Several articles have been floating around the Internet connecting the rise of Abstract Expressionism to the politics of the Cold War. These include verifiable claims that the CIA and the US State Department threw their not inconsiderable influence behind this aesthetic movement. While this may be news to many, for years it has been widely understood among art historians that Cold War politics played no small role in the rise of the hegemony of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States. Despite many of the artists having enjoyed substantial US government patronage during the FDR administration, the Social Realists found themselves aesthetically and politically out of fashion almost overnight following the end of WWII and the rise of the Communist block. Cold War politics and the Red Scare of the 1950’s led to the official suppression of Social Realism in the United States. But Realism itself, and representational painting in general, were going to experience their own challenges, regardless of their political content, for reasons that had as much to do with European aesthetics and academic fashion as they did with the American political context in which the artwork was created and presented.
Mrs. Rockefeller had a longstanding interest in early Modernism initially at a time when the avant guard was largely shunned by members of her social cohort. By all accounts, her enthusiasm for this artwork was sincere. Her son Nelson was also an avid supporter and, for the most part, they didn’t concern themselves too much with the political ideology of their artists.
Then Nelson Rockefeller had his notorious run in with Diego Rivera who took the opportunity to bite the hand that was feeding him. At the time, Diego was taking considerable heat in Mexico from Left leaning artists who resented his commercial success in the United States and were, somewhat accurately, accusing him of becoming a Capitalist lackey. Nelson Rockefeller had commissioned Rivera to create a mural at the new Rockefeller Center knowing full well that this might prove to be a problematic proposition. Diego included excoriating images of John D. Rockefeller Sr. among others in what amounted to a Marxist manifesto which also glorified Lenin and that Rivera knew would provoke a reaction from his patron. Nelson asked Rivera to modify the fresco and the artist predictably refused. Then Nelson, somewhat reluctantly, had the mural destroyed. This served Diego’s purposes by making him a martyr and he returned to Mexico to recreate the mural and polish his somewhat tarnished reputation among the Mexican Leftists.
Conversely, early Modernists, like Kazimir Malevich were having their own difficulties back in the workers’ paradise of the new Soviet Union. Many of the Russian avant guard had initially been enthusiastic Bolsheviks and eager supporters of the revolution. The shine quickly wore off when it became clear that not only did the new Leninist regime have no use for the avant guard, they saw it as decadent bourgeoise easel painting that did not advance the cause of Leninist Marxism. In the case of Malevich, the regime went so far as to brand the artist and his work as “counter revolutionary.” Malevich was barred from teaching, exhibiting and ultimately even creating new works in the Soviet Union. By essentially banning avant guard art and persecuting it adherents, regardless of their personal political ideologies, the Soviets created an official aesthetic around Socialist Realism that would dominate artistic production in Communist countries for the better part of the century. They also created a new wave of artistic political refugees that would follow the previous wave of refugees from Nazi tyranny to New York.
As NYC was seeking to replace Paris as the artistic epicenter after the war, the city was filled with avant guard luminaries with their own aesthetic agendas. At this point there was an almost irresistible confluence of interests that made for some odd political bedfellows.
The Socialist Realists behind the Iron Curtain seemed coarse and anachronistic. The work was brutish, grandiose in scale and boringly consistent in its overt propaganda. The Social Realists in the United States, were too avant guard in their aesthetic and too Leftist in their narratives for the more traditionalist conservatives in America who were at that point obsessed with anything that implied the slightest whiff of Communism. Conversely, the American Social Realists were themselves at risk of looking anachronistically provincial in the context of all the latest European avant guard that was now inhabiting New York. The artists like Ben Shahn found themselves in the unenviable position of being too aesthetically avant guard for the Right and too aesthetically conservative for the New Left. This combined with their politically incorrect narratives spelled their doom for the better part of a generation.
The Abstract Expressionists provided an irresistible opportunity for Cold War propaganda. The work was fresh, new, certified by decades of Rockefeller patronage and had the auspices of the European inteligencia. These European auspices were essential if New York was going to make its ascendency to the role of aesthetic capital of the world. Abstract Expressionists had the added advantage of being derided by the Soviets as “counter revolutionary” and hence had profilaxis from charges of being Communists, regardless of their individual political orientations. The rabid anti-Communists in the United States, as a rule, were no fans of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, most of this cohort shared Hitler’s view of the avant guard as decadent, degenerate and debased but they didn’t really understand the artwork and were frustrated when trying to accuse it of being somehow inherently Communist since the Communists themselves had so vociferously rejected it. Abstract Expressionism was the perfect foil for the New Left because it annoyed both the far Left and the far Right. This made AbEx the ultimate instrument in appealing to the Western European Left while simultaneously making Communism appear conservative, repressive and anachronistic by comparison. The Rockefeller Republicans and their ilk needed something that reflected their cultural Leftists sensibilities without overtly threatening their economically Rightist global political agendas. Abstract Expressionism was essentially made to order for this purpose.
But that being said, it would be a gross mischaracterization to propose that Abstract Expressionism was simply a globalist Capitalist conspiracy. Most of the artists did not share the political orientation of their patrons nor did they create the artworks with the intent that the aesthetic would simply be a tool of the economic elite to advance that elite’s Cold War agendas. The political climate created a sometimes uncomfortable and ironic coincidence of interests. The hegemony of Abstract Expressionism for a generation was not so much the result of Cold War machinations as it was the fruition of a half century of European aesthetic development that had ultimately been forced to find a home in New York City coincident with the rise in the hegemony of the American economic empire after the war. It was inevitable that these two phenomenon would be co-branded and would share auspices as well as guilt by their mutual associations.
Not much as changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The economic elite still drive the market and still collect works that offend the sensibilities of most cultural conservatives. The majority of contemporary artists still create the preponderance of works for their own aesthetic reasons and hope to win the lottery by making it into the collections of an economic elite with whom they may share little in the way of political sympathies. These contemporary Modernists and Post-Modernist artists tend to take their aesthetic cues from each other and from the Post-Modern academy rather than from the fickle dealers and collectors who are prone to acquire whatever they are told to buy from the art consultants and the academics. This phenomenon is still contributing to the cultural hegemony of New York City as the new oligarchs in places like China and Russia are sheepishly following the lead of the global cultural trend setters in New York. Given the predilection for the political suppression of artists in China and Russia, and the aesthetic free-for-all in New York, it is not likely that we will see a mass migration of artists to these emerging markets. New York City is not likely to find itself challenged anytime soon for its title as heavyweight aesthetic capital of the world.
With the rise of the Internet, however, the necessity of a having a cultural capital at all is itself being challenged. Artists and audiences have more tools at their disposal than ever to disseminate and discover new art while circumventing the hegemony of the cultural arbiters that dominate the contemporary art scenes of New York and London. As the world flattens economically and culturally, the importance of cultural capitals will inevitably diminish and aesthetic power will become more evenly geographically distributed. One no longer needs to travel to New York City and ask a Rockefeller where to find the greatest in American painting. One can simply travel to Ventura, CA in November of 2015 if they are seeking to find some of the most ambitious and innovative talents in the world of contemporary art. But don’t count on the currently reigning aesthetic arbiters climbing down off their tarnished thrones in the Big Apple to make their pilgrimage to see the new avant guard emerging from the provinces where the less derivative works for a 21st Century aesthetic can be found. The democratization of aesthetics for a new era is not likely to be led from the capital of the declining cultural empire.