May 30, 2012

I hereby forgive the CIA for Abstract Expressionism

One of the interesting unanswered questions about post-WWII arts and literature (e.g., the Mad Men era) is how much was it funded and molded by the CIA as part of a "twilight struggle" to make America look cooler than the Soviet Union. For example, old CIA agents have long claimed to have played a sizable role in the triumph of abstract expressionist (or "New York School") painting. 

As I've said before, but have to keep repeating in an (almost certainly futile) attempt to prevent people's Conspiracy Theory! Ahhh-ooog-ahh! alarms from going off: It's useful to conceive of the CIA not as omnipotently manipulating everything; instead, think of The Agency as players in an international version of the municipal "favor bank" explicated in The Wire and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Thus, the fact that, say, President Obama's best known private sector job was at a newsletter company, Business International, that had admittedly served as a cover story front for at least four CIA agents doesn't mean that Obama is a creation of the CIA, but it does serve to point to his parents' connections to American power in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Kenya.

What about the CIA as a patron of literature? The highbrow Anglo-American magazine Encounter, co-founded by English poet Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol, was long ago revealed to be something of a CIA front. Questions have also persisted about the funding of the literary magazine The Paris Review, which specialized in introducing new writers,  ever since the magazine's founder, nature writer Peter Matthiessen, admitted to some help from the CIA. The Paris Review was long edited by Matthiessen's friend, bon vivant George Plimpton,

A long new article in Salon fleshes out The Paris Review's relationship with the CIA. I haven't read the whole thing, but I have to say that the idea of my tax dollars being used to fund George Plimpton's lifestyle is probably the best news I've had all day. 

I'm sure nobody under about 45 remembers Plimpton, but he was a consistently delightful figure in the media during my childhood, a Park Avenue honk who would come up with these strange participatory journalistic exercises, such as, in Paper Lion, going through the Detroit Lions training camp as their fourth string quarterback, even quarterbacking three downs in an NFL exhibition game.

A fellow who worked for me in the 1980s repairing personal computers had previously interned at the Paris Review for Plimpton (my friend's grandfather had gone to prep school with Plimpton's father), and he had lots of good Plimpton stories, such as that Plimpton was a professional partygoer. If you were, say, a prosperous orthodontist, you could hire Plimpton to be one of your guests, and he would charm all your other guests and raise your social standing in their eyes.

Also, I noticed that the Salon article by Joel Whitney wanders off to the topic of Yale's American Studies Ph.D. program. I realize the following excerpt will be kind of dull, but I was struck by it because I just recalled another writer, one even more famous that Plimpton, who earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale in 1957, somebody whose name will be back in the news later this year (if all goes according to plan):
The weaponization of culture starts at Yale. Prof. Norman Holmes Pearson is cited on the Paris Review web site as the intelligence officer who recruited Matthiessen (Yale College, 1950) into the CIA. This fact may explain the subtle cultural politics of the supposedly apolitical Paris Review. Pearson’s career is a mashup of literature and spying. A friend of the modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (aka, “H.D.”), he hired H.D.’s daughter as his secretary. She then became that of his assistant, the CIA’s bogeyman, James Jesus Angleton. After an illustrious record during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services alongside CIA founding light William Donovan and CIA director Allen Dulles, Pearson returned to academe to take charge of Yale’s fledgling American Studies program.
How does covert propaganda or intelligence work link up with American Studies? Answer: Monomania and the Cold War. Consider a letter from Yale’s dean at this time to its president:
From such a study we will gain strength, both individually and as a nation … strength, which we need so badly in our time to face the changing, and in part, hostile world  … This is an argument … for the establishment of a strong program of American Studies at Yale, which in many respects is our most native university … In the international scene it is clear that our government has not been too effective in blazoning to Europe and Asia, as a weapon in the “cold war” the merits of our way of thinking and living … Until we put more vigor and conviction into our own cause … it is not likely that we shall be able to convince the wavering peoples of the world that we have something infinitely better than Communism … 
Yale’s American studies “would be ‘positive,’” as one academic has written, “not a matter of preaching against communism, but one of advocacy for the American alternative.” Where the CIA would get into the game — call it cultural propaganda or psychological warfare — it would avail itself of both “positive” and “negative” means, celebrating American cultural achievements on one hand while attacking Soviet ideas and policies on the other. 


