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.

Theodore W. Weaver: It’s Cold Out There

tww Theodore W. Weaver: Its Cold Out ThereTheodore W. Weaver is a former Intelligence Officer within the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the Directorate of Science and Technology. He has close to a decade working as a Special Agent with several Federal agencies and has worked against counter proliferation, human trafficking/smuggling, child exploitation, Intellectual Property Rights violations and narcotics. You can follow him on Twitter or via the nascent Inglorious Amateurs website.

I was going to try and respond to the recent Associated Press / Washington Post article (authored by Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo) related to Robert Levinson and my views on news organizations breaking stories related to American citizens who are being held in captivity with as little condescension as I could possibly muster. The fact that I find myself having to contemplate this scenario at all leaves me severely disappointed. The truth is I have very little to add to that specific story. More over, the release of their article has opened the floodgates to a wash of stories from several other sources

I don’t want to come off sounding like some government crony who is completely anti-media. I believe the media has an incredible amount of power, especially in this current climate of sensitive information leaks and the inevitable post 9/11 – GWOT blowback. The fact that some journalists held their stories for over six years tells me however, they did know this was and is an extremely sensitive subject.

The essence of the debate and my heated response to the Levinson story can be distilled to one point. Robert Levinson is still out there; an American citizen and public servant for what turns out to be three decades. Exposing any info about him for personal gain is reprehensible. This isn’t a scandal; this is a crisis for him and his family. The basis of his employment and trip to Iran can be debated and pushed around the litter-box after he has been freed, but anything short of that is a self-serving, heartless mistake.

That out of the way, I’d also like to add that for once it would be nice to read a story that does not involve the words “speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized…” especially when it relates to matters of National Security (and obviously US citizens being held in captivity overseas).

Can we all agree that journalists are not national security professionals? I’m not saying they don’t have good contacts, or have a grasp of NatSec and related subject matter. What I am saying is they are not suited to decide what sensitive or classified information should be published for the entire world to read. When publishing stories I highly doubt the first thing out of an editor’s mouth is “how will this damage US intelligence assets and officers in the field?” or “would posting this get anyone killed?”

I’m not so callus as to say they don’t utter those words at all. Hell, I’ve seen HBO’s The Newsroom, I know there must be heated debates in glass walled offices about all this. After all, TV is like real life, right

So what about those “anonymous senior officials” who so gallantly dish scoops to the media? I suppose I wouldn’t be too popular if I said I’d like to see them uncloaked and held accountable would I? Personally I think anyone who gives classified or sensitive information to the media is just as likely to give it to a foreign intelligence service. And in some cases, its pretty much the same damage done.

I won’t be so dire and drab as to say, “loose lips sink ships” and put a clamp down on anyone talking without offering up an olive branch here. Could it be that the US Government has created this rampant use of “anonymous” conditional sources? If this is the case, I do believe our penchant for over-classification could be the culprit.

Its embarrassing to say, but during my time at the CIA, I’m not sure I ever really understood the how’s and why’s for our classification rules. If I am remembering correctly, we even had to fill in classification markings on inter-office emails. The system was/is bulky and pretty much everything needed to be classified. Obviously I can’t speak to specifics, but I know there were things I classified that did not need it. Somewhere there is likely a Lotus Notes server with gigabytes of classified “Meet at Woodie in 10?” and “Starbucks after the meeting?”…

So if I concede that there is a problem with over-classification in the government, can we all agree that the news media needs to seriously look in the mirror and figure out whose greater good they are trying to serve with their stories?

Back on topic, Robert Levinson is still being held in captivity. I cannot think of a viable or productive reason for the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, et al to release their stories at this time. No doubt, if any of it were true, there would have been good reason to publish it after Levinson was released. Prior to securing his release it reeks of nothing but self-serving media masturbation. I for one am sick of the rub and tug.

A Call for Sources – Help Improve Blogs of War

I’ve been at this for over a decade and manage quite an array of sources. Major media, large stable governments, prominent analysts, and think tanks are generally consistent producers but social media channels, blogs, and smaller or reclusive countries can be difficult to manage. These sources are harder to find and even harder to keep. I generally have some for even the most difficult targets but I am always looking for more and I know Blogs of War readers can point me in the right direction. So if you produce relevant open-source English language content for the topics listed below, or if you can point me in the direction of someone who does, please send me a note. Your input will help improve the quality and volume of my updates.

  • North Korea – Any material
  • Iran – Military and intelligence matters
  • France – Intelligence matters, military intervention in Africa
  • Jordan – Impact of the Syrian refugee crisis and internal threats
  • Saudi Arabia – Political and social reform
  • Russia – Military growth, Intelligence, energy sector, activity in Eastern Europe
  • China – Military technology, naval force movements, and various areas of tension in the region
  • Hezbollah – Any material
  • Libya – Political reform and weapons proliferation
  • Syria – Sources on the ground
  • Egypt – Internal conflict from all angles
  • South Sudan – Internal conflict
  • Weapons Trafficking & Proliferation – All regions
  • Conflict Related Humanitarian Crises – Sources on the ground in any region
  • Tech and Politics/Crisis – Tools or communities arising in response to world events

I know that these many of these topics are quite sensitive. This is the nature of what I cover here. So let me reiterate that I am only asking for leads on open-source material that I can share with my readers. Also, if your favorite topic or place is not listed please don’t assume that I’m not paying attention. It probably means that I have adequate sources at this time.

* Of course my needs extend well beyond the list above. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at any time if you have tip for a source or a story.