How the CIA turned art into a weapon

November 17, 2015
Jihyun Woo Whitney High School 11th Grade

Jihyun Woo
Whitney High School
11th Grade

For years, the claim that the U.S. government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had used art as a weapon during the 1950s and 1960s was ambiguous, considered by most a joke or a rumor.

However, relatively recent interviews with former CIA officials have confirmed this statement. Art is often viewed as a peaceful form of expression, and while it is not a direct form of violence, it was used as a supplement to actual weapons to oppose the USSR during the Cold War.

The CIA actively and secretly promoted American Abstract Expressionist Art around the world for over two decades. This movement was supported in order to demonstrate the blossoming of freedom and creativity in the United States at the time, which sharply contrasted with the straightforward and limited inspiration of Russian art. This contrast emphasized, maybe over-exaggerated, the rigidity of Socialist Realism art popular in the USSR.

The idea to utilize art and culture as weapons was implemented as soon as the CIA was founded. This policy was called the “long leash.” The CIA had influenced more than 800 sources of media, including newspapers and magazines. In order to carry out their plan of molding the views of people worldwide, the CIA funded many writers, artists, and intellectuals and organized exhibitions that toured cities in Europe, the most notable called “The New American Painting.” Some well-known artists who were sponsored include Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

At first, Abstract Expressionism was frowned upon and even despised by most people because it violated nearly all the “rules” of art. With no clear technique, this type of art was considered wild and not truly artistic.

However, as it became more and more pervasive through different mediums, people’s mindsets were altered. Millions of dollars was spent on this operation, provided by both the government and museum donors. With so much financial support, this artistic movement had no trouble spreading through books, posters, and other means.

Although it can’t be affirmatively determined whether or not this weaponization of art aided in the collapse of the USSR, the ideals promoted by Abstract Expressionism such as free thinking and artistic expression are distinguishing characteristics of the United States today.

One Comment

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