For decades I've been reading that "New Journalists," such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, made themselves the centerpieces of their articles, but I've always found that to be much truer for Thompson than Wolfe. I've read over a million words by Wolfe -- and I'm a rather close reader -- but he remains a somewhat engimatic character to me. 

One reason for Wolfe's relative reticence about himself is that he's an unrepentant white Southerner. His agronomist father edited The Southern Planter and his grandfather fought for the Confederacy.

But, that aside, I'm struck by a couple of bullet points from his biography:

- While Thompson liked to portray himself as a "Doctor of Journalism," Wolfe actually is Dr. Tom Wolfe, holder of a Ph.D. from Yale in American Studies. This doesn't come up much in his books, however. I can recall one passage in which he expresses loathing of grad school poverty. 

- Wolfe covered Castro's Revolution in Cuba as a reporter for the Washington Post. That seems like rich material for any writer to mine in his subsequent works, but, as far as I can recall, Wolfe has been strikingly reticent on the subject. Wolfe's upcoming novel about Miami, Back to Blood, will, presumably, make use in some fashion of his Cuban days

It now occurs to me that there could be common denominator between Wolfe's Yale American Studies Ph.D. and his time in Cuba as a journalist.

Just idle speculation, of course.

Now that I think of it, Wolfe's 1968 bestseller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a biography of novelist Ken Kesey, who was introduced to LSD in a 1959 Stanford experiment paid for by the CIA.

41 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve, I'm in my 30s and we know Plimpton. He's the gay QB for the Lions.

Dan in DC

Larry, San Francisco said...

How horrible the CIA engaged in high end propaganda. I would really like to see a magazine like Salon investigate the KGB's financing of the anti-bomb movement in West Germany and England in the 1980s. For too many on the left, actively working for the soviets is a badge of honor not of shame while working on a CIA sponsored magazine is just beyond the pale.

Anonymous said...

"Wolfe's upcoming novel about Miami, Back to Blood, will, presumably, make use in some fashion of his Cuban days"

I wonder if his book will contain a passage about a Haitian immigrant eating some homeless white guy's face.

To create a little flower is the labour of ages. said...

'engimatic'

Anonymous said...

Twilight Struggle is a fun board game.

DaveinHackensack said...

Tom Wolfe is one of those few writers whose next novel I will buy in hardcover, as soon as it comes out, with no doubt in my mind that I'll enjoy it. He hasn't written a bad novel yet (Though it would be nearly impossible to top his first one. Imagine coming out the gate with Bonfire of the Vanities.).

Anonymous said...

One of the interesting unanswered questions about post-WWII arts and literature (e.g., the Mad Men era) is how much was it funded and molded by the CIA as part of a "twilight struggle" to make America look cooler than the Soviet Union.

Why was abstract expressionism necessary to look cooler? How cool was socialist realism?

Anonymous said...

What about Operation Gladio?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Gladio

The CIA and NATO engaged in multiple false flag bombings and assassinations in Europe that were blamed on leftist groups.

Marlowe said...

Alice Sheldon (under the pseudonym James Tiptree) wrote sf and helped found CIA. Paul Linbarger travelled widely during WWII, was a confidant of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, became the U.S. Army's foremost expert on Psychological Warfare technique, advised John F. Kennedy and wrote sf under the pseudonym Cordwainer Smith.

CIA had Philip K. Dick under surveillance after he wrote to the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the late '50s. Several years earlier, in Berkeley, two FBI agents asked Dick and his wife to become spies on the left wing radical movement. The agency would have paid the couple to attend a Texan university. They declined.

