I’m sure that most of you know that the Cold War involved more than proxy wars and revolutions. It was above all ideological, a rivalry between two very different ways of life, a half century struggle pitting “freedom” against “repression.” For many, the conflict was most apparent in what was called the cultural Cold War. But were pop culture icons like Jackson Pollock really tools in the tussle for cultural prestige and influence between the two superpowers and their clients?
Some say the chief weapon in the cultural Cold War was “modernism,” a movement epitomizing the high cultural achievement of the United States. The experimental art produced in the United States was celebrated as uniquely representative of a free and individualistic society, work that would be forbidden — even persecuted — in the Soviet Union. Abstract expressionism formed the centerpiece of this argument, but Cold War modernism was not just about art. It also included literature, bebop jazz, dance, architecture, decor, and fashion.
America’s target audience for cultural propaganda in the Cold War was foreign elites — especially left-wing intellectuals and avant-garde writers and artists who had some sort of attachment, even if sentimental or opportunistic, to the Soviet Union. After all, the Soviets had portrayed themselves as being “more modern than the moderns, the advance guard of the avant-garde, and the epitome of historical progress.”
Since much of the cultural Cold War was centered around each superpower’s claim to cultural superiority, the US wanted to ensure that artists and intellectuals got the message that it was possible to be left-wing, avant-garde, and anti-communist — all at the same time. As Louis Menand writes, “the State Department wanted the world to know that the United States was not just a nation of cars, chewing gum, and Hollywood movies.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, modernism was a vehicle for pro-Western propaganda. As Menand asserts:
Cold Warriors in the nineteen-fifties often found themselves in the position of propagandizing for American values by exhibiting art that was manifestly elite, and attacking the Soviet Union for mandating that art appeal to the common man.
In this context, abstract expressionism — thought to be apolitical and internationally prestigious — was an ideal “weapon of the Cold War” for the United States. Some even insist that abstract expressionism’s rise was due to its usefulness in Cold War rhetoric. Eva Cockroft, writing in Artforum, argues that MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York City), and the Department of State worked closely together “in the service of US foreign policy and to the benefit of abstract expressionism.” Others argue that MOMA did the bidding of the CIA.
The evidence for the purported collusion between MOMA and US government agencies, though, is largely circumstantial. It’s probably more insightful to take a long hard look at the leadership of MOMA after World War II. Like those at the helm of most mainstream institutions in the US, MOMA’s top brass were staunch anti-communists. There was no need for an explicit arrangement between the government and the museum because they were already on the same page. The museum didn’t have to be encouraged to use American art to promote America’s image abroad. It was going to do this regardless. Still, Cockroft was on target when she argued that “the ‘individualist ethos’ of abstract expressionism was used as a contrast to Soviet collectivism.”
In her book, The Cultural Cold War, published in 2000, Frances Stonor Saunders argues that
. . . in the propaganda war with the Soviets, abstract expressionism became proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the United States. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.
Like Cockroft, Saunders strongly suggests that abstract expressionism succeeded largely because of its sponsorship by US government agencies.
Many, of course, say that these are just revisionist arguments, designed to satisfy the complaints of citizens like my mother-in-law. She would be furious if she thought there was any kind of link between her tax payments and abstract expressionism. I remember walking through museums with her where she’d heatedly announce “that’s not art.” But she was fervently anti-communist, so if she’d known about Cold War weaponry and the CIA connection, I think her perspective might have been quite different. In fact, I’m sure she’d have fallen madly in love with Jackson Pollock if someone had explained to her that “only a free society could create art this challenging and allow artists this daring freedom to create.”
How was Cold War modernism integrated into America’s half-century conflict with the Soviet Union? Well, it falls under the umbrella of cultural diplomacy, what Joseph Nye would call “soft power,” the ability to persuade through culture, value, and ideas.” According to Greg Barnhisel
. . . the international character of modernism, like the military and economic alliances being forged through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Marshall Plan, served to knit the West together with the United States leading the way.
At first, though, the internal debate in the US government about how best to counter Soviet influence centered on military strategy. The debate was front and center in the wake of Winston Churchill’s March 1946 “Iron Curtain Speech” which definitively marked the polarization of the postwar world.
Churchill’s pronouncement was soon followed by George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” which argued that the Soviet Union was unable to coexist peacefully with capitalist democracy and that “containment” was the only answer.
Shortly after, in a 1947 speech, President Truman articulated the “Truman Doctrine,” announcing that the United States would “support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressure.” (Click on the link above to listen to our podcast.)
But soon, it became clear that a solely military posture was unwise. Consequently, members of the Truman administration and the US Congress looked toward diplomacy and psychological warfare. The newly created National Security Council (NSC) set out a number of secret directives. NSC-4 (1947) and NSC-68 (1950) are especially relevant here. They called for the various agencies responsible for cultural relations and information to develop a coordinated information program “to influence foreign opinion in a direction favorable to US interests and to counter effects of anti-US propaganda.” (Truman and, later, Eisenhower were the first two presidents to introduce and mobilize propaganda as an official peacetime institution.)
In a series of acts in 1946-1948, the US government moved to authorize, fund, and staff an expansive cultural-diplomacy effort. The Fulbright Program (for scholars) was established in 1946, and the US Informational and Educational Exchange Act (Smith-Mundt Act) passed in 1948, funding overseas information and cultural/diplomatic activities.
This was necessary the State Department explained because:
There is a popular misapprehension in foreign countries that we Americans are purely materialistic, money-mad and pleasure-mad, and it comes as a surprise to many, and as a new cause for respect, to learn that the United States has a literature, an art and a music of its own.
The election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 re-energized cultural diplomacy, primarily through Ike’s creation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) to coordinate cultural contacts as well as public-information programs. At the same time, Assistant Secretary of State William Benton proposed that cultural diplomacy “should be regarded as a part of our national defense.”
According to Louis Menand:
Eisenhower had more patience than Truman did with modernism; he thought of cultural diplomacy as a branch of psychological warfare, and his administration was the first to provide systematic funding for international arts exhibitions. . . . His administration helped sponsor tours of American art, opera (‘Porgy and Bess,’ meant to counter Soviet propaganda about American racism), musical theatre, dance, and jazz.
Both the cultural-diplomatic campaign and the public information campaign spoke with the same voice. The basic message was that the Soviet Union was an aggressive, militaristic, imperialist power, a police state, and a slave empire. As Ike said:
When artists are made the slaves and tools of the state; when artists become the chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed.
In sum, Cold War modernism emerged as a public-private partnership to showcase American cultural accomplishments in modernist art and literature and to argue that these artistic achievements were possible only in a free society. The use of this cultural weapon in the Cold War conflict was critical to America’s ultimate success.
Cold War modernism brought modernist technique to the mainstream, enriching the kinds of creative works that mass publics already knew: genre fiction, Hollywood filmmaking, corporate architecture, Broadway theater, and commercial design. As Paul Goodman noted in Growing Up Absurb:
The current disease is to make Cold War capital out of everything, no matter what. We cannot dedicate a building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s in New York without our Ambassador to the United Nations pointing out that such an architect could not have flourished in Russia.
Important Note: This article draws from Chapter One of Greg Barnhisel’s wonderfully researched and argued book Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy. The book is available on Amazon. I hope you’ll buy it and read it from cover to cover.
It also draws from an October 17, 2005, article in The New Yorker: Unpopular Front (American art and the Cold War) by Louis Menard.