The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Enduring Art

Do you find modern art baffling and depressing? Have you ever wondered if it's all a ridiculous hoax? Don't worry. It's meant to be baffling and depressing, and it is a ridiculous hoax. According to American leftist James Petras's review of Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders,
[the]CIA and its allies in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) poured vast sums of money into promoting Abstract Expressionist (AE) painting and painters as an antidote to art with a social content. In promoting AE, the CIA fought off the right-wing in Congress. What the CIA saw in AE was an "anti-Communist ideology, the ideology of freedom, of free enterprise. Non-figurative and politically silent it was the very antithesis of socialist realism" (254). They viewed AE as the true expression of the national will. To bypass right-wing criticism, the CIA turned to the private sector (namely MOMA and its co-founder, Nelson Rockefeller, who referred to AE as "free enterprise painting.") Many directors at MOMA had longstanding links to the CIA and were more than willing to lend a hand in promoting AE as a weapon in the cultural Cold War. Heavily funded exhibits of AE were organized all over Europe; art critics were mobilized, and art magazines churned out articles full of lavish praise. The combined economic resources of MOMA and the CIA-run Fairfield Foundation ensured the collaboration of Europe's most prestigious galleries which, in turn, were able to influence aesthetics across Europe.
So the whole hegemony of boring decadent rubbish art that has been inflicted on us for fifty years, from Jackson bloody Pollock to Damien fucking Hirst, has all along been a CIA plot.

The Nazi attack on 'Degenerate Art' and some similarities between Nazi and Stalinist art have obscured some simple and obvious facts. The 'Degenerate Art' attacked by the Nazis was not the art foisted on us today. (What have the savage cartoons of Grosz in common with the pretentious trivia of BritArt?) One country's heroic statuary is much like another's heroic statuary. Vivid depictions of tanks and tractors, workers and soldiers look rather similar no matter who puts up the posters. (Anarchist and liberal-democratic war posters look just as totalitarian.) We're belaboured with the similarities, but I suspect a closer examination would bring out significant differences. Modern art is entirely compatible with political reaction. In Helsinki's Atenuem you can see the point made with mathematical precision. Nineteenth-century Finnish art was bold, romantic or realistic, and representational. After 1918 it's suddenly all dark interiors, frozen faces, snowbound churches, then in the late 20s or early 30s (at which point it's almost a relief) it becomes an unbroken, decades-long parade of derivative decadence. In the Barcelona football stadium Camp Nou, there's a gallery devoted to an artist who used to paint the team's posters. Throughout the Franco decades he flourished as a sort of inferior Dali, dribbling Madonnas and Martians, phantoms and nudes alike onto watery dreamscapes. A likewise debased surrealism - Rasputin with a halo - enjoyed a brief vogue under Gorbachev, and was hailed as a vibrant alternative to Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realist art now commands higher prices than that of the dissidents and the Western-imitative official art of perestroika. The market has taken an ironic revenge on its votaries.


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