Musician and filmmaker Boots Riley recently tweeted: “Art for arts sake is never for arts-sake. It’s for the sake of the status quo. This is why the CIA funded Jackson Pollack” [sic]. As one might expect, this set off a swarm of tantrums from the commentariat, who insisted that art doesn’t have to be about anything other than expressing yourself. Unwittingly, these commentators were repeating CIA talking points that have been circulating around universities for so long that they’re considered self-evident. Riley’s declaration is not an attack on the validity of anyone’s personal art. Instead, his tweet presents the opportunity to consider the extent to which the generally accepted criteria for art were deliberately created in the mid-20th century as an indirect means of defanging political dissent.
Soon after the CIA was created in 1947, they set up the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which was designed to distribute propaganda throughout over 800 print publications. In 1950, they established the International Organizations Division, which subsidized the animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, simplifying the story into a straightforward anti-communist parable (and, decades later, fueling innumerable smug online retorts from anti-leftists). But perhaps the most notable of their pet projects was 1950’s Center for Cultural Freedom. The Center was intended to promote capitalist values by propping up “apolitical” artistic movements like abstract expressionism.
Former CIA case officer Donald Jameson has brought to light how the CIA promoted abstract expressionism to counter Soviet propaganda.¹ The Soviets were fond of depicting how the United States’ consumerism had turned it into a cultural wasteland. “It was recognized that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions,” says Jameson.² That’s not to say that the promoted artists, including Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, were at all aware of the connection. “Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes,” Jameson explained. “It couldn’t have been any closer, because most of them were people who had very little respect for the government, in particular, and certainly none for the CIA. If you had to use people who considered themselves one way or another to be closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps.” The Center for Cultural Freedom used CIA funds to promote touring exhibitions and give space in their publications to any critics with favorable things to say about the movement.
Tom Braden, the creator of the International Organizations Division, was also the executive secretary of the Museum of Modern Art at the time. In an interview later in his life, Braden said, “We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement… I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War.” Braden kept these operations secret until years after the fact. “It was very difficult to get Congress to go along with some of the things we wanted to do — send art abroad, send symphonies abroad, publish magazines abroad. That’s one of the reasons it had to be done covertly. It had to be a secret. In order to encourage openness we had to be secret.” Despite his professed belief in freedom, he believed the masses needed to be led by enlightened tastemakers. “It’s a problem that civilization has faced ever since the first artist and the first millionaire or pope who supported him. And yet if it hadn’t been for the multi-millionaires or the popes, we wouldn’t have had the art.” Even if the individual artists thought they were making art for art’s sake, Braden and the CIA saw how to use it for their own ends.
And this influence wasn’t limited just to visual arts — it also spread to creative writing departments. The effects of this campaign are still felt today. After World War II, creative writing programs taught that good literature required, “Sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies.”³ These departments sought to discourage abstract thoughts about systemic social issues and instead focus on the problems of the individual. This movement was spearheaded by Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He solicited funds from the Farfield Foundation, which was a front for the Center for Cultural Freedom. In exchange for these donations, he advanced the individualist Western values the CIA wanted to see. Not only were these values promoted, they were also systematized into a rigid structure for making art. Eric Bennet, who was taught by Engle’s successor, Frank Conroy, said that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop “wanted literary craft to be a pyramid.”⁴ At the foundation were grammar and syntax, or “Meaning, Sense, Clarity… Then came character, then metaphor… everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as ‘the fancy stuff.’ At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract.” By treating any kind of abstract or political content like the junk food at the top of the food pyramid, only to be indulged in sparingly, he effectively stifled a generation of writers’ willingness to talk about anything beyond the immediate problems of the individual.
While earlier novels were comfortable in the world of ideas, with novelists like Tolstoy, Melville, and Hugo indulging in long diversions to discuss political or philosophical concepts, this was discouraged in 20th century classrooms. In a modern writing class, such concerns were shrugged off as diversions from the personal stories of the characters. My professors would often joke about classic novels’ forays into 19th century politics as something to be slogged through in order to get back to the real story, as if that political context existed outside of the work itself.
