Sunday, April 3, 2022

Art, a Clandestine CIA Operation

As I mentioned last week, I am listening to a book called, “Aftermath” by Harald J√§hner about Germany after World War II. When Germany was split among the Allies into 3 zones, British, American and Russian. Berlin became the demarcation zone where the Russian, East Germany and Allies, West Germany met. The country only became one again in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down.

The Day the Berlin Wall Came Down

Hitler considered himself an artist and took his inspiration from the classics. He hated anything that one could refer to as modern and called it a degenerate product of Jews and Bolsheviks and a threat to the German national identity. In 1937, the Nazis confiscated 16,000 paintings from the German museums and put 650 of them one view in his “Degenerate Art” Exhibition. What Sotheby’s and Christies would give today to have that sale!


Needless to say, there was quite a difference between democratic ideals of the West and the autocratic systems of the Russian-dominated communist states of Eastern Europe. Without the state dictating taste Germans, in the western sector, were allowed to make their own choices of what they liked and did not like. This sudden freedom of choice became a voracious appetite for the new, and abstract art became a method of denazification.

In 1946 the State Department put on an exhibition titled “Advancing American Art” composed of 117 works of art it had purchased representing modernist trends. It was to show those abroad that the U.S. had a culture worthy of attention, and to counter our image as war mongers after atomic bombs were used in Japan. The President Harry Truman’s reaction to the show, however, was no help when he famously declared, “if this is art, I’m a Hottentot”. The press, led by Hearst newspapers lambasted the show with headlines such as “Your Money Bought these Paintings”. In the end the State Department had to sell the art. The exhibition, however, had already toured in Eastern Europe and Cuba and the genie could not be put back in the bottle.

West Germany and much of Europe related to the work of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock as their work was seen as an explosion of assertive individualism in reaction to the restraints of social realism. Congress, of course, was way too conservative to be willing to support such an outlandish concept. They called the abstract artists “Heretical Daubers”, so the CIA decided that to encourage openness, they had to work in secret! Members of a group within the CIA became art dealers arranging exhibitions abroad. Sometimes they turned to the Museum of Modern Art, in order to bring exciting works by Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman to a new audience.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1A,
1948, Museum of Modern Art, New York

In his book “Aftermath” Jahner uses the career of Juro Kubicek (1906-1970) to illustrate the American program of influence through art. Kubicek had avoided the stigma of “degenerate art” by supporting himself as a commercial artist during the Nazi era. He emerged after 1945 as one of Berlin’s Fantasist painters and he caught the attention of an Allied official who was the President of the University of Louisville. In 1949 he was invited to teach and study at the University. When he returned to Berlin he opened a Work and Art Studio in Amerikahaus, a U.S. funded institution where Germans and Austrians could learn more about American culture and politics. At Amerikahaus he taught not only painting but applied arts that could be incorporated into the home. He used his American connections to organize numerous exhibitions and went on to become a professor at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts.

Amerikahaus, Berlin 1946

Music, movies, literature. Any form of the arts you can think of were used to break down the ingrown narrowmindedness that had been enforced by the Nazi regime. There was an appetite for fresh ideas particularly in the younger generation who had known nothing else. The arts were to prove to be one of the most effective weapons in penetrating the Soviet Iron Curtain and ending the Cold War.

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