Julia Tatiana Bailey: Art as Espionage in Cold War America

headshot 150x150 Julia Tatiana Bailey: Art as Espionage in Cold War AmericaJulia Tatiana Bailey is an art historian researching art as propaganda and diplomacy in Cold War America. She is currently completing her PhD as a Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. She blogs twice-weekly on Cold War art at ESPIONART and is on Twitter at @espionart and @tattyjewels.

When in 1979 Sir Anthony Blunt, Professor of History of Art at the Courtauld Institute in London and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was publicly exposed as a member of the ‘Cambridge Five’ Soviet spy ring, the worlds of art and espionage sensationally collided. Although the artist as a spy is a largely fictional phenomenon – save for a fantastical revelation in 2002 that Israeli spies had posed as art students in an attempt to gain access to US federal departments – the Cold War brought art and espionage closer than ever before.

ab2 Julia Tatiana Bailey: Art as Espionage in Cold War America

Anthony Blunt with Queen Elizabeth IIas Art surveyor

From scenes of military victories on the tomb walls of Ancient Egypt, to the ghostly self-portraits of Felix Nussbaum produced during his years in hiding from the Nazis, the narrative of the artist at war, as witness or propagandist, has a long and distinguished history. With the advent of the Cold War, the relationship between art and war shifted. This new kind of confrontation, where armed conflict was replaced by psychological warfare, pushed culture to the front line. On both sides, art was increasingly cultivated as a weapon to be waged against the enemy, with artists recast as messengers of ideological dogma.

In 1951 the CIA declared in a classified report that ‘culture, like religion, generally permeates the souls of those imbued with it to such an extent that it is one of the last elements of independence purged out of the individual man under a totalitarian regime’ – and then proceeded to suggest how American art could be used to disseminate the nation’s ideals around the world. During the ‘50s, the visual arts reflected the polarised position of the two superpowers in diametrically-opposed styles of art: in the Soviet corner, Socialist Realism, a centralised doctrine that unequivocally reformulated all art as propaganda intended to inspire the populace to build a communist utopia; and in the American corner, Abstract Expressionism, seemingly untouchable by outside influence, so indecipherable as to be ineffective as propaganda and therefore credible as the ‘free’ art of a nation that held the rights of the individual above all else. With his smouldering stare and anti-establishment demeanour reminiscent of James Dean, Jackson Pollock was the poster boy for this new American art. Yet success forced Pollock and his fellow abstractionists into the covert employ of intelligence agencies with hidden agendas.

Jackson Pollock Julia Tatiana Bailey: Art as Espionage in Cold War America

Jackson Pollock works in his Long Island studio, 1949. Photograph by Martha Holmes for Life © Martha Holmes – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

As McCarthyism raged in the United States, fears were raised of a communist conspiracy in the art world. Michigan congressman, George Dondero, led attacks against ‘subversive’ modern art and accused artists of being ‘soldiers of the revolution in smocks’. This condemnation prevented the United States from establishing an effective programme of international artistic display for most of the 1950s. Instead, organisations such as the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom acted on America’s behalf. As part of their efforts to prevent the spread of communist ideology amongst the Western intellectual community, the Congress planned events such as the Masterpieces of the 20th Century exhibition in 1952 at the Musée National D’Art Moderne, intended ‘to illustrate the vigour with which art is flourishing in a free world’. When in 1967 the CIA was revealed as a covert funder of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the line between art and espionage was one again blurred. Even when a treaty was finally signed in 1958 to enable official Soviet-American cultural exchange, sections of the media expressed their concern that this would open the door for the KGB ‘to send their espionage agents into this country posing as artists’. These fears had some validity, as staff on both sides of the exchange used their time in the rival country to gather intelligence on cultural and technological developments. Meanwhile, these visits also enabled a number of artists to defect across the Iron Curtain.

