Considering the possibility of a truly proletarian art, the great English literary critic William Empson once wrote, “the reason an English audience can enjoy Russian propagandist films is that the propaganda is too remote to be annoying.” Perhaps this is why American artists and bohemians have so often taken to the political iconography of far-flung regimes, in ways both romantic and ironic. One nation’s tedious socialist realism is another’s radical exotica.
But do U.S. cultural exports have the same effect? One need only look at the success of our most banal branding overseas to answer in the affirmative. Yet no one would think to add Abstract Expressionist painting to a list that includes fast food and Walt Disney products. Nevertheless, the work of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning wound up as part of a secret CIA program during the height of the Cold War, aimed at promoting American ideals abroad.
The artists themselves were completely unaware that their work was being used as propaganda. On what agents called a “long leash,” they participated in several exhibitions secretly organized by the CIA, such as “The New American Painting” (see catalog cover at top), which visited major European cities in 1958-59 and included such modern primitive works as surrealist William Baziotes’ 1947 Dwarf (below).
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