Art as Cold War Pawn

As sometimes happens to me, three well-written, but seemingly unconnected articles happened upon my inbox, in close succession, this week:

As is my usual way, I could see a thread linking these skeins of thought.  Here it is (sorry, it’s long):

The first article’s premise was this.  During the cold war, the Russians were keen to undermine Capitalism by charging that it inevitably produced a cultural desert.  To counter the claim, the CIA, in concert with some millionaires (the usual suspects, in fact), actively promoted avant-garde art, including Abstract Expressionism and modern jazz, to the entire world, as a statement of how vibrant and alive cultural life was in the USA, under capitalism, and casting an unfavourable light on the Soviet Realist art that the USSR had proposed as evidence of the health of their artistic society under communism, by comparison.  The US-based artists, many of whom had communist leanings anyway, were sponsored and supported, at arm’s length, under an operation known as “Long Leash”, to demonstrate the greatness of capitalism.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The CIA used taxpayer money to treat unwitting, unaware modern artists as their bitches.

Modern art was a CIA propaganda weapon.  That’s the gist of the headline.  Depressing, isn’t it?  Artists were pressed into service as unaware dupes.  The general public was essentially told what to like, through these campaigns of promotion of modern art.  Depressing.  Just depressing

Artists don’t, in general, strive to become unwitting propaganda tools or pawns in a geopolitical game of money and power.  That’s not what they wake up in the morning wanting to do, in the main.  Why was such a covert CIA campaign even necessary?

Paradoxically, in wanting to show that the status quo of capitalism was the right and true way, they had to press the avant-garde into the service of showing that capitalism did not produce a cultural wasteland, because it actually had.  The general public of the United States, brought up on a steady diet of faith in the authorities and passive obedience, saw abstract expressionism and modern jazz as threats to the American way of life.  They hated it.  They vilified it.  It represented change.

Having to use modern art, via covert CIA programmes, to prove the existence of the cultural richness and diversity produced under capitalism only underlined how true the Soviet proposition really was.  Capitalism had, indeed, produced a cultural wasteland.  Had it not, there would have been no necessity to run covert operations to dispute that it had.  It would have been self-evident.   The very existence of the programme was due to a failure to teach and encourage the general population to be comfortable with diverse, new ideas and to embrace change and new ways of seeing things.  Capitalism had singularly forgotten to get that job done.  So had Communism.

At the same time, the Soviets, keen as they were to demonstrate a rich and vibrant cultural life under communism, were outlawing the genuine Russian avant-garde artists, sending them to freezing gulags in Siberia to serve hard labour and showing, instead, the prescriptively regulated work of the Soviet Realists as evidence of the superiority of their way of organising an economy.  Russians shunned their avant-garde artists to prove their point, while Americas embraced their avant-garde artists to prove their point, both claiming cultural supremacy.  Go figure.

Neither paid due respect for the genuine avant-garde.  Both sides held the art and the artists in contempt.  Neither side genuinely embraced the value of becoming comfortable with change, or with seeing things differently, of having independent thoughts and of freely expressing views and art.

Tyrannies thrive on inflexible thinking.  The avant-garde art was a window dressing for the US and a liability for the Soviets.  In both nations, people were hostile to modern art.  The root cause, on both sides, far from being about how the money was distributed and controlled, was that both sides had vast populations of people wedded to keeping things the same as they always were.  The root cause problem was widespread conservatism.  That was what was causing the cultural deficit that one side could not solve by commanding artists to paint heroic themes, rendered realistically and the other could not solve by taking a minority of artists and bringing their work to the fore.

The CIA, ironically, tacitly acknowledged, through their master plan, that to have a culture you have to have diversity of thought and new ideas.  They rubbed the USSR’s noses in it, in fact.  Somebody, somewhere, recognised the link between modern art and a vibrant culture.  Yet, their method of demonstrating it was pure, old-fashioned, top-down, command and control.  People obeyed orders.  Secrets were kept.

Ironically, Russia was busy suppressing some of the best avant-garde artists that there ever were, in the name of cultural superiority, utterly failing to understand the link between modern art and a vibrant culture.  Their command and control stage management took on a different and more terrifying complexion, but it was the same old adherence to outmoded ideas of following orders, obedience and keeping secrets.