William Gropper Julia Tatiana Bailey: Art as Espionage in Cold War America

William Gropper, Senate Hearing, 1950. Oil on canvas. De Young Museum, San Francisco

During World War II a group of eminent American painters were called upon to travel to the theatres of war to provide an interpretation of the ‘essence of war’ in order to encourage ‘the spiritual and psychological participation of the whole people’. The Art Advisory Committee of the US War Department declared: ‘the only psychic communication we have is through the arts’. Yet having signed government contracts and made travel preparations, three of those artists were unceremoniously removed from the project. Anton Refregier, William Gropper and Philip Evergood were found to be of unsatisfactory character according to the Hatch Act, due to their previous communist affiliations.

After their dismissal from the project in 1943, Refregier, Gropper and Evergood gravitated towards the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship in New York. Founded that year on the wave of the Soviet-American wartime alliance, the Council suffered a rapid drop in fortunes in the post-war era and was indicted for ‘subversive activities’ in 1947. Yet the group remained active and increasingly popular among social realist painters rejected by the powerful New York art museums in the 1950s. In 1957 Rockwell Kent, a prominent painter and illustrator and the Council’s new chairman, became the first post-war American artist to hold a solo exhibition in the Soviet Union. His example led to a growing desire for disenfranchised realist artists to exhibit their work in the country. Artists associated with the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship became fanatical opponents of abstraction and mouthpieces for the post-Stalinist Soviet policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’. Encouraged by material and financial support from the cultural authorities in Moscow, these artists willingly took on the role of agents for the USSR to breed animosity within the United States.

James Rosenquist Julia Tatiana Bailey: Art as Espionage in Cold War America

James Rosenquist, F-111 (detail), 1964-5. Oil on canvas with aluminum, 23 sections © James Rosenquist. Museum of Modern Art, New York

The overlap of art and espionage in the 1950s abated in the next decade. As skepticism built on either side of the Iron Curtain, state control of the arts faltered. In the United States, growing discontent with the Vietnam War and the rise of New Left activism inspired artists to express themselves in new ways which challenged political appropriation. Pop Art emerged as the leading artistic movement for the post-Kennedy generation. Andy Warhol produced multi-coloured prints of Chairman Mao and atomic bombs, while James Rosenquist depicted the F-111 fighter-bomber ‘flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising’. In the Soviet Union, Khrushchev’s Thaw emboldened artists to push the boundaries of Socialist Realism, and Pop Art was mirrored in the anti-totalitarian satire of Sots Art. Despite the efforts of the authorities to crush the spirits – and the paintings – of this new generation of artists, the Nonconformist Art movement that developed in the 1960s would outlast the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, in Germany, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke defected from East to West and established Capitalist Realism to mock the effect of Cold War politics on the visual arts. American art was finally infiltrating the Soviet Bloc – but not in the way the government had envisaged.

Library of Congress Rolls Out New Blogs of War 2003 Iraq War Archive

2013 08 12 09.01.05 am 283x300 Library of Congress Rolls Out New Blogs of War 2003 Iraq War Archive

Blogs of War Updates from the 2003 War in Iraq

In 2003 the Library of Congress archived my around the clock updates on the 2003 Iraq War. They just recently rolled out a much enhanced view of that archive on their site.

This was a really interesting time. Traditional media was waking up to the internet but I was still more nimble and seemingly more adept at mining the web for content than most reporters at the time. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how my updates quickly morphed into short bursts of Twitter-like statuses as I struggled to keep up with developments. Twitter was still three or so years off in the distance so I leveraged the blog format as best as possible. I remember thinking at the time that my blogging platform needed an optional short form post type to better accommodate this. I probably should have stopped what I was doing to work on that idea but my focus was on world events.

It all ultimately worked out very well and the updates rolled out around the clock. It didn’t take long for CNN and other media outlets to take note and even credit Blogs of War, and others, with sometimes beating them to the story. The CNN story had a huge impact and the next month or so was a blur of war monitoring and constant contact from readers, global media outlets, and even soldiers in the field.

December 7th 1941 – A Day of Infamy

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Infamy Speech

December 8, 1941

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounded determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”