Of Art, Politics and Money: Jackson Pollock, CIA and the Rockefellers
Of Art, Politics and Money: Jackson Pollock, CIA and the Rockefellers
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4a/No._5%2C_1948.jpg (Number 5, 1948)
I happened to come across several works of Jackson Pollock while I was in New York City. I also found out that Jackson Pollock’s Number 5 is the highest priced art of all time, sold for $ 140 million but currently worth $ 156.8 million. The price made my head spin, and I started thinking about the supposed aesthetic merit of the work and why the work was priced so high.
I had seen photographs of Jackson Pollock’s work before and I never liked it. I saw Pollock’s work in person in New York City and that didn’t make any difference in my evaluation of Pollock’s work. I thought Pollock’s works were crude imitations of traditional Asian Seon (Zen)-inspired works, in which drip marks of watery black ink on rice paper were part of the aesthetic quality of the work. (Seon valued brevity, spontaneity and accident-like images.) Moreover, Pollock’s abstract patterns on the canvas looked very much like certain traditional Asian calligraphy, in which the Chinese characters were stylistically and fluidly distorted to the point of becoming abstract. However, I do give him credit for being bold enough to try out an unconventional painting technique, the drip method. But unfortunately, I’m sure it has been done before: I have seen little children at a nursery school (who never heard of Jackson Pollock) play with dripping paint.
As far as the aesthetic merit of Pollock’s work goes, these considerations make Pollock’s work second-rate, mediocre art at best. His works do not exhibit sufficient creativity and innovativeness. Pollock’s idea of drip painting was not new. Moreover, Pollock’s drip painting technique was quite limited in its creative potential. Just how many years can a painter go on dripping paint on canvas and call it “innovative” and “creative”?
In the 1930s, Pollock was influenced by and worked with a Mexican Stalinist mural artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. But as Pollock’s work became abstract with self-absorbed swirls with no political content and no theme to his work, the CIA got behind Pollock and turned his work (along with works of other abstract expressionists) into weapons of Cold War propaganda against the Soviet Union.
Frances Stoner Saunders wrote a book entitled THE CULTURAL COLD WAR: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. (the New Press) (British title: Who Paid the Piper?) Ms. Saunders points out that the Central Intelligence Agency organized and assured the success of the American abstract expressionist movement, using artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, etc., as weapons in the struggle against the Soviet Union. She claims that during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the CIA secretly promoted abstract expressionism as a means of discrediting the socialist realism of the Soviet Union. The CIA also tried to convince Europe and the rest of the world that the American free enterprise system was superior because it was tolerant and free to generate such art. The CIA’s scheme was to (i) shift the center of the art world away from Europe (i.e., Paris) to the United States (i.e., New York City) and (ii) create a national art that would extol the virtue of freedom, without making any actual changes to the status quo-the rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer.
The abstract expressionists were attacking convention with their “action painting.” The CIA saw these artists as embodying iconoclastic and fiery individualism because their artworks contained no recognizable subject matter and no overt political views contained in many realist artworks. This meant that viewers could read virtually anything into such works: e.g., atom bombs going off, freedom in motion, visual rendering of the unconscious, colors and texture of American freedom, energy made visible, etc., etc. Although initially the abstract expressionists were received with scorn and contempt by art critics, intellectuals, members of the press, etc., the CIA was determined to take this group of eccentric bohemians and transform them into the champions of Americanism.
The CIA created and staffed an international institution called the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) that funded and organized international galley and museum exhibits from 1950 to 1967. The CCF operatives worked to persuade art collectors, curators and critics that Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, etc. were the peerless artists of the age. The CCF orchestrated the publication of a major article on Jackson Pollock in LIFE Magazine declaring him “the shining new phenomenon of American art” and “the greatest living artist.”
The CCF also brought Pollock’s paintings to the attention of Nelson Rockefeller, whose family ran the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Rockefeller embraced Abstract Expressionism as “free enterprise painting.” The Rockefellers began their own collection and supported and heightened and further esteemed the abstract expressionist art movement.
The Economist (November 25th, 2010) reviewed Susan Loebl’s book entitled America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy (Harper). Ms. Loebl claims that art prices rose when it was known that the Rockefellers were interested in certain works. She claims that there was no real examination of the impact such deep-pursed buyers had on the art business and art trends. The book reviewer makes an interesting critical remark that Ms. Loeble did not go far enough with her questioning: whether the Rockefellers bought the art that was approved by the best judges of the 20th century, or did the best judges approve them because the Rockefellers bought them?
Pollock died in a car crash while driving drunk in 1956. Even after Pollock’s death the CIA continued to promote his works by funding and organizing posthumous exhibitions. But the CIA’s covert art agenda was unmasked in 1967 when Ramparts magazine published revelations about the entire CIA affair. However, the CCF was reorganized into the International Association for Cultural Freedom (IACF), which extended the CIA’s covert art operations for another decade.
The CIA-Rockefeller effort was mostly successful. They turned realism passe (something in the past) as art critics kept on praising “action painting.” Galleries, museums and collectors spent a considerable sum of money on collecting abstract expressionist works while realist works languished in obscurity. The Rockefellers and other art investors got a handsome return on their art investment: The CIA secretly used American tax payer dollars to promote abstract expressionist works around the world and pumped up the value of those artworks. This enabled the Rockefellers and others to donate the artworks they owned to public museums for hundreds of millions of dollars of tax deductions for the corporations they owned or controlled. Moreover, those rich art donators probably got to be on the board of directors of those art museums, which afforded them tax-free expense accounts funded by the tax payer. Finally and most importantly, the art world has not fully recovered from this CIA-Rockefeller travesty and, to this day, the American elite favor nonrepresentational over realist artworks for reasons that elude them.