At the bottom of all of this posturing was the inescapable fact that both cultures were, in fact, impoverished of ideas.  Both the USA and USSR were packed with inflexible people.  The debate was framed in terms of communist versus capitalist, as if one system of money and power distribution would cause better cultural outcomes than the other.  It was a red herring.  The real debate was whether or not a society of free thinkers or rigid thinkers produces the richest cultural life.  There were both kinds of thinkers in both countries.  The free thinkers were actually suppressed in both.  In the USSR, it was explicit and terrible.  In the USA, free thinkers were subject to McCarthyism and attacks on their desire to think differently as mental aberrations.

In the corridors of power, one side thought the general public couldn’t be free thinkers without a covert publicity campaign to get us to accept the outputs of the few free thinkers that there were, whereas the other side thought the general public shouldn’t be free thinkers, as it would undermine their plans for the country.  One country saw their people as incapable of independent thought; the other saw their independent thinking people as a threat and discouraged the spread of such a thing throughout the population.  One side thought we couldn’t be free thinkers, the other that we shouldn’t.  Nobody educated for free thinking.  Nobody does today.

The essential problem that was causing the cultural wastelands to exist on both sides was the lack of grass roots free thinking and that freedom of thought could have been taught and achieved, with the right policies and perspective.  That opportunity wasn’t taken, unfortunately.

However, the CIA accidentally caused some of its propaganda objectives to spill over from their covert “long leash” campaign, so that people of my generation do have a capability to think independently, if they choose to exercise it and learn how to do it.  Abstract expressionism, modern jazz, the swinging sixties, pop culture, psychedelia and free love may have been little more than CIA sponsored propaganda campaigns in pursuit of cold war objectives, but some of us accidentally learned to be marginally freer thinkers as a result.  We stopped following orders.  Oops.  That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Having realised that the genie was out of the bottle, politics and the elite are, latterly, trying to shut down avant-garde freedom of thought and expression.  There is a focus on uniformity and banality, in art and culture.  You can sense it and feel it.  Art has been commoditised, packaged and served up as “product”, just like supermarket shelf items.  We’re being taught to conform again. It’s why genuinely avant-garde artists starve.  Hostility to them and their work is back on the rise.

As much as the CIA was happy to claim the credit for and begin funding the dissemination of the avant-garde’s work, they hadn’t funded it or supported it in the first instance.  For it to come into being at all, it took a bunch of starving artists fighting against the prevailing tide.  The same as happened in the USSR.

The second article I read was this one:  The Curse of the Herd

This article was an examination into the origins and nature of social conformity, asking why social and peer pressure and authoritarianism work.  Why do people change their minds, suspend their own aesthetic judgements and embrace what they are told to embrace, even when deep down they know better?

The questions posed are germane to how the CIA’s long leash campaign could have worked in propelling the works of some obscure abstract expressionist artists into the mainstream at all.  Also, how could a majority of Soviet citizens prefer the sterility and lack of authenticity of Soviet realism to the works of their avant-garde artists?  Why, for that matter, were there refuseniks in the Paris Salon at the end of the nineteenth century and why was Hitler able to exploit ideas and accusations of degenerate art and artists to his personal and political advantage?  How is it that we can be told what to like and for that exhortation to actually work in practice?  Why do we buy what’s on the pop charts or like what happens to be on television or hung in galleries?

Experiments have shown that people revise their aesthetic judgements, if told they are not in accordance with the majority.  They will look at some pictures of some pretty faces, for example, choose the ones they think are prettiest and if told, “No, other people thought differently”, they have been shown to go back through the pictures and choose different faces as the prettiest.  Why?  Was their initial judgement faulty?

Similar experiments have been conducted with musical preferences and with complex 3D shapes.  People are willing to go against their own preferences, if there is social pressure to express a preference for something different.  Other experiments confirm that adults conform to in-group consensus attitudes to race, aesthetic judgements about geometric shapes and even to answers to logic problems.  This is a disturbing human trait that is clearly one that has been exploited through the ages.  Operation “Long Leash” relied on it.

