VernissageHKW, Para-Politik

CIA-sponsored “Cultural Freedom” Comes Home: Parapolitics at HKW

The recent exhibition Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), curated by Anselm Franke, Nida Ghouse, Paz Guevara, and Antonia Majaca, interrogated the intertwined re-canonization of modernism and the international propagation of a US-backed, anti-communist idea of “cultural freedom” put forth by the many-armed Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) from 1950–1967. Inaugurated in 1950 in Berlin by anti-totalitarian intellectuals at an event led by Melvin Lansky, an American journalist who founded the West German CCF journal Der Monat, the CCF actually held its ten-year anniversary celebration at the HKW itself, then known as the Congress Hall. By 1967, the ties between this organization, which backed a long list of publications throughout the world, along with exhibitions, artists’ organizations, and conferences and events via its more than 35 offices abroad, and the CIA were revealed.1

This controversy itself was not the point of the show, but rather the ideologically motivated manipulation of the idea of modern art and the cultivation of cultural production around the world to preserve non-communist western hegemony (US hegemony, essentially) in the years after the splintering of the Left due to Stalinism. As curator Paz Guevara puts it, “We were interested in digging into the ideological foundations and the conflict lines at stake in the artistic choices and political positions of the Cold War period, such as the re-signification of modernism as a symbol of freedom, and how these constructs and assumptions still haunt the field of contemporary art. In this case, we were concerned with following the question of how art history has been written, told and legitimized, as perhaps one could say a history of the art history, a meta-history.2

The exhibition was about the process of making art history ideologically and politically, and simultaneously masking this process by portraying modernism as ahistorical. However, the show also addressed the myriad international contexts in which cultural producers—both in the Cold War period with CCF backing and in response to issues bubbling up from the Cold War period more recently—confront ideas of freedom, totalitarianism, race, cultural identity, the reification of modernism, and Western/US hegemony. Throughout, the “chattering ghosts” of a pro-US anti-communist agenda and CIA involvement were inseparable from aesthetic forms on display.3 Perhaps, as Guevara suggests, contemporary art itself is still “haunted.”

Beginning with a section on the founding of the CCF and its establishment worldwide, along with the revelations of the CIA conspiracy, the show then addressed the politics of exhibitions, reconstructing the debates around the political meaning of modern art, which hinged on marrying loaded terms like “freedom” and “democracy” with modern art and also involved MoMA, the US Information Agency or USIA and the US Congress.4 Documentation of exhibitions staged by the CCF worldwide demonstrated their efforts to educate audiences about “politically neutral” modern art. The display of facsimiles of modernist artworks borrowed from the Museum of American Art (MoAA) in Berlin partially recreated the CCF-organized Masterpieces of the 20th Century exhibition, which brought European modernism from American collections back to Europe on tour in 1952.

The exhibition went on to document the appearance of a cultural vacuum with the death of Trotsky, leaving the international anti-Stalinist Left with no clear touchstone, and the CCF’s efforts to rush into this void and promote freedom. With works like Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” paintings, created and then published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 placed alongside Howardena Pindell’s brilliant film Free, White and 21 (1980), and several other works that raised race-oriented critiques of American culture, the show gave voice to the ambiguities and contradictions behind the veneer on the brand of US-backed “cultural freedom” the CCF was selling. The show then fanned out into myriad branches of global artistic and cultural practice, showing works critical of the influence of the liberal left and of the boundaries of modern art, as well as works produced under the auspices of the CCF itself, including literature, music, painting, graphic art, textile, and installation.

The show’s overwhelming multitude of material behaved like an archive on display, combining documents, publications in intricate thematic displays with islands of immediate experience, where the viewer could be lost in specific works of art. I was especially struck by the films, such as Lene Berg’s Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of Woman with Moustache (2008), which follows the disastrous episode in which dedicated communist Pablo Picasso drew a portrait of Stalin to commemorate his death. This was a particularly relevant in this context, as CIA official Thomas Braden famously called the CCF’s project of US-style liberal left politics through culture “the battle for Picasso’s mind.” Another striking film, Hsu Chia-Wei’s Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau (2015), stages a traditional Thai puppet show on the ruins of the former Intelligence Bureau building in Huai Mo Village, on the border of Thailand and Burma.

Sometimes artworks themselves were the best critics of politicization of art history making and the canon of modern art—such as Art and Language’s Picasso’s Guernica in the Style of Jackson Pollock (1980), which blurs the lines between abstraction and figuration, and Sheela Gowda’s installation Shrine to the Black Square and Other Abstractions (2015), which places Malevich’s black square in a tiny building surrounded by mysterious objects, where the viewer must confront the icon of abstraction upon entering.

