- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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The most influential art critic ever to sit in the House of Representatives was a lawyer from Royal Oak, Michigan, named George Dondero. A member from 1933 to 1957, Dondero was an anti–New Deal Republican who worked on education and canal construction but found his true calling in the postwar years, rising to defend the homeland against “modern art,” a corruption he believed had been invented by communists in Europe and dispatched here for the purpose of bringing the republic to its knees.
Over the course of a decade or so, Dondero expressed his aesthetic sensibilities in letters (“modern art is nauseating”), interviews (“germ-carrying art vermin”), and in the pages of the Congressional Record, which in August 1949 published what has proved to be his most enduring contribution to the arts, a speech entitled “Modern Art Shackled to Communism.”
I call the roll of infamy without claim that my list is all-inclusive: dadism, futurism, constructionism, suprematism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism, and abstractionism. All these isms are of foreign origin, and truly should have no place in American art. . . . Art which does not glorify our beautiful country in plain, simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction . . . it is therefore opposed to our government.
It’s easy to chuckle now, but in his McCarthyite time Dondero had supporters in Congress, Time magazine’s publisher’s office, the FBI, commercial art organizations, and among the sort of individuals who wrote to say that they were scanning abstract paintings for secret messages about “weak spots in U.S. fortifications.” Thus supported, Dondero and his fellow travelers were able to develop blacklists, compel philistine statements from government and cultural figures, and embarrass the State Department by forcing the cancellation of a European tour of American moderns that the department had purchased. (In the subsequent, hush-hush Foggy Bottom fire sale, a Georgia O’Keeffe went for 50 bucks.)
As State’s aborted exhibition indicates, Dondero’s position was not the only government take on modern art. Within the CIA and the U.S. Information Agency—which ran Radio Free Europe, the Fulbright program, and other cultural salients—a few individuals, while perhaps no more sympathetic to O’Keeffe’s sensual blossoms or Pollock’s mad drips, realized that they could be usefully placed to contrast with the plodding, pious burnishings of socialist realism; and that, like jazz, Fords, and Bazooka Bubble Gum, these vigorous paintings could send yet another signal to Europeans that there was only one good bet to make in the Cold War.
And so during the 1950s, the CIA, working through a European front called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, quietly supported a handful of exhibits of American modern painting in places such as Vienna and Paris “to show that art and music flourish in the West,” said a CIA historian recently. Abstract expressionists were, of course, well represented.
It sounds innocent enough—certainly a whole lot more wholesome than trying to impress Europe by exploding an atom bomb on the moon (another CIA notion from the 1950s). But as George Dondero knew, innocence, like beauty, is in the eye of the art critic, and over the last 30 or so years, an academic cottage market has developed around charges that the CIA conspired with the Museum of Modern Art, its board (chaired by Nelson Rockefeller) and staff, to claim the art world for American abstract expressionism and particularly for its most eminent expositor, Jackson Pollock. The museum’s interest, it is asserted, was to pump up the value of a considerable (even imprudent) investment in Pollock et al.; while the spooks at the CIA, it is alleged, found abstract expressionism an embodiment of American democratic values (surprising, energetic, free) and were particularly interested in promoting Pollock because he was broad-shouldered, quick-fisted, hard-drinking, and a native of Wyoming (rather than Greenwich Village)—and he was said to be a good painter.
Those claims have been solidly refuted of late. MoMA, research shows, had not invested heavily in abstract expressionism, and the spooks, it is clear now, could not have cared whether the artworks MoMA or other museums sent abroad were abstract expressionist or pastrami-on-rye as long as European viewers esteemed them more than the portraits of tractors and heroes-of-Stalingrad pouring out of Moscow.
As though Pollock could have cared about any of it. Art has its political reasons, and had them in the Sistine Chapel and had them way back when Ashurnasirpal II had his throne room decorated with reliefs that showed him pulling lions into his chariot at the end of a spear as though they were pond catfish. But the first concern for the artist is: Am I getting this mane right? Safe to say, then, that whatever Jackson Pollock was thinking about when he leaned over his canvases, it wasn’t George Dondero or Nelson Rockefeller or Stalin. Why don’t you paint from nature? someone once asked him. “I am nature,” Pollock spat back.
Our story on the continuing struggle over Pollock’s legacy begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum