The sprawling, shadowy maze of the Central Intelligence Agency and the intellectual, vibrant side of the arts wouldn't seem to have much in common. James Bond fantasia aside, most intelligence-gathering is dull stuff, a world whose shady deals and conservative inclinations are at odds with avant-garde literature, art and music. But the CIA and the arts have a surprisingly close history, even sharing some key figures.
The connections make more sense than one might initially think. Coming out of World War II, the United States had already established its nascent spy networks. The New Deal had also, for the first time, seen the government put some serious money towards the arts. With the advent of the Cold War, these two strains — the nascent clandestine bureaucracy and the idea that the government should back the arts — merged. The rise of postwar modern art paralleled the CIA's own metastasizing, and with the cultured Yankee core of the new agency, there were some who believed the arts had an ability to serve their agenda.
The CIA ended up with its hands in all kinds of artistic pies, though not without controversy. Like a lot of its activities, the CIA's tangled history with the arts is full of clashing agendas, strange bedfellows, unintended consequences and stories that still aren't quite confirmed to this day. To its detractors, the agency's role tainted both government and artists, turning culture into a tool of often brutal policy. At this point, the CIA's even acknowledged (some) of its activities, and its partisans defend these as a more laudable part of the agency’s conduct during the Cold War. These are a few times where spooks and artists collided:
For decades, few publications embodied niche intellectual leftism quite like the Partisan Review, drawing writing from Sylvia Plath to Hannah Arendt and Saul Bellow. Given its leanings, it seems like an odd target for CIA funding.
But while lefties they might have been, the people behind Partisan Review also hated the hell out of Stalin's Soviet Union, and the publication actually had its origins in the 1930s split of the American Communist Party. In a classic case of strange bedfellows, the CIA may have bailed out the struggling Review during the 1950s and helped sustain it through the '60s. While the CIA might not have cared for the magazine's politics and didn't exercise the influence it did on some of the other enterprises on this list, it viewed its variety of social democracy as a way to steer leftist intellectuals away from sympathy for the USSR.
The Paris Review
The massively influential Paris Review had even deeper ties to the CIA, with intellectual agent Peter Matthiessen co-founding the publication as part of his cover. The backing was part of an effort to push American culture and letters as an appealing alternative to those of communist countries, especially highlighting the works of persecuted Soviet intellectuals like Boris Pasternak. The U.S. Information Service would even buy up copies of the magazine to ensure it stayed afloat.
But the connection didn't endure. As Matthiessen's own politics shifted leftward, he came to regret the CIA’s role in The Paris Review’s founding. "I was a spy," he later told NPR. "When I went in there, it was the end of the Cold War — Russia was a great menace out there in the distance. It was considered very patriotic to join the CIA. I didn't know my politics were going to veer leftward, and that I would really come to despise the CIA."
Independent Service for Information
Set up to specifically counter young communist intellectuals in Europe, the ISI paid smart, young Americans to go publicly debate communists and present the Western alternative as a beacon of freedom. It sent Gloria Steinem to India, just to name one famous example.
In this case, many of the participants were “witting,” as the CIA put it. Steinem even defended her involvement. In the 1960s, when many of the CIA's connections to the arts were being exposed in media around the world, she said:
“I was happy to find some liberals in government in those days who were farsighted and cared enough to get Americans of all political views to the festival,” she told The New York Times. And to The Washington Post, Steinem said, “In my experience the agency was completely different from its image: it was liberal, nonviolent and honorable.”
Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Founded in the 1930s, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop played a major role in the modern creative writing program. But, according to this thorough account of how the workshop became so influential, in the two decades after World War II, it “prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by [head Paul Engle] that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism.” So while the Iowa Writers’ Workshop accomplished much during those years, it's perhaps no coincidence that it helped steer modern fiction away from political concerns and towards modes its backers and heads considered more acceptable.
The CIA's influence didn't just extend to the written word. The cultured types who played a major role in its early era also pushed hard for the influence of modernist American art around the world. Writing in The New Yorker, Louis Menand details how the individualism expressed in the art of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and other modernist figures made a convenient counter to Soviet-backed proletarian realism. Menand sums up the pitch:
… until its cloak unravelled in the late nineteen-sixties, the C.I.A., and the people who were in on its activities, operated in secrecy. They kept the secret because they understood the logic. The target audience for cultural propaganda in the Cold War was foreign élites—in particular, left-wing intellectuals and avant-garde writers and artists who might still have some attachment, sincere, sentimental, or opportunistic, to Communism and the Soviet Union. The essence of the courtship was: it’s possible to be left-wing, avant-garde, and anti-Communist. Look at these American artists and intellectuals, happily criticizing bourgeois capitalism and shocking mainstream tastes, all safely protected by the laws of a free society. In Russia, these people would be in the Lubyanka, or somewhere north of the Arctic Circle.
Connections between New York museum and gallery circles and the government helped further the process. The Congress for Cultural Freedom and similar groups backed exhibitions, bought paintings and acted to boost the reputation of its favorites, even in the face of opposition from traditional politicians who found the idea of modern art itself ludicrous.
Ken Kesey and MKUltra
The CIA's MKUltra program has rightly gone down in history as an atrocity. Including abuse, torture, kidnapping, drugging and worse, it aimed to create, bluntly, mind control. One of its less-horrific tendrils involved studies at universities testing LSD — something literary notables like Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg participated in, altering their own work and perspective in the process. Kesey, a student at the time, later told NPR he wouldn't know of the agency's involvement for two decades:
We didn’t find this out for 20 years. And by that time the government had said OK, stop that experiment. All these guinea pigs that we’ve sent up there into outer space, bring them back down and don’t ever let them go back in there again because we don’t like the look in their eyes.
While there have been numerous conspiracy theories spun about the CIA “creating” the counterculture or hippies (gee thanks, CIA), this is a classic case of unintended consequences. The real MKUltra was enough of a horror show, and LSD proved crap as a mind control drug to boot. But in the hands of artists, it did something quite different.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local papers and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
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