The Cult of Oblivion: CIA, Abstract Expressionists, and Kant

Evolution and the Undermining of Art

From the cave paintings of the Horses Heads to figurative art today, visual art is about perception and subject. We artists, and our ancient ancestors, look at the world around us, focus on important aspects of it, digest it, then, in acts of passion express our view of humanity. Visual art is inextricably linked to human evolution; its best examples further our potential as human beings. Visual art refines our perceptions, explores our emotional potentials, and expands our minds. But for the last century art has been under attack.

In the mid-20th century these three forces––Kant’s philosophy, abstract expressionists, and the CIA––congealed ostensibly to champion freedom and originality, instead accomplished an undermining of art and consequently humanity. The connections and machinations are so complicated and obtuse it is hard to take them seriously, but it does make a difference in understanding them, at least in the sense of whether or not our culture evolves.

Progress is Not Automatic

There are a few things that are embedded in our DNA, like sex and consciousness, but art is one of the most powerful. It has been said that the human species doesn’t have instincts—that we have to make choices, make mistakes, and figure out future directions. We can implode, exploit wars, exterminate populations, and commit suicide. There are no guarantees that philosophers, experts, government institutions, and artists have it right. And we are only a few nuclear explosions away from eradication. It is a sobering obligation that we must choose and possibly be tragically wrong and sometimes be wonderfully right. 

da Vinci, study of hands

Da Vinci, Study of Hands c. 1474, in silverpoint on prepared paper heightened with white (chalk?).

Visual Science and Heart

This sketch by da Vinci represents everything great about humanity and art: skill, discovery, knowledge, light and shadow, science, empathy, humanism, beauty, and effortlessness. An interesting thing is that this work uplifts us and can inspire our farthest reaching aspirations whether for science or heart or both. Da Vinci’s near-contemporary, Vasari, wrote about him: 

“Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone’s affection… his magnificent presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul; he was so persuasive that he could bend other people to his will. … He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor… Through his birth Florence received a very great gift, and through his death it sustained an incalculable loss… an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied were solved with ease.”

The Road to Oblivion

Whether we like it or not we have been thrust into a postmodern world, a world of snark, cynicism, anti-values, and disconnections from reason and heart. Postmodernism as an ideology is not like anything most of us are familiar with; “do your best … play fair … when something is wrong don’t wait but start to fix it.” Postmodernism doesn’t live by those values, it is an entire structure built on envy. No decent person and especially the young should have to deal with it, but it has slimed its way to dominate education, the arts, and politics. Since we face it daily both personally and socially it is important to face it head-on, understand it, dismiss it, then carry on with authentic creativity.

Rothko and Pollock

Leading abstract expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock were suicidal, blackout-level drunks who eliminated from their paintings form, light, realism, coherency, humanity, proportion, and intelligibility and left only the spontaneity of spewing paint vomit and mindless color fields. Pollock was a known belligerent and picked fist fights with bathroom doors, and at the height of career, killed himself and one of his passengers driving 80 miles an hour into a tree. He was 44 years old. Likewise Rothko was a serious drunk and committed suicide by overdosing on antidepressants and slashing his arm with a razor. 

Both Rothko and Pollock are praised in terms of being original and sublime. Timothy Martin over at the Tate writes that Rothko“…calls upon his inner sense of a sublime…” 

Rob Woodard from the Guardian: “…Pollock not only forever changed the painter’s “vocabulary,” but truly did transcend form and traditional notions of composition to emerge into a realm that was both profoundly original and sublime.” 

Peter Schjeldahl from the New Yorker waxes about Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)(1950), calling it, “a singing orchestration of drips in black, white, brown, and teal enamel—bluntly material and, inextricably, sublime.” 

A paradox is that many critics were aware of these abstract expressionists’ mental cracks and drug-fueled escapism but still viewed their products as sublime achievements, thus giving rise to romanticizing the tortured, messed up, non-objective artists. 

