It was 1953. Genoroso Pope, Jr., a former (?) member of the CIA psychological operations unit, purchased the National Enquirer tabloid, possibly with Mafia backing. In 1954 the publication was taken firmly in the direction of the lurid, and above all in the direction of the distracting, insignificant and meaningless.
In the same time frame, although it had nothing whatsoever to do with any legitimate political mandate, the institutional leadership of the CIA itself was mulling over its options for influencing public opinion in the direction of wholesale approval of corporate capitalism (not the only possible form of capitalism). One thing was certain: it wouldn't do for the public to know that the CIA was behind such attempts. After all, it would be only too apparent that they were nothing but exercises in propaganda. But money can readily be laundered so that its sources aren't apparent, so this wasn't thought to be a serious obstacle to its objective.
And it wasn't.
In 1952, one Richard Bissell was President of the nominally philanthropic Ford Foundation. Over the course of the next two years, Bissell met frequently with Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, a Rockefeller lieutenant, and a fascist. The subject of these meetings concerned the best means of influencing public opinion in the cultural domain, left-leaning artists of any stripe being especially detested. The relationship between the two men was apparently cordial: in 1954 Bissell left the Ford Foundation to take a position with the CIA as Dulles' special assistant. He was replaced back at the Foundation by now little-known John McCloy, another Rockefeller lieutenant. McCloy's corporate capitalist credentials were impeccable: he had been an Assistant Secretary of War, the president of the World Bank, High Commissioner of occupied Germany, chairman of Rockefeller's Chase Manhattan Bank, a Wall Street attorney for the big seven oil companies, and a director of a number of corporations.
And so the CIA began to channel funds through the Ford Foundation to those artists of whom it did approve — the key ideological criterion in that connection being that the art of these artists in no way whatsoever suggest that there might be something askew with corporatism.
Stunned by the invention of photography, the art world was still largely in a state of intellectual disarray, and confused and disoriented artists were common. Art that was, above all else, apolitical wasn't especially difficult to locate, particularly if one was willing to patronize mediocrities. And so the CIA and the Ford Foundation (together with the Rockefellers via their Museum of Modern Art) jointly became the secret patrons of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko for more than 20 years. This was very fortunate indeed for these artists: art nearly devoid of any real significance didn't go over at all well, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s nearly all Americans detested "modern" (that is, CIA/Rockefeller) art. Yet the combination of ready cash for patronage and the ownership of museums won out in the end, and modern art was established against all standards of artistic merit and common sense. (Artists of actual merit helped greatly to further confuse the situation: to the possible amusement of the CIA, one of Picasso's less successful experiments went on to become highly influential, and is to this day still enshrined at the Museum of Modern Art.)
The CIA also sponsored a large number of writers, and provided the funding for an enormous number of publications, but nearly all of those were failures. It was the semi-permanent contamination of the fine arts that was the CIA's most signal success.
Art that teaches us what it means to be human has been at the heart of every true artistic renaissance. For example, the Italian Renaissance was given its impetus by the rediscovery of the great humanistic literature of Greece and Rome. Its key documents, such as Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man and Castiglione's The Courtier still provide fascinating and provocative reading, and make it evident why these books were such inspirational cultural bombshells. It certainly wasn't owing to a dreary vision of human beings reduced to cogs in a corporate machine, the practical consequence of fascism. Rather, Pico della Mirandola and Castiglione were intoxicated by a vista of unlimited human potential and accomplishment.
The corporately-approved aggrandizement of artistic freedom to do anything but engage in the creation of meaningful art provides paltry, boring, and trivial impetus indeed. The time is long overdue to firmly set aside "modern art" (in any case now more than 70 years old, and anything but modern). What we now need, and need desperately, is a new humanistic art (the fact that it will usually be representational doesn't mean that it should necessarily be called representational art).
Quite apart from the corporate/CIA mandate of abstraction to the point of meaninglessness, there exists today a kind of artistic obsession with originality. Many artists seem to believe that originality somehow constitutes the one, true holy grail of the arts. But originality per se has little or no artistic value. As was the case during the Renaissance, what still has real artistic merit is the humanly significant. Every generation of human beings contemplates new physical and social realities, and these new realities in turn demand a renewed artistic reassessment of the human prospect. While essential human nature may not have changed much in a few thousand years, our technologies and social landscape have changed beyond all recognition from those prevailing over life on the savannahs of Africa. Art created for the savannah, and later for the cave, and art created for the 21st century are necessarily entirely different in both conception and execution. And the pace of change is still accelerating.
Orginality is an inescapable consequence of the creation of all meaningful art, and so hardly needs to be sought for its own sake.
One way to more clearly focus the way forward in the arts is to look at the work of some of the artists whose work has endured. Here at Everything Progressive, we've engaged in an ongoing effort to identify some of the most significant writers and painters. For example, we believe that the greatest American writer to date is probably the all-but-forgotten George Stewart. One of our greatest recent artists, and possibly the greatest, was George Tooker. The work of both men provides enormous inspiration for those looking for a significant direction for their own creative work. Our efforts to identify especially outstanding work will continue going forward.
Our Field Guide to the Arts will provide a further critique of "modern" art, consider a variety of alternative theories of art, advance a new theory, and offer much else beside. It will be found here.
Elsewhere at this site, we suggest that every home should have its own science laboratory. Here we suggest that every home also have its own art studio, or atelier. Our Field Guide to the Arts provides some of the tools needed to undertake this project. In the future we will also describe in detail how to set up a home music studio.
The Editor / Everything Progressive