During a recent writing workshop that I’m part of with two female writers, our conversation rambled along to the topic of how the CIA had advanced abstract expressionism. That weekend one of the writers asked if I’d pass along the article I had referred to. I did a quick search for it online, and realized I’d actually read several articles about how the CIA had been involved in promoting artistic and intellectual communities that many people tend to think of as nonconformist, liberal, and subversive.
Here’s a quick roundup of articles about the CIA promoting nonconformist art and literature:
- The article I was thinking of was The Independent‘s “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon,’” about how the CIA used art to show how free-thinking the US was in comparison to Russia during the Cold War
- The Chronicle of Higher Education published “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” which shows the CIA’s involvement with the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop
- Work in Progress’ “George the Gentlemanly Ghost,” references the CIA being involved in The Paris Review. It’s worth noting that Jack Kerouac’s first clip from On the Road was published in The Paris Review. (You can read more about that in my book Burning Furiously Beautiful.)
- Encounter Magazine, the UK lit mag founded by poet Stephen Spender and journalist Irving Kristol in 1953, was funded by the CIA
I’m sure there are more, some we know of and some we don’t. Please add your stories and links in the comments section.
There’s a lot to be said here, but it raised a few questions for me:
- Without the CIA’s help in funding and promoting modern arts, would these works have remained obscure?
- Is modern art a scam, and traditionalists correct that it’s not real art?
- Is the art and literature of the 1950s and ’60s a reaction to or a product of its times?
- Can something be subversive even if it’s a political ploy?
Whole books could be written in answer to these questions. They’re important topics to consider and discuss, but I want to take a far less Big Brother approach and ask:
- What are you trying to accomplish by being subversive?
- Why do you want to be different?
- Where do you get your information and how do you evaluate it?
- Who is challenging you to think outside of your own box?
I’m all for dancing to the beat of your own drum. But is that what you’re really doing?