Kant, Evil Genius, and the Greatest Hoax in the World––Switching Out Oblivion for the Sublime

The 20th century artists adopted a new ideal of genius that is remarkably like Kant’s take in which the artist is neither scientific, perceptive, or introspective. The artist’s education is irrelevant and influences don’t matter because the genius artist is simply born that way. And the product of that genius rises to such a point that it becomes a standard and prototype for lessor, second-rate artists.*

When you combine Kant’s view of genius with his ode to the Sublime you get a disturbing outcome. Kant’s Sublime comes down to secularizing God as unnamable, ethereal, unknowable, unlimited, beyond our senses and comprehension yet the ultimate state of human experience, which also feels like a violent upheaval. The antithesis is that skill, excellence, beauty, sensual perception, themes, climaxes, and denouements are trivial human products; and not worthy of rarified status. His concept of the sublime infiltrated the inteligencia, such as Clement Greenberg, who then judged abstract expressionists as worthy of veneration. While the elephant in the room was that abstract expressionists amputated their hearts, minds, and senses leaving them in subhuman states.

Beware of CIA’s Chip on Shoulder Psychology

Enter the CIA’s clandestine support and promotion of abstract expressionists as the ultimate in “American values.” The CIA rationalized that promoting the originality and freedom of abstract expressionism was the perfect cultural foil to combat communism. The CIA arranged and funded contemporary international and American museum shows, but since the American public would not have any of it, the CIA did it on the sly. CIA’s case manager, Donald Jameson, comments that “Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes.” The CIA created clandestine collaborations with wealthy sponsors, using their names for credibility but secretly underwriting the expenses. 

Frances Stonor Saunders in her wonderful article “Modern Art was a CIA Weapon” writes:

“The Congress for Cultural Freedom also gave the CIA the ideal front to promote its covert interest in Abstract Expressionism. It would be the official sponsor of touring exhibitions; its magazines would provide useful platforms for critics favourable to the new American painting; and no one, the artists included, would be any the wiser.

“This organisation put together several exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s. One of the most significant, “The New American Painting”, visited every big European city in 1958-59. Other influential shows included “Modern Art in the United States” (1955) and “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century” (1952).

“Because Abstract Expressionism was expensive to move around and exhibit, millionaires and museums were called into play. Pre-eminent among these was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As president of what he called “Mummy’s museum”, Rockefeller was one of the biggest backers of Abstract Expressionism (which he called “free enterprise painting”). His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organise and curate most of its important art shows.

“The museum was also linked to the CIA by several other bridges. William Paley, the president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA, sat on the members’ board of the museum’s International Programme. John Hay Whitney, who had served in the agency’s wartime predecessor, the OSS, was its chairman. And Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA’s International Organisations Division, was executive secretary of the museum in 1949.

The museum directors and curators, the people in charge of the exhibitions, as well as many art critics and reviewers, were CIA puppets, which calls into question any integrity they might have had.

The CIA’s massive incursion into cultural propaganda virtually destroyed visual art knowledge, following the lead of those major museums, the fine art departments of the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and into the ‘90s rarely if ever taught visual art fundamentals such as life drawing. Rather they taught conceptual “art.” The teenage students had no idea that their vacant, moronic art teachers were waging a massive psychological warfare against them, a war that destroyed the hopes and dreams of generations of aspiring artists, undoubtedly potential geniuses among them, who abandoned art as a result. I was one of thousands of teens who had to endure pathetic art “teachers” lacking awareness, skill, or knowledge. Not only were they clueless, many were vicious in their snarky put downs about figurative and representational art. It is still ongoing in prestigious schools, check out the current arts faculty at Yale or Harvard.