I kept hoping Heinlein would turn out to have worked for ONI.

Norville Rogers said...

Yes, and Julia Child was an assistant to Wild Bill Donovan too, etc. Wasn't everything so grand & clubbable in ye old days...

Anonymous said...

"total destruction of a planet"

-meh

slumber_j said...

The problem with this sort of speculation is that within a certain sector of US society, nobody is immune. For example, my late step-grandmother was an assistant to Wild Bill Donovan in the OSS; my cousin-in-law is in and out of the CIA all the time, in between and probably during stints as the whitest Professor of African Studies anyone's ever met; Peter Matthiesen's repugnant son Alex slept with my first wife while we were married (which has a lot to do with why we no longer are) and so on and so forth. And although I lived abroad for many years doing god-knows-what, I've never been even remotely tempted to join the CIA.

But then again: I would say that, wouldn't I?

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if his book will contain a passage about a Haitian immigrant eating some homeless white guy's face."

As soon as the attacker's racial identity became known, the MSM noise machine began running photo essays of America's cannibals, mostly the usual suspects, Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Edmund Kemper, etc, all white, except that it's an apples to orange comparison. American cannibals killed their victims, then ate them in a ritualistic manner. The details of Rudy Eugene's cannibalism eerily resemble recent chimpanzee attacks which often involve face eating (Charla Nash) in addition to attempts at manual castration.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/03/04/national/main678061.shtml

In other words, bad acid doesn't wholly explain this bizarre incident.

formerly no name said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Gladio

The CIA and NATO engaged in multiple false flag bombings and assassinations in Europe that were blamed on leftist groups.


Being a reactionary I'm no fan of the CIA, but that Wiki article is mostly conspiratorial gibberish of a LaRouchite caliber. OTOH, the Soviet Bloc links to the Baader-
Meinhof RAF are well established.

Anonymous said...

Now that I think of it, Wolfe's 1968 bestseller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a biography of novelist Ken Kesey, who was introduced to LSD in a 1959 Stanford experiment paid for by the CIA.

I've come to the conclusion that the whole LSD/CIA scene out in San Francisco is really worth a closer look. I've done a little amateur research and it seems as though there were some people trying to use Brave New World as an instruction manual to make our postwar consumer society hum along.

Those of you who have the time and interest should take it from the horse's mouth by listening to Aldous Huxley's "Ultimate Revolution" lecture at UC Berkeley in 1962 on YouTube. Listen especially to the questions from the audience, they really do seem to be interested in how to apply these ideas. Make of that what you wish.

Here's a link:
Aldous Huxley - Speech at UC Berkeley, The Ultimate Revolution 1962.

Anonymous said...

Why was abstract expressionism necessary to look cooler? How cool was socialist realism?

I hate to say it, but from an Art qua Art point of view [Ars Gratia Artis???], there's something to be said for the iron fist with which Stalin and the Politburo ruled the culture.

For instance, the post-war West never produced the masculine mastery of stringed instruments which was displayed by Oistrakh [pere] on the violin, or by Rostropovich on the cello.

Instead, we get sissy-phag poseurs like Joshua Bell and [shudder] Yo-Yo Ma.

Although we [or at least Canada] did produce Glenn Gould, which goes a long, long way towards salving the pain...


PS: If The Derb is hanging around on this thread, then maybe he could chip in with some Soviet-era ballerina pedophilia...

PPS: Another epic Soviet-era performance is Richter on the pseudo-fugue from the Wanderer [even if, like Schubert himself, Richter's true sexuality may (or may not) have been just a little iffy].

PPPS: Whoa - I just discovered that GLENN GOULD AGREED WITH ME!!! - holy cow, teh innert00bz R teh r0x0r!!!

Marlowe said...