Do we keep on indoctrinating our kids and impose unreflective, conformist patterns of thinking on children because it allows us to keep control of them?  Do the authorities do precisely the same for exactly the same reasons?  Is this the nature of the conservative project?  Control?  Kids don’t give informed consent for this kind of indoctrination.  Are we violating their rights?

Is freedom of thought, flexible thinking and the freedom to question things without impedance actually a human right?  Our need to question and tinker, our fundamental curiosity, may be as primitive and essential as our need for food, water and love.  Why, then, have successive generations denied us the right to learn the tools and techniques of critical thinking?  Exploration is intrinsically compelling.  The act of seeking, the desire to try to discover and understand, seems to be a hard wired, basic motivation.  For those strongly motivated to understand, it can be the only route available to pleasure.  Scientists and children both know the joy of discovery.  It’s not attainable any other way.  Artists know the feeling too.

It is highly likely that you owe something in your life to the innovative thinking of other people.  It might be your very life, your education, your standard of living, the state of your health, your ability to make your art and get it in front of an audience.  Whatever it is, innovation matters.  We need to recognise that there are so many exploitative pressures to conform.  We have the curse of the herd upon us all.  But growing up in a society that permits no strays is brutal, as is growing up in one that discourages the achievement of that peculiar kind of pleasure available from self-directed discovery.

This is why I find the whole CIA Long Leash project so abhorrent.  At the core of this project is the idea that strays must be herded and that the rest of us must conform to the pressure that the CIA exerts.  We fell for it.  We did what they said.  Abstract expressionism became more popular than it might have done, arguably sooner, than it would have.  In turn, that was only because a previous generation of the citizens of capitalist societies had been pressured to conform to earlier ideas of artistic rectitude.  We were manipulated into initially rejecting abstract expressionism and then manipulated into embracing it.  A starker piece of evidence to prove that our minds are controlled and have been for a very long time would be hard to find.

The third article was an opinion piece, suggesting that embracing change is the key to happiness.  Why Embracing Change is the Key to Happiness

The article suggests that every analysis of what makes people happy and lucky is their ability to adapt fast and well to new situations and people.  They are acclimatised to change, offering and requesting help as needed and free to embrace the positive in every life change.  They know that security involves a degree of exposure to risk and uncertainty.

Most human authorities, governments and spy agencies included, play on people’s fear of change and offer stasis, but it’s a false promise.  They defend capitalism against communism and vice versa.  They defend the reliable, eternal fabric of society against the avant-garde and at the same time defend against charges of cultural sterility using the avant-garde as evidence.  In reality, nothing is eternal.  They promise to construct happy little bubbles to encapsulate us, insulated against a universe in motion, which might console us with their safety, but they also imprison us.  Burst the bubble and you’re doomed, or so the propaganda goes.  We accept a dire status quo because we are lead to believe that the alternative is so much worse.

We see this all the time.  We have an insane need to defend the wisdom of the free market and against the evil of outsiders, like illegal refugees in boats.  We believe in the true path to heaven and the rewards for obedience.  We never change horses in mid stream.  Why?  Because we think that stasis is safer.  It isn’t.

Yet, in the name of conservatism and keeping things the same as they ever were, we are encouraged to tolerate all manner of prohibitions, petty laws and intrusions, oppressions and compulsions.  Those all happen to transgressors, in our minds.  If the homeless man living in cardboard box is somebody else, irretrievably destined to live that way due to some terrible character defect, and not open to any remedy, we lose the humility to understand that the homeless person could be any one of us, for any of a million reasons, in an instant.

If we fear change so much that we fail to make the world safer for all, not just for ourselves, we risk clinging to familiar, failed templates and solutions.  Change denial guarantees that inflexible, rigid minds will always encounter equally scared, inflexible and rigid minds and disaster will ensue, but we’ll believe that situation to be eternal and having been forever.  “That’s just human nature”, we’ll say.  Governments, personnel in uniform, combat troops, police forces will all avoid subtleties and imaginative solutions and instead bludgeon their way forward with violence, in the name of maintaining they’re not even sure what.  More area bombing.  More civilian casualties (collateral damage).  More tasering.  More destruction.  More destroyed lives.