At times the narratives of CCF influence refused to cooperate with a simplified idea of negative American hegemony. According to one of the founders of the Mbari Artists’ and Writers’ Club (founded in 1961 in Ibadan, Nigeria), Ezekiel Mhahlele, also head of the CCF’s Africa program : “In Africa, we have done nothing with the knowledge that the money came from the CIA; nor have we done anything we would not have done if the money had come from elsewhere.”5 Artworks—such as the intricate graphic dreamworlds of Twins Seven Seven, who was associated with the Mbari group and Beat in Spider’s Bush (1984) —refuse to be crammed into categories of western abstraction and eastern realism on the US/European model, “third world” countries refuse to play the victim to CIA involvement. In the case of Voluspa Jarpa’s De los Artilugios Cotidianos (2014), a volume on Brazilian history in which CIA documents have been literally reinserted into the narrative, art itself refuses to remain silent and takes on history directly and viscerally. This was an exhibition of badly behaved history and art that could not be contained or defined by the CCF’s influence or a simplified version of Cold War history. It’s obvious that countless other exhibitions and texts could spring from this encyclopedic take on cultural politics in the Cold War. In the meantime, a publication on Parapolitics is said to be in the works.

One of the most important tasks for scholars of the Cold War continues to be problematizing easy binaries—free/oppressed, democratic/totalitarian, or even East/West. Another task that is far more overdue is moving beyond troubling the East/West binary to view the Cold War era with a global lens. Great work is being done to trouble the East/West divide, in terms of the “cultural Cold War.”6 However, as Giles Scott-Smith and Charlotte Lerg put it in their just-published edited volume on the CCF journals, most approaches to the CCF (and, I would argue, the Cold War in general), are “predominantly transatlantic in orientation.”7 Parapolitics used the CCF as a starting point for a global view of Cold War culture that does not operate with a purely transatlantic lens.

In this vein, one of the challenges facing the curators of Parapolitics must have been to avoid re-inscribing the same divisions that the CCF was trying to promote, and to undermine the model of US funds performing “outreach” out to the rest of the ”peripheral” world. As this exhibition proves, switching this direction to bring projects funded by the CCF and those critical of its underlying principles, along with commentaries on Cold War politics, back to the origination point of the CCF itself leads to an absolute motherload of critical and aesthetically complex material. As the exhibition’s wall text declares, “The exhibition project questions whether the canon of Western modernism can really be retroactively ‘globalized,’ without confronting the ideological structures that supported and exported it.” Indeed, you can’t have the globalized Cold War in exhibition form without the history of the structures that influenced, manipulated, and defined the canon of cultural production. But the rejoinders to these structures throughout the exhibition kept this show from being the story of the CIA—it was, rather, a rich aggregation of global and culturally specific studies on the limits of Cold War political and ideological boundaries.



Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War was on view November 3, 2017 to January 8, 2018 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin, Germany.

Image courtesy of Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW). ©Peter Adamik/HKW

  1.  Historical details here drawn from exhibition press kit.
  2.  All quotes from Guevara taken from an interview with the curator, 25.1.2018.
  3.  I take this from Allan Sekula’s idea of the “chattering ghosts” that haunted photography’s entrance in to the art museum—namely, bourgeois science and bourgeois art. (See: “The Traffic in Photographs,” Art Journal 41, no. 1 (1981): 15)
  4.  For key texts in the debates on the post-war meaning of modern art and abstract expressionism see Francis Frascina, ed., Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (New York: Routledge, 2000). There’s extensive literature on modern art and cultural diplomacy including; Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York, 2015); Marilyn Kushner, ‘Exhibiting Art at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959: Domestic Politics and Cultural Diplomacy’, Journal of Cold War Studies 4:1 (Winter 2002): 6–26; Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York, 1999); and Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (Chicago, 1983).
  5.  Statement from 1967 (Exhibition wall text for Black Orpheus magazine). For more on this group, see Chika Okeke Agulu’s Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
  6.   For example, Vowinckel, Annette, Marcus M. Payk, and Thomas Lindenberger, eds. Cold War Cultures: Perspectives on Eastern and Western European Societies (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012) and Peter Romijn, Giles Scott-Smith and Joes Segal, eds. Divided Dreamworlds?: The Cultural Cold War in East and West (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012).
  7.  Campaigning Culture and the Global Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 6.

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