Another thought on Wolfe's PhD and his reluctance to brandish the credential: back in the day, when he and Hunter Thompson started working as journalists, old school hacks tended to disparage egg heads. Anyone who had done post-grad and ended up a scribbler would have been laughed at. Shortly after of course the whole field of journalism changed and credentials became everything. The old gang learned the trade on the job, pounding the beat at City Hall etc.

FredR said...

Here is the J.M. Coetzee as a young man coming face to face with Abstract Expressionism for the first time:

"He goes to an exhibition of the abstract expressionists at the Tate Gallery. For a quarter of an hour he stands before a Jackson Pollock, giving it a chance to penetrate him, trying to look
judicious in case some suave Londoner has an eye on this provincial ignoramus. It does not help.
The painting means nothing to him. There is something about it he does not get.
In the next room, high up on a wall, sits a huge painting consisting of no more than an
elongated black blob on a white field. Elegy for the Spanish Republic 24 by Robert Motherwell,
says the label. He is transfixed. Menacing and mysterious, the black shape takes him over. A sound
like the stroke of a gong goes out from it, leaving him shaken and weak-kneed.
Where does its power come from, this amorphous shape that bears no resemblance to Spain or
anything else, yet stirs up a well of dark feeling within him? It is not beautiful, yet it speaks like
beauty, imperiously."

Anonymous Rice Alum #4 said...

but I have to say that the idea of my tax dollars being used to fund George Plimpton's lifestyle is probably the best news I've had all day.

Steve, you've been dropping these marvelous bon mots a lot lately.

I would push the cut-off age for remembering Plimpton down into the late 30s. People that age would be the youngest ones to remember Plimpton's TV commercials for the Intellivision video game console ~1980-82.

gwern said...

Tyler Cowen has written about CIA involvement in the arts, in _Good and Plenty_; excerpts: http://www.gwern.net/Culture%20is%20not%20about%20Esthetics#propaganda

Mike in Boston said...

Another interesting overlap between the CIA and modern art is that an American professor from southern Maryland with some sort of CIA links seems to have been largely responsible for keeping abstract art alive in Russia during the Soviet period. Read John McPhee's excellent but underrated "The Ransom of Russian Art." From the New Yorker review:


Dodge went to the Soviet Union in 1962 and began to collect Russian underground artists. By the late nineteen-seventies, he possessed a thousand works of Soviet unofficial art. Through his network of contacts in following years, he multiplied that number by nine. All within the chronological window 1956 to 1986, his collection became by far the largest and (in the scholarly sense) most exhaustive in the world. He brought it to his farm, Cremona Farm, in southern Maryland and subsequently donated most of the collection to Rutgers. The art critic Victor Tupitsyn, who is Russian, said to writer, "It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Norton single-handedly saved contemporary Russian art from total oblivion. This makes him an evangelical figure." Tells about his involvement with the CIA. He arranged to have many art works smuggled out of Moscow.

Anonymous said...

Why was abstract expressionism necessary to look cooler? How cool was socialist realism?

The key thing is that it was not social realism.

If Soviet art had tended toward abstract expressionism then I think the CIA would have funded American realism and said that was cool.

pat said...

You write in a spirit of anti-conspiracy theory. And for this we all thank you. God but I'm tired of all the wild speculations about Obama, The Matrix, and shadowy groups like the Illuminati, the Masons, and the Knights Templar. But in exploring the rather humorous efforts of the CIA to advance the West through art and literature you have probably just opened up a new vein for the fatuously imaginative.

The reason I hold conspiracy theorists in such disdain is because it's so easy to do. The theorists think themselves clever because they have "seen behind the veil". The technique is simple. You just pose a question. You don't need to provide an answer. You just leave it hanging in air.

A couple years ago the winning joke at the San Francisco Comic Competition was - "Lou Gehrig. Died of Lou Gehrig's Disease. Coincidence?" A perfect mini conspiracy. A sort of conspiracy haiku.