Envy

I believe the common denominator of all these negative players is psychological insecurity. It is not about the stated aims of enlightenment, freedom, cold war, or sublimity. It is about their personal emptiness and fear of their impending oblivion. Credit to the abstract expression artists, they dove into nothingness and imploaded. Good riddance. But the promoters were after power and control of the masses; they sought to disarm everyone who sought value in the arts. If Kant and the CIA could convince good people that oblivion is really the sublime you have conquered their spirits, and rendered them like the idiot villagers in The Emperor’s New Clothes. The CIA wasn’t fighting the USSR, they were undermining Americans. In the same way, I believe that Kant’s aim in his theory of the sublime was to intimidate passionate, smart, value-orientated people and mentally drive them into submission.

Just Light

But good people and artists are resilient and they have values on their side. All it takes are a couple of “coins to drop” to awaken their best talent and “take no shit” attitude. Abstract expressionists (and now postmodern artists), the CIA propaganda wing, and Kantians cannot withstand ANY scrutiny of light shining on them simply because there is nothing to their souls: no insight, no light, no beauty. It is a bittersweet achievement to pull the veil off the face of evil, but the reward is that once you understand their BS you find the absolute freedom to build your own irreplaceable original vision.

Declaring War!

I doubt there is a way to keep government organizations like the CIA out of our culture, to wisen up braindead abstract expressionists, or erase subjectivist aesthetics from our history. Artistic creativity is a very fragile undertaking, and facing cynical and snarky exponents of the cult of oblivion––it can feel like drowning in slimy ooze. But in one important sense, because art creation is fragile, it is a blessing to real artists—they have to be ruthless in protecting their souls and their art from cons, con artists, and the CIA! Their artistic integrity has to be absolute to survive and transcend the onslaught.

Finally something that good people and artists have that postmodernists do not, they have the amazing ability to evolve, to sustain growth, and to always have better and sometimes brilliant solutions to emerging problems. An accomplishment that is truly sublime

Michael Newberry
Idyllwild, 10/8/2019

Further reading: 
“Modern art was a CIA weapon” by Frances Stonor Saunders 10/22/1995

It has been an honor that this article was re-posted on Boone Cutler’s FB page with its 50,000 followers, and at The Atlas Society.

 *We thus see (1) that genius is a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given; it is not a mere aptitude for what can be learnt by a rule. Hence originality must be its first property. (2) But since it also can produce original nonsense, its products must be models, i.e. exemplary; and they consequently ought not to spring from imitation, but must serve as a standard or rule of judgement for others. (3) It cannot describe or indicate scientifically how it brings about its products, but it gives the rule just as nature does. Hence the author of a product for which he is indebted to his genius does not himself know how he has come by his Ideas; and he has not the power to devise the like at pleasure or in accordance190 with a plan, and to communicate it to others in precepts that will enable them to produce similar products. (Hence it is probable that the word genius is derived from genius, that peculiar guiding and guardian spirit given to a man at his birth, from whose suggestion these original Ideas proceed.) (4) Nature by the medium of genius does not prescribe rules to Science, but to Art; and to it only in so far as it is to be beautiful Art. (Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard.)

 

5 Replies to “The Cult of Oblivion: CIA, Abstract Expressionists, and Kant”

  1. Yikes. Such a narrow mind. And such misinformation. You make it sound like every abstract artist ended up suicidal and dead and therefore their art is garbage. I feel sorry for people like you who have such narrow minds and are closed off to the beauty of various forms of art simply because they cling to whatever art form they’re in love with. A true artist loves all forms of art, even the ones they can’t create or don’t understand. A plethora of artists exist – still – that paint both realism and abstract and love both equally. Look up Hale Woodruff, a very underrated artist who painted both (and painted both equally well). I can’t imagine a world where abstract work didn’t exist. If you were in charge of things, we’d have Hitler all over again, deciding what was “art” and what was degenerate. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Go back to your safe little world of ALL REALISM ONLY. Leave abstract’s beauty for the rest of us.

    Like

    1. The real issue is about evolution. Learning everything you can and using all the tools to open up avenues of ever-deepening expression. The reductionism of modernism is the opposite, instead of open wide-reaching learning, it is close-minded in reducing possibilities, in other words devolving.

      Like

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