Friday, January 14, 2005

Through Ken MacLeod, the blogsphere has learned that the ascendancy of meaningless, abstract art in the 1950s really was a CIA conspiracy, acting through the Museum of Modern Art by way of Nelson Rockefeller. The idea was to keep well-known art from becoming a rallying point for opponents of the establishment: quoting Macleod's source,

The Congress for Cultural Freedom (the CIA front) threw its weight behind abstract painting, over representational or realist aesthetics, in an explicit political act. ... The CIA associated apolitical artists and art with freedom. This was directed toward neutralizing the artists on the European left. The irony, of course, was that the apolitical posturing was only for left-wing consumption.
(That's from a review of a book that describes the funding arrangements in detail. But that Rockefeller took a political view of art will not come as a shock to anyone who knows of his sledge-hammering of politically inconvenient Diego Rivera murals -- on Rockefeller property, to be sure -- in the 1930s).

That's now conspiracy fact. So here's a conspiracy theory. In the 1960s, American universities were brimming over with students taking practial political action to change their society. In the '80s and '90s, there were still plenty of students who were talking about changing society, uprooting the establishment and exposing the roots of political power. But they thought that they were doing it by hanging out in coffeehouses late at night, talking to each other about "Theory" (mysteriously not a theory of anything, just "Theory") in jargon that was completely impenetrable to anyone who hadn't taken the same three years of course work they had. And assuring each other that by carrying on these conversations, they were launching a strong and vital challenge at an entrenched patriarchical and exploitative social structure that had no reason to even be aware of them.

So, who was paying their professors?

MacLeod post through more other blogs than I can shake a stick at...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Meaningless, abstract art"! The fact that the CIA funded AE -- as well as European tours for black artists such as Marian Anderson and Louis Armstrong and lit journals all over the place -- does not mean that the CIA's view of the meaning(lessness) of their work was the correct one or the one held by the audiences.

Plenty of theorists have theorized the relationship between the rise of Theory and the defeats of the Sixties -- Perry Anderson, Aijaz Ahmad etc. (Dare I say that Marx also wrote impenetrable prose, was read by people hanging out in coffeeshops and was funded by a capitalist?) And plenty of those people discussing theory in coffeeshops in the 80s/90s were also involved in the globalization movement, gay movement etc.

Maybe the CIA funds people to sneer at Theory as a way of dissuading the rest of us from thinking differently? I'm not a Theoryist, didn't study it in school, don't go to coffeshops or like AE, but I don't like the spin here.

8:24 PM  

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