But now you have probably set off a whole series of new fevered speculations about the nefarious reasons behind cultural phenomena.

I just made this one up. Derrick Bell - the famous black guy - made a movie for HBO in which he posited only two reasons why the space aliens shouldn't be allowed to take away all of Earth's black people - basketball and jazz. Yet shortly there after suddenly the dominant black music was no longer the generally respected jazz but the universally abhorred rap. Coincidence?

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

"He hasn't written a bad novel yet"


Most people consider Charlotte Simmons a failure and Wolfe's failures are particularly bad because his prose is just objectively awful.

Joe Six-Pack said...

Angelo Codevilla wrote a interesting piece about Obama parents involvement with the CIA.

Could ne said that he is the true Manchurian Candidate.

Aaron in Israel said...

Steve Sailer writes: "I've read over a million words by Wolfe...."

So have I. Well, actually it was probably just a few thousand words, but it sure seemed like over a million.

James Kabala said...

In the terrible Communist agitprop movie The Cradle Will Rock, the plan for the government (of course the CIA proper didn't exist yet) to fund abstract art is launched at a costume party by Nelson Rockefeller dressed as an eighteenth-century dandy and William Randolph Hearst dressed as a cardinal!

Henry Canaday said...

Henry Crumpton spoke at the Local Lefty Book store recently. Who is Henry Crumpton? He was the guy who led the 200 CIA agents that, along with about 300 Special Operations troops, the US Air Force and the Northern Alliance, swept through Afghanistan in a couple of weeks in late 2001.

In an age when every malcontent CIA desk jockey and diplomatic lounge lizard long ago published a book or an Op Ed about the CIA, you would think more people would know who Henry Crumpton is. But, no, he was mostly silent for about a decade, working at the CIA and the State Department.

Crumpton seemed to be a smart, honest, straight-jawed cracker from a small town in Georgia who speaks in level tones and has no devastating criticisms of his colleagues or superiors. He ran foreign agents for several decades, not without danger to himself and them. The CIA has this kind of person too.

Ray Sawhill said...

Anonymous 9:40 a.m. writes: "Wolfe's failures are particularly bad because his prose is just objectively awful."

Can I have a link to the not-to-be-questioned, for-the-ages authority that has judged that Tom Wolfe's prose is "objectively" terrible?

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
"He hasn't written a bad novel yet"


Most people consider Charlotte Simmons a failure and Wolfe's failures are particularly bad because his prose is just objectively awful."


I think a lot of liberals, and those groups that make up their base, hate Tom Wolfe because he exposes their vanity and intellectual vacuousness.

It's easy to see. Which paper is most likely to pan one of his novels ... Why it's the New York Times (yup, panned the Simmons book). Gee I wonder why.

Regarding Charlotte Simmons, when I read the reviews on Amazon I noticed that although there were many five star reviews there a bunch of one star reviews from members of each of the following groups: (1) enraged liberals (who will hate anything he writes because they never forget); (2) young feminists who were upset at his depicting Charlotte'e virginity when entering college as possibly either a good or valuable thing that was sad to lose in the way she did(i.e. in a drunken stupor ..You go Grrrrrs!); or (3) young reviewers who thought it unrealistic that anyone as good and wholesome as Charlotte could exist in college (high school apparently having already been far too corrupting according to these wise big city liberals).

All three groups want their life choices and political beliefs to be celebrated rather than skewered or ridiculed.

It's human nature for them to feel this way ( most of them are in serious denial... "please.. please don't make me think I might be wrong!")

No doubt Wolfe is the great chronicler of our time.

By the way, can any of the posters recommend any other contemporary novelists worth reading?

I like to read, but it's hard to find contemporary writers who can make me both laugh and think like Mr. Wolfe can.

Anonymous said...

"He hasn't written a bad novel yet"

Most people consider Charlotte Simmons a failure and Wolfe's failures are particularly bad because his prose is just objectively awful.