But more influential and persistent than any other element of this campaign is one aphorism in particular: “The continued status of ‘show, don’t tell,’ a self-evident truth, dutifully dispensed to anyone who ventures into a creative writing class, is one proof of their success.” While this adage is often attributed to Anton Chekhov or Ernest Hemingway, it was seized on with the intention of making it difficult to talk about any social issues — outside of how they created direct obstacles for the main character. “The goal, according to Bennett, was to discourage the abstract theorizing and systematic social critiques to which the radical literature of the 1930s had been prone, in favor of a focus on the personal, the concrete and the individual.”⁵
This also comes burdened with implications, as the details that would evoke something in the mind of a literature professor rely on living a specific experience (white, male, upper class), the signifiers of which would not need to be explained and could be taken for granted. Cecilia Tan writes, “The only way to meet the literary ‘standard’ of a ‘universal’ story while writing about any marginalized individual — whether by culture or subculture, whether of color, queer, or even just a woman — is to make the story accessible to the educated white upper middle-class point of view.”⁶ Literature from outside of that worldview would either have to adhere to this cardinal rule to be comprehensible to the literary community or be dismissed as unintelligible. This catch-22 would help maintain a race, class, and gender hierarchy in literature for decades.
Phrases like “show, don’t tell” are still commonplace in creative writing classrooms and anywhere else where storytelling is discussed (lately, mostly online). They have outlived the intelligence community’s efforts to indoctrinate a generation, and now, the subsequent generation is parroting the party line without any awareness of the ideology behind it. It’s repeated as thoughtlessly as “Communism is great in theory, but not in practice,” but is made even more insidious by virtue of its seemingly non-ideological nature.
I personally don’t see any use in trying to unravel whether such a deliberate political campaign is still operating, both because these things only come to light years after the fact and because the CIA’s talking points are circulating everywhere from universities to YouTube, whether there’s conscious effort behind this or not. These criteria for good storytelling, most notably “show don’t tell,” have wormed their way into the cultural zeitgeist to the point where a quick search will yield dozens of critics using these very criteria to judge the latest blockbuster films. Countless videos and thinkpieces have centered around attempts to explain why Star Wars: The Last Jedi failed to demonstrate the “basic principle” of “show, don’t tell.” Some of this analysis is based on the inclusion of some very tame critiques of the excesses of capital (which is all one could reasonably expect from a film made by the Disney corporation). But a good amount of these critiques focus merely on the inclusion of women and people of color into the main cast, as their very existence is outside of the experiences of those advocating “show, don’t tell.” The concept has been shrinking the worldview of those who internalize it to view anything outside their immediate sphere to be tainted by the dirty word “politics.” There’s no need for such a continuing effort by the CIA, because they’ve won. We’re now doing all the work for them.
On top of that, there’s an active industry of right-wingers and self-proclaimed “centrists” who want to keep politics out of art. Gavin McInnes and Ben Shapiro rail against modern superhero films for adding gender or racial diversity (easily one of the least intrusive forms of politics to insert into a superhero movie, which often have fairly right-wing messaging otherwise). But perhaps most vocal among them is the pompous and vacuous Jordan Peterson, who talks about his horror at, of all things, the Disney film Frozen. At the end, the prince turns out to be the villain and doesn’t get to marry the princess. To Peterson, this narrative is a violation of sacrosanct myths with foundations in (his spurious understanding of) biology. In contrast, he sees films such as Sleeping Beauty as completely devoid of politics. Sleeping Beauty, of course, portrays a man overcoming challenges to rescue a woman and being rewarded with a romantic relationship, in keeping with Peterson’s distorted view of the “natural” order of things. Far from apolitical — but between Peterson’s certitude in his right-mindedness and the centrists’ insistence that they’re operating from the “view from nowhere,” the assumptions behind commonplace narratives are often rendered invisible.
Yet these people clearly have their own political goals. Anything that adheres to them is merely truth, and anything that challenges them is “too political.” What artists should take from this is that nothing exists in a vacuum. Even if an artist, in good faith, believes that they are making “apolitical” art, as the case of Pollock shows, this ideological renunciation only allows others to politicize your art for you — on their terms instead of your own.
If I believed any of this was being done in good faith, I would advise the purveyors of these ideas to listen to George Orwell, whose Animal Farm they have thoroughly co-opted for their own ends. Orwell wrote, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” By which he meant that, by limiting the acceptable means with which we may express ourselves, we limit our ability to think in terms of the issues placed outside these bounds. Treating political themes as a sort of excess that artists should be trained to avoid leaves political narratives to be controlled by those with no fear of forcing their worldview on others. While I love the minimalistic writing of Raymond Carver as much as the next person, it’s important to not take these rules for granted, and to talk about the context in which they were popularized. Else, we risk further becoming a culture of atomized hyper-individualism, completely incapable of addressing the structures facilitating our own isolation. ♦
Alex Louis is a writer, socialist activist, and public defender. He lives in Southern California.