Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Paint it Red

“‘Modern art is actually a means of espionage. … If you know how to read them, modern paintings will disclose the weak spots in US fortifications, and such crucial constructions as Boulder Dam.'” This is not the paranoid ravings of some modern-day war on terror nut. It is quoted in Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, (p.253) by Frances Stonor Saunders, dates from the early post war period and was apparently uttered in the US congress. Saunders shows how Abstract Expressionist painters were regarded with great suspicion by the likes of congressman George Dondero.

Saunders’s tale continues: “‘We had a lot of trouble with Congressman Dondero,’ Braden later recalled. ‘He couldn’t stand modern art. He thought it was a travesty, he thought it was sinful, he thought it was ugly. He put up a heck of a fight about painting, which made it 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, whatever.”

“We” here means the CIA. Braden continues “‘That’s one of the reasons why it had to be done covertly; it had to be covert because it would have been turned down if it had been put to a vote in a democracy. In order to encourage openness, we had to be secret.'”

Saunders comments “Here again was that sublime paradox of American strategy in the cultural Cold War: in order to promote acceptance of art produced in (and vaunted as the expression of) democracy, the democratic process itself had to be cirumvented.” (257). Saunders’s book is full of revelations. An undercover CIA agent saw to the inclusion of token Blacks in films like Caddy (starring Jerry Lewis) and toned down scenes showing the mistreatment of Apaches in the film Arrowhead. It makes you wonder if it could still be going on, although there is a sneaking suspicion that the CIA’s cultural fight was not all that successful: Southern fiction was also frowned upon because it showed an unflattering side of American life but it does not seem to have done the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee and so on too much harm. But there is always the great unknown in questions of censorship – what might have been? What has been cut out of the picture?

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