Weaponizing Modernist Culture

Alan Wald

Cold War Modernists:
Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy
By Greg Barnhisel
New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, 322 pages, $40.

THE POLITICAL MANIPULATION of American culture in the 1950s by the Central Intelligence Agency has been the subject of enduring fascination for over 50 years. Using financial “soft power,” the CIA attracted and co-opted the work of abstract expressionist artists and jazz musicians for Cold War propaganda purposes.

Much absorbing background material about these episodes can be found in Serge Guilbault’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1985) and Penny Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (2004).

For the CIA’s parallel exploitation of intellectuals through non-transparent channels, attention has mostly centered on one organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), founded in Berlin in 1950 by anti-communist liberals and a few conservatives. In Cold War Modernists, Duquesne University Professor Greg Barnhisel incisively summarizes the origins of the controversy that by now has spawned a cottage industry of journalistic and scholarly works:

“Many scholars, beginning with Jason Epstein in 1967 and Christopher Lasch a year later, have recounted the CCF’s scandalous history. Lasch and Epstein focused on the explosive revelations of the CCF’s covert CIA funding (a story broken by the New York Times in 1966, augmented by Ramparts magazine in 1967, and proudly confirmed to the public by CIA agent Tom Braden in a Saturday Evening Post article entitled ‘I’m Glad the CIA is “Immoral’”). (139)

This subject was further tracked in Peter Coleman’s The Liberal Conspiracy (1989), Frances Stonor Sanders’ The Cultural Cold War (1999), Giles Scott-Smith’s The Politics of Apolitical Culture, Hugh Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer (2008), and many other books and essays in a variety of languages.

In 2016 the topic is still eye catching, even if no longer jaw dropping. For the reason that books rarely escape the anticipation evoked by their titles, Barnhisel’s elegant and richly researched Cold War Modernists must cope with two principal challenges.

One is to render a nuanced and fair-minded perspective on the hot-button subject of a Cold War between two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — that were capable of much nastiness. The other is to provide a convincing treatment of the contested cultural terms “modernist” and “modernism.”

These expressions once referred primarily to the innovative, self-referential avant-garde style associated with painter Pablo Picasso, composer Arthur Schoenberg, and novelist James Joyce. Nowadays, they are used to describe culture in some way distinctive to the industrial capitalist epoch by operating in reaction to older conventions — as in “Hollywood Modernism,” “Pulp Modernism,” Jazz, and even the Model T Ford. It is also commonplace to use the category of “Late Modernism” after World War II and “Postmodernism” after the 1980s.

The first challenge, to meet the demand that a sophisticated scholar should avoid replicating routine, polarized thinking about the struggle between the West and the Eastern Bloc, strikes me as relatively straightforward; what occurred can be documented by events and a body count that puts the blame on the doorsteps of both superpowers.

Unfortunately the second, which is to formulate a definition of the particular artistic trend under scrutiny, is far more vexing due to what I see as a maddening uncertainty about what actually qualifies (or doesn’t) as modern or modernist culture.

The Cold War “Modernist” Minefield

So many cultural creations and artifacts partake of numerous interlacing genres and styles that the prioritization of one particular label is a matter of accentuating some features and ignoring others. Seen through different spectacles, a novelist like Ernest Hemingway, for example, can be treated with equal efficacy as a realist and naturalist as well as a modernist.

Modernism, then, can be like the slippery creature in Lewis Carroll’s 1876 satirical poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” Seen from one angle it has feathers and bites; from another it has whiskers and scratches.

The handling of the heavily-loaded title terms Cold War and modernism in ways that will freshly illuminate the Red Scare era’s weaponized use of “cultural diplomacy” (a term for the international exchange of ideas and information) is especially pressing for Barnhisel. That’s because so much of this book “is not an entirely new argument.” (4)

Many readers will already be acquainted with the specific problem that created a confluence of U.S. highbrows and secretive government agencies in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As Barnhisel explains, this marriage of convenience stemmed less from a desire of artists and critics to don uniforms and march off to war than from an awareness of “the preconception among European intellectuals (and the arguments aggressively made by the Soviet Union) that the United States was a philistine wasteland with no ‘culture’ beyond comic books and cowboy movies…” (55)

The purpose of the cultural-political collaboration on the U.S. side was to counter such a picture by way of the organizing of cultural conferences, channeling of funds to new and already-existing magazines, touring of art exhibits and musical shows, and sponsoring of radio shows and book translations.

This agenda was chiefly accomplished through a concealed network of CIA operatives, some of whom were intellectually sophisticated, and mostly “unwitting” scholars and artists, unaware of the ultimate sources of their funding.

Barnhisel’s method of handling the tricky categories of Cold War and modernism might be described as an instance of tactical condensation; he shifts attention away from the most problematical matters troubling specialists and puzzling generalists to establish a strong narrative line that gives the book coherence and momentum.

Least satisfying is his treatment of the Cold War; he presents it predominantly in terms of cultural dimensions, as a struggle for prestige and influence, decoupled from violent political realities. Whatever his personal views, such an approach evacuates the historical context in a manner that obscures one’s understanding of what was at stake.

