Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jackson Pollock, Covert Propaganda Asset

A decade ago I wrote a story about a clandestine group of U.S. psychological warfare operatives who commissioned a piece of post-Frazetta sword & sorcery fantasy art as a secret weapon to influence a Middle Eastern dictator. The story, "Script-Doctoring the Apocalypse," was influenced by the news reports of Rowena Morrill chainmail bikini paintings found by American troops when the captured Saddam Hussein's secret bachelor pads. It was published in Eileen Gunn's The Infinite Matrix, the very week that Saddam was captured in a Tikriti spiderhole.

It turns out that Psyop part of the story was more plausible than I had intuited. Jayme Blaschke just tipped me to this amazing story from the Independent (with a byline much older than my story) about how the CIA covertly funded the New York School Abstract Expressionist painters all through the 50s and 60s as a propaganda weapon during the Cold War. On a "long leash," granted, using a variety of intermediaries—but still mind-blowing to consider what role intelligence support had in the mid-twentieth century American avant-garde (to say nothing of cultural products that made postwar anti-communism culturally credible among the intelligentsia—see below reference to the animated version of Orwell's Animal Farm).

Unknown to the artists, the new American art was secretly promoted under a policy known as the "long leash" - arrangements similar in some ways to the indirect CIA backing of the journal Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender.

The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.

The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America's anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism.

Independent, "Modern art was CIA 'weapon'

Where's the gonzo James Ellroy novel about these guys?! Maybe Don DeLillo already wrote about Pollack and the spook and I missed it.

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