corrupted matter. Rothko’s admitted goal was to make audiences cry: the manipulative trigger-game of Leni Riefenstahl and Schindler’s List, the management of tears from above. A ghostly sentimentality hovers over these paintings like a bad conscience waiting to be extracted.

Who paid the ferryman? It was done by money laundering, which connected the CIA’s art milieu to the French Connection, their Congress of Cultural Freedom to Lucky Luciano, Jackson Pollock to the rate of cut in unadulterated coke and the end of the image to narcolepsy, imprisonment, necrosis. The cast of characters includes witting agents like Julius Fleischmann (among many things, on the board of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe), unwitting properties like socialist Stephen Spender (who quit editing Encounter after he found out where the dough came from), Nelson Rockefeller (inevitably), and the usual nexus of front organizations, critics paid and unpaid (Operation Mockingbird), soft-power mind control, weird ideologues and the chronically available. In the end, perhaps all these revelations do is convince us of the CIA’s efficiency and its total control over all areas of life, which is itself a Company plot. But the failure of an art movement is always at least debatable, like the historical failure of counterespionage projects in Vietnam and Syria. Perhaps Motherwell, Pollack and Phoenix were all successes, erasing the difference between art and espionage and between espionage and life once and for all. Perhaps the art market was actually bilking the CIA and it is hysterical collectors who run the world’s underworlds, chasing rare pieces with a devotion far beyond that of salaried hacks killing time in safehouses in Beirut or Bratislava.

In their gentler poolside moments, maybe the CIA even dreamed of painting as the symbol of an all-enveloping socio-political purity which would make national liberation struggles irrelevant. In the mirror of self-expression (which is itself a product of advertising, strategical psy-ops, and the monetization of seer and the thing seen), all images become interchangeable. That which is interchangeable must also vanish with its object of exchange, which leaves an abhorrent vacuum. Rising to fill this void of an image now disappeared is the global art market, the ‘personal’ expression of wealthy collectors which is concealed behind the ressentiment of slashing brushstrokes, foreign ‘police actions’, landscapes which generate despair in both onlooker and creator, just like the decaying industrial landscape. But look around the world for a moment. While Rothko obliterated everything in a vast overexposure which echoes the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb, the contemporaneous masters of Haitian art evoked figures from the past and made them present in a flash of revolutionary intransigence. Hypolite contra Rothko: An overfull world in the face of the void; a void of a world once seen as overfull of possibilities. Why does it matter at all if the Abstract Expressionist ‘vision’ of our hopeless state was ‘accurate’? Of course it is. For whom was it accurate? For both the dominant power and its internal critics. After all, they were starting to speak in very much the same language. Addendum: It is an old maxim in intelligence work that the perfect agent is one who doesn’t know that he is an agent.

The analysis offered by former CIA agent Donald Jameson, that Abstract Expressionism “was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was,” might sound a little shallow, but Jameson’s intuitive feel for these paintings is undeniable. He is a thousand times the superior of the critical school which (he funded?) proclaimed Abstract Expressionism as the true final position painting must take. It is precisely because there is nothing that can really be said about these paintings other than the processes of how they were made – the splotches or washes or endless points or strict bands of color resembling nothing more than aerial bombardment maps, human intelligence graphs and indices, ideological pictographs, spatial coordinates – that Jameson was quite right to give the them the benefit of a secret ideology. He must give them something because in them, outside of them, beneath them and by them, there is literally nothing. Jameson was the only one who truly understood these works because they were not art, but the unruly chrysalis out of which the covert practices of a dismal philosophy would emerge. This secret remained hidden from the painters and their partisans for quite some time, a fact which Philistine outsider like Jameson must have relished.

But can’t it also be said that Abstract Expressionism recruited the CIA? In order for the motion of the paintings to remain perpetual, they need that eerie American stamp of authenticity known as the Epic Sweep or the Grand Gesture. The ‘real’ must be sought precisely in the den of illusions, the cavern of ghosts, spies, false identity, and mammoth contrivance. Haven’t Americans always been partial to the mystical initiatory journey which satisfies the old European need for a history one can grasp? This gnostic romanticism, however, precludes a sense of failure and guilt. The flat landscape finally retreats into the interior when Rothko is tragically found with his arms sliced open and his bloodstream full of anti-depressants on Feb 25 1970. CIA reprisals included a coup in Cambodia and the assassination of Salvador Allende.

Continuing its action paintings using the primary tones of mud and viscera, CIA works in Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, and El Salvador (to name a random few) started to look rather outmoded once the craze for non-representation had died down. The necessity of real life and a crafty Realism invaded the intelligence community; trite old concerns from the 19th Century like Gesamkunstwerk and Neo-classicism irritated the CIA’s now-passé ideas about art and life. They began to be troubled again by the demons of art pour l’art, quite moorless and confused until their recent film co-productions with the ISIS movement launched a profitable wave of Orientalist nouveaux snuff. These are stark, almost pop-art scenarios, mixed with the frozen CCTV mystery of a Michael Snow. And in the realms of the Dark Web, social media, and surveillance, the Agency still micromanages the avant-garde. They may yet convince us that this is the only world which truly matters.

In contrast, an ongoing exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute shows the early Soviet arts in all their bustling contradiction and coming-to-be. The CIA could not have produced anything on this scale, which required a world-shaking collision of forces and a belief uncomfortably close to the religious. Malevich, Dziga Vertov, El Lissitzky, Lenin, Mayakovsky… The US, too, had considerable forces at its disposal (Buster Keaton, first and foremost). The strange thing is that this exhibition, mounted in a refreshingly no-nonsense and rather cool style, still manages to inspire, as if the past was waiting for the present to catch up to it. This power lies not so much in the myriad forms of the works, which may be bound in time, but in the pure electricity of their still-disarming presence. Against the morose ideas of ends, the grand mortuary they call ‘history’, against the relegation of past works of art to nostalgia and price, something else appears beside the collages, constructivist paintings, fabrics and living spaces constructed for the great new socialist world. We are always told that Stalin was the culmination of this moment in time. Who says? And who paid him to say it? The answer is obvious. They say that here is only one modernism; that there is only one history (and one power able to declare that it is over); that there is only one self to express; that there is only one public and one art which can express it (sometimes fearfully, it has to be admitted). If this sums up the most banal kinds of socialist realism, it is equally applicable to the art the CIA promoted in the middle of last century. Behind the paintings was the logic of pacification.

Alan Dulles’ influence extends far beyond his admittedly meagre artistic output. The CIA’s most recent work of criticism is the destruction of San’a and Aleppo, where the Agency has taken to task outmoded theories of architecture in an imperial inversion of the Situationists’ support for the Watts riots. And The Intercept informs us that Erik Prince, infamous Blackwater capo, and that old has-been Oliver North are setting up a parallel intelligence agency to defend the embattled President against a rogue CIA. Thus, the old rivalry between Classical and Romantic has returned with a swinging post-modern, mercenary twist. Although painting seems to be off the radar for now, the ideas behind the Abstract Intelligence school await resurrection in another form whose inelegance may delight or offend, depending on the myths necessary for the murder of both the Image and its reflection.

From The CIA Black Book of Art:

“The constant repetition of falsehood is more convincing than the demonstration of truth.” – William Colby

“The habits and language of clandestinity can intoxicate even its own practitioners.” – William de Kooning

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.