In Cold War Modernism, the term “imperialism” occurs only when Barnhisel quotes it from Soviet propaganda about the United States or when it is applied to the USSR itself, which is also the case with “empire.” The U.S. neo-colonialist adventures in Iran and Guatemala are non-existent; words such as “blacklist” or “lynching” never appear; and Joseph McCarthy is mainly a guy who wants books treated differently if the author held politically suspect views. “Racism” is merely a charge made by European Leftists, and the blacklisting of African-American cultural icon Paul Robeson is at no time brought up.

Modernism in the CIA’s Service

With somewhat less damage, multifaceted theories of modernism are sidelined on behalf of a utilitarian formula. Modernism, Barnhisel argues, was an artistic trend that was once radical, critical of industrial capitalism from both the Left and Right, but in the 1950s it was repurposed through the effective collaborative work of the State Department and cultural allies.

The end result was a transformed modernism serving as the instrument of CIA-funded programs that promoted modernism as a combination of specific techniques (abstraction, indirectness) and attitudes (individualism, aestheticism). This was essentially a prestigious style useful for propaganda but also a “safe” one, appealing to marketers of commercial products and middlebrow culture with consequences for the significance of modernism in later decades.

Both these gambits work well for the readability of Cold War Modernists. The story is told with great aplomb even as it is rooted in six dense chapters distilling prodigious research. Barnhisel deftly uses archives to explore the mechanisms geared to the remaking of a once-rebellious cultural tradition, astutely pointing to the rhetoric employed in literary criticism, and provocatively exploring the “swerve” (3) in the public understanding of modernism.

A capstone achievement of the book is Barnhisel’s institutional portraits of 1950s book programs (Information Center Service, Informational Media Guarantee) and several magazines (Encounter, Perspectives). His details here provide an important corrective to those radical scholars who have depicted the CIA as an all-powerful puppetmaster behind the scenes.

We learn much more about the parts played by well-known figures in the operations — CIA handler Michael Josselson, neoconservative guru Irving Kristol, poet Stephen Spender, novelist William Faulkner — as Barnhisel demonstrates that they didn’t act alone or always get what they wanted.

This arresting account comes at a price, however. It’s fair enough that Barnhisel treats supporters of the West as dynamic and nuanced, but then all subtlety is dropped when he turns to their adversaries (pro-Communists, Fellow Travelers, Left neutralists, and Stalinist apparatchiks). These appear as mostly a silently demonized “other,” sometimes homogenized and other times just invisible.

Moreover, when he in passing brushes up against unavoidable references to radicalism in the West, the normally adroit scholar can too often stumble. The artist Henri Matisse is labeled a Communist (12), whereas at most he was friendly with a few; in contrast, the poet Archibald MacLeish is characterized in his most Left-wing phase as “vocally pro-American liberalism” (37), whereas he was more precisely at that moment a Popular Front Communist ally (active in the League of American Writers) and ardent admirer of Party cultural commissar V. J. Jerome.

Conceptual Confusion

Most of these gaffes (others involve Dwight Macdonald and Stanley Kunitz) are minor. But that’s not the case when Barnhisel mistakenly cites a famous article by Lenin addressing the need for Party journalists to be partisan in their reportage as proof of an alleged support of “‘tendentious’ art and literature.”

To this conflation of news analysis and imaginative work he then inaccurately affiliates Trotsky in order to misleadingly attribute to them both “the ideas behind socialist realism” (48), the glorified depiction of Communist values. Lenin and Trotsky hardly had the breadth of understanding of art one might associate with a Fredric Jameson, but there is abundant evidence that socialist realism, announced in 1932 but emergent in 1928, was part of Stalin’s “revolution from above.” It stands in contradiction to the relative artistic pluralism associated with Lenin and Trotsky.

In sum, a manageable account requires some abstraction from contexts, but in this instance the categories employed are simultaneously too constricted and too diffuse. The CIA’s aspiration to turn modernism’s unsettling revolution in culture into a marketable style is not the same as achieving success in doing so.

Modernism continued to serve sundry functions in cultural understanding and appeal after the 1950s, and Barnhisel’s one facet of the “swerve” in modernism’s artistic valence may not even be the foremost story of postwar modernism. For example, an equally jam-packed 2010 tome, Robert Genter’s Late Modernism: Art, Culture and Politics in Cold War America, also tells the tale of 1950s debates about the modernist tradition — without a single reference to the CCF, Encounter, Josselson, Kristol or Spender.

Likewise, the terrain of cultural diplomacy in the Cold War was global, convoluted and multifaceted. The Soviet Union itself was certainly brutal and repressive but Stalinist cultural thugs are not the whole story of the Communist experience. A 2015 book, Kristen Ghodsee’s The Left Side of History, insists on a more nuanced understanding of how the ideas of even Eastern Bloc Communism could inspire ordinary people to meaningful lives, reminding us that the contours of affiliation to one side or another are not always what the labels “Free World” and “Iron Curtain” imply.

What we learn from Barnhisel certainly adds and corrects, but new details and accuracy alone do not communicate the weight and significance of what has been demonstrated. Cold War Modernists is acute and absorbing, but the conceptual framework is too narrowly formulated even as it is too broadly applied.

November-December 2016, ATC 185