What is it? What does it mean?

These are possibly the most irritating questions artists encounter from viewers, especially if they work with some type of abstraction.

Humans tend to classify what they see – it’s part of our visual system. When that is denied in modern art, viewers may feel slightly threatened by the ambiguity, as if they are being toyed with – although it’s almost never an artist’s intent.

Abstractionists have as varied and personal reasons for their work as any other genre of artists. Early statements on abstraction focused on a rejection of the explicity of objects and the mental limitations they form in our minds. The artist himself (almost all early abstractionists were male) became more important and recognizable than the subject matter had been. Art delineated by its barest elements such as movement, style, color and raw emotion laid its foundations; and myth, psychology and even spiritual faith informed it.

Politics and propaganda were entirely rejected by early abstract artists – an aversion to New Deal artists celebrating America and Soviet Realists in the other ring. Reacting to art used in waging and rationalizing war, they avoided all overt images and narratives – even human rights issues in modern art. The suffering and scale of destruction in the great wars couldn’t be served by a single image, but poetic and personal allusions or symbols may be more powerful: Max Ernst and his crumbling, repeated, dark edifices; Robert Motherwell’s ghostly elegies to the Spanish Civil War; or Gottlieb’s constant inference to the Holocaust and Hiroshima by use of simple shapes.

But an amusing thing happened to abstract art on the way to detachment; it was either co-opted or violently rejected by widely divergent ends of the political spectrum.

The secretive, personal and hidden nature of abstract art infuriated the Soviets and other totalitarian leaders. They found it useless to their goals and to the “state” made in their image. Hitler denounced abstraction as one of several types of officially “degenerate” art, banning it on pain of death on the pretext that it was birthed by “Jews.” Both dictators could clearly read the anti-war and universal concepts underlying abstractionism at the time and didn’t appreciate it.

Ironically, the political persuasion of most artists then (as now) leaned far to the left. So far that after Stalin and Hitler buddied up to crush the world, a group of saner artists publicly rejected communism by leaving the American Artists’ Congress in 1939. This “de rigueur” association for New York artists at the time was an open front for the Communist Party USA, reeling in members by claiming to fight fascism for them. After showing their true colors by openly endorsing the Soviet invasion of Poland and blaming the whole thing on England and France, an exodus of artists “not hostile to cultural freedom” began.

In spite of abstract artists’ efforts to stay unspotted by politics, it dogged them endlessly. Communists at home and abroad attacked the non-complying American artists, labeling them “fake prophets of skepticism, anguish and despair” in opposition to the “joy and affirmation” in socialist realism or Marxist muralists such as Rivera.

Example of Soviet socialist realism

And here’ where it gets interesting. After World War II the newly developed Central Intelligence Agency developed a sudden fascination with the arts. Although whispers floated for decades, revelation and records released in the 1990s prove promotion and patronage of the CIA, especially in behalf of America’s abstract expressionist painters such Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Frances Stoner Saunder’s 1995 interview with former CIA employees confirmed that in an effort to promote and prove western cultural superiority and to lure artists away from Marxism, they extensively supported abstract expressionism and other American art forms.

Why? Maybe just to irritate the communists. The immense success of Pollock, etc., was a slap in the face and deliberate dig at the commies and their supporters in the arts. The style embodied virtually everything the Soviets and Chinese despised; it celebrated personality, individualism, freedom of expression, rebellion and was on the face non-political and uncontrolled. In comparison, Soviet art seemed stodgy, melodramatic and histrionic with its earnest, repeated appeals.

For much the same reasons the CIA supported and helped fund the export of Jazz, Hollywood movies, travel agencies and touring cultural programs such as a subsidizing an animated version of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

All of this was deeply behind the curtains, however, as the artists, their agents and other beneficiaries had no idea that at least part of their spectacular early successes were thanks to the folks at the CIA.

Joseph McCarthy wasn’t included in the work, as he denounced all avant-garde work as trash, and President Truman was a problem for them also. When a touring exhibit entitled “Advancing American Art” made its debut in 1947, Truman was not amused and famously remarked, “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” The show was quickly cancelled, but the CIA found more support with Eisenhower in 1953.

Eisenhower understood that culture deeply affects a generation and took the arts seriously. Belittling oppressive regimes for their treatment of artists as “slaves and tools of the state,” he crafted a careful doctrine of culture.

“Our aim is more subtle, more pervasive, more complete,” Eisenhower said. “We are trying to get the world by peaceful means to believe the truth. That truth is that Americans want a world at peace, a world in which peoples shall have opportunity for maximum individual development.”

If the interference of the CIA in the art market was unknown, then Nelson Rockefeller’s open admiration and massive patronage for the genre wasn’t. He is globally quoted as claiming abstract expressionism is a form of “free enterprise painting,” although I can’t find the original source.

"Autumn Rhythm," Jackson Pollock (1950)

Rockefeller purchased at least 2,500 works of abstract expressionists in the 1950s-60s, splashing them across the public landscape, which authors such as Annabell Shark assigned to purely political motives. She and other art historians (or possibly revisionists) attribute the personal and critical success of abstract expressionist like Jackson Pollack entirely to the machinations of Rockefeller and other Cold War power players. Shark also infers that Rockefeller considered only political motives behind his art purchases and promotion, using the Metropolitan Museum of Art, banks and many public buildings for that purpose.

Once again abstract artists are the target of politically inclined viewers and critics.

I find Shark’s claims hard to believe, however, as no one, not even fabulously wealthy art lovers and patriotic patrons, spend millions and gush over art they absolutely detest. Rockefeller used the qualities he found in abstract art to laud the “expression of human aspiration, thoughts and emotions in search of freedom and order.”

Another force to be reckoned with was Henry Luce, a powerful media mogul owning publications Life, Time, Fortune and others. Jackson Pollack was his special protégé and promoted on the pages of Life, a magazine generally not devoted to art. This raised suspicion that it was a deliberate move on the part of Luce, who sought to mark the post-war world as “The American Century,” and they accuse him of using artists in this effort.

The CIA also quietly supported the publication from 1953-1990 of the Encounter, a literary magazine of such merit and range of contributors that few have the nerve to openly attack the agency’s choice of literature to this day. Even the founder, poet Stephen Spender, had no inkling of the CIA/MI6 monetary underwriting and was never approached by them or constrained in any way, he claims. Contributors are a who’s who of political, economic and literary writers. They run from John Kenneth Galbraith, Marshall MacLuhan, Seamus Heaney, Erica Jong and Clive James to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Could we agree even the CIA can do some things right? This may even be a worthwhile use of public taxes – even if the majority of Americans at the times detested abstract expressionism and only a small minority would ever read the journal Encounter.

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