To quote directly from the article: “During periods of uncertainty what I’ll call the mystical industries always prosper.  We begin to rely on apparently unchanging good luck charms, access to online tarot readings, hot stock tips.  We can end up penning ourselves in expensive cages, while the unavoidable alterations of life – the hurts, the miracles, the gifts, the deaths – will still arise and we’ll respond to them wildly or not at all.  If we withdraw from reality’s true nature – that it changes constantly and so do we – we become lost to ourselves, punished by our troubles and by their ineffective cure.”

As a human species we intuitively dislike change, but we can overcome the fear.  Approaching change, which is a reality, with flexibility of thinking, can offer the best strategy for happiness for all.

Both the CIA and KGB could have recognised that happiness stems from embracing change and taught people, at a grass roots level, to think critically, rationally, logically and freely.  They could have encouraged their populations to make their own art and culture, avant-garde or whatever.  Culture comes from this freedom of thought and expression, not from paintings hung in banks and millionaire’s vaults.  Instead of manipulating their populations for propaganda purposes, from the top down, they could have encouraged everybody to choose their own aesthetic choices, to embrace change and to find happiness through open discovery.  But they didn’t.  They treated us and kept us like sheep.

In actuality, both the USSR and USA had and still have a cultural paucity.  They don’t have vibrant cultures that celebrate diversity of thought and expression.  There is a conformism that pervades everything.  We’re told to stay between the lines.  Strays are not tolerated.  Artists, the vanguard of free expression and thought, still struggle to survive.  This is irrespective of how the money is divided and controlled.

The cold war between capitalism and communism was thought to have been decided and won.  In actual fact, both systems were forms of capitalism.  One was private control of wealth whereas the other was control of wealth by the ruling elite, now the oligarchs.  No alternative to these two forms of capitalism has ever been offered, because it would represent a loss of control by those that currently benefit most.

The CIA’s Long Leash operation proved that private capitalism was not adverse to pressing state resources into action, covertly.  It, too, was happy to operate as state capitalism.  In so doing, the difference between Russian state capitalism (a.k.a. communism, where the state controls the resources) and American capitalism (where private individuals control the state’s resources) melts away into insignificance.  There’s no difference.  In both scenarios, the state’s resources are being used against the people, to discourage independent thought, even though in both cases it was the people who provided the state’s resources in the first place.

The problem is that people have always been taught to obey and to think rigidly.  That’s why there was no meaningful culture and why both sides had to concoct the popularity of state-sanctioned art movements to prove that culture existed, under their differently oppressive regimes.  It was wallpaper and window dressing, though.  They couldn’t disguise the fact that too many people were too scared to create innovative, novel cultural artefacts, or to embrace them.  The critical mass of critical thinkers was just too low.  People were taught to fear change and encouraged in that fear.  It was a technique that kept them under control.  Artists, if true to their own aesthetic judgements and values, are not controllable.  It’s why both the US and the USSR sought to control them.

In accepting this control and authoritarianism and conforming rigidly to regimes that require unquestioning obedience, we lost a lot.  We lost the vibrancy and life of our culture.  We lost the ability to live meaningful lives as artists.  We lost the joy of discovery.  We denied a basic human impulse to explore and investigate.  We stifled our curiosity.  That’s a heavy price to pay for the illusion of security – for the mere appearance of stasis in a constantly moving universe.

There could yet be a renaissance of free thinking and of providing the young with the tools to think for themselves, in flexible, creative, critical, rational, logical, original, innovative ways.  If we instituted that education, we would be bestowing happiness on future generations and the ability to find better solutions than the tired, failed, predictable, ineffectual ones we have clung to so doggedly.

But we haven’t had the courage to do so.  Somebody, somewhere still wants to keep us under control.  We haven’t broken free of the seemingly protective bubbles yet.  We still turn fellow humans away at the border, cut aid to them, accuse them of terrorism and fear their rigid ideas as much as they fear ours.  We cut public services and withdraw support to the most vulnerable and needy.  We savagely beat protestors for having different thoughts to the orthodoxy, we violate the privacy of every citizen online, we strip search grandparents and children at airports and we gleefully stop, search and taser anybody that fails to comply.

And our most avant-garde artists still starve.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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