For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.
Because Abstract Expressionism was expensive to move around and exhibit, millionaires and museums were called into play. Pre-eminent among these was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As president of what he called “Mummy’s museum”, Rockefeller was one of the biggest backers of Abstract Expressionism (which he called “free enterprise painting”). His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organise and curate most of its important art shows.
The museum was also linked to the CIA by several other bridges. William Paley, the president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA, sat on the members’ board of the museum’s International Program. John Hay Whitney, who had served in the agency’s wartime predecessor, the OSS, was its chairman. And Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA’s International Organisations Division, was executive secretary of the museum in 1949.
– From the excellent Independent article published in 1995: Modern Art Was CIA ‘Weapon’
Most of you will be aware of the oligarch bidding wars for high end art at recent auctions held by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In fact, the feeding frenzy was so extreme, the top 10 lots accounted for almost $800 million alone. Some of these paintings are breathtakingly beautiful, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s, “L’Allée des Alyscamps.” Others, not so much. Such as this one by Mark Rothko, which sold for $46.5 million.
Unsurprisingly, the paintings which seem to be least inspiring were by artists who were covertly pushed by the CIA in the 1950’s as part of its cold war strategy. Mark Rothko, for example, was born in the Russian Empire in 1903 (modern day Latvia) and ended up in America in 1913. Being a Russian artist in America made him the perfect CIA tool, and apparently his art served that purpose unbeknownst to him. The CIA program was originally set up in 1947, under the not so covert division called the Propaganda Assets Inventory. You really can’t make this up.