Well-stated with a poorly constructed run-on sentence.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

By the way, can any of the posters recommend any other contemporary novelists worth reading?"

Several years ago, I read a few books by Paul Auster ("City of Glass", "Leviathan", perhaps a few others) and found them to be quite good and very compelling reads. This despite the fact that he is exactly the kind of writer whom I normally despise - a writer who writes books about writers writing books. I can't say if I would still like his writing, or if it just struck my mood at the time.

Most of my other forays into modern fiction left me cold: DeLillo and Pynchon just struck me as a pile of pretentious crap.

By the way, the novelist Auster is the cousin of the conservative blogger and curmudgeon (and one of the first of the modern conservative immigration critics) Lawrence Auster.

Another writer whom I can recommend - and completely without reservations - is George MacDonald Fraser (RIP, recently deceased). His picaresque historical novels are not only rip-roaringly funny, but - being meticulously researched - they are enormously informative. Start with "Flashman", and go from there.

Londoner said...

William Gibson.

Eric Rasmusen said...

It probably didn't really happen, but a fascinating novel could be written about how the CIA created abstract expressionism, with some mad genius directing the recruiting of Greenberg and the critics, andRockefeller directing his rich friends and museums to buy the art, the artists oblivious of the plot and thinking people really like their stuff, and the Russians and French trying to sabotage the plot. Somebody could have fun with that, and teach us a lot about how the New York art world (which I bet really *is* just 400 relevant people, possible none of which are actually artists) works.

RGH said...

This post led me over to Tom Wolfe's website, where I notice that the first blurb for "A Man in Full" is from John Updike's New Yorker review. Is that an inside joke?

Forgot My Alias Again said...

Any Simpsons fan younger than 45 (or late 30's, following an earlier comment) will recall Plimpton's appearance as himself where, at the conclusion of the Spellympics, which he MC'd, he announced he was returning to "whatever it is I do." I'm a bit older than 45, and the line made perfect sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Abstract expressionism was invented at a communist party meeting to give a comrade a name as an artist. According to Kenneth Rexroth's 'Experiment in Autobiography'.

Is this as silly as blaming the CIA? Beats me. When photography got popular, and we still had drawing taught in all the good schools (the average clever Victorian was as good at painting and art appreciation as the average clever 2012 American is good at computer programming)- well, when photography came along all those drawing masters had to do something. Trick draftsmanship rules OK!

AlekJamesHidell said...

Just idle speculation, of course

Not Likely

Anonymous said...

...there's something to be said for the iron fist with which Stalin and the Politburo ruled the culture. For instance, the post-war West never produced the masculine mastery...

I had never heard of the guy until today, but apparently the Trololo dude just died.

As of this writing, his assorted Youtube uploads have 14.7 million hits, 12.1 million hits, 7.7 million hits, etc etc etc.

Two points:

1) Clearly modern folk are yearning for some masculinity in their lives [and/or are clinging valiantly to whatever fading memories they have of masculinity], and

2) Suddenly I'm starting to get really interested in this whole idea of Soviet-era "Art".

Anonymous said...

Polls all show that a huge majority of Americans think America is in decline. Whites are most pessimistic for good reason. Our immigration policies is based on short term cheap labour motives but will have terrible long term impact. As people watch this slow motion train-wreck they wonder "why". And hence I think conspiracy theories are going to be booming for the foreseeable future. The question: who did this? why? Many say the jews (or left wing jews). Some say greedy white aswell (chamber of commerce, WSJ). Some say "leftists". Some say "the NWO". whose right?

Charles Frith said...

The CIA promoted abstract expressionism to diminish art with a social content or civil disobedience or general 99% themes.

There is very little great American art attacking the 1% or the endless materialism they promote.

If you can forgive the CIA for the current state of affairs then one must go the whole hog and forgive them for the impending messy ending.

And still the artists and art community of the United States are largely painting their navels.

It's just business.