The Abstract art collection the CIA built
16 May 2013
“If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot!” President Harry Truman’s ill-judged comments referred to Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Circus Girl Resting, around 1925
In the 1990s, a long held suspicion was confirmed: the US Central Intelligence Agency secretly sent Abstract Expressionism and other forms of American art and music abroad in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a propaganda campaign to assert American cultural dominance in the Cold War era. The first chief of the CIA division spearheading that campaign stated why the operation had to be clandestine: “It was very difficult to get Congress to go along with some of the things we wanted to do—send art abroad… In order to encourage openness we had to be secret.”
The most thorough recreation to date of that doomed project can be seen in “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy”, a travelling exhibition jointly organised by three university museums: Auburn University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia (Indiana University is also participating as a venue for the tour, but is not one of the organisers). The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue offer a thorough examination of a moment in American history when politics and culture—as well as professional expertise and populist taste—clashed, a phenomenon that feels all-too-familiar.
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50 years ago: CIA funding of US student and labor groups exposed
The February 13, 1967 admission by leaders of the liberal National Student Association (NSA) that their organization had been receiving funds from the Central Intelligence Agency since the 1950s sparked a series of exposures of the spy agency’s funneling of money to other domestic and international front organizations—including ones operated by the AFL-CIO.
The statement by the NSA came in response to the announcement by the antiwar magazine Ramparts that its March issue, then going to press, carried a detailed exposé of the CIA role inside the US student organization, in which the US spy agency used the international activities of the NSA to recruit agents and informants and spy on foreign students.
Newly elected National Student Association President Eugene Groves admitted that CIA funds had helped to finance the organization’s international activities, including participation in international conferences, where CIA agents posing as students identified radical-minded youth. Among those targeted were youth from Iran under the Shah and from apartheid South Africa, who were identified to the security forces of their murderous governments. The money, later revealed to be about $200,000 per year, was funneled through American foundations, such as the Independence Foundation of Boston, which served as fronts for the CIA.
Subsequent media reports soon linked the CIA to a troika of international “labor” organizations run by the AFL-CIO: the American Institute for Free Labor Development, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and the American-African Free Labor Institute. Other stories reported that the American Newspaper Guild received up to $1 million in contributions from foundations identified as CIA fronts, and that the retail clerks union was receiving money from another CIA front organization.
The American Institute for Free Labor Development was established in 1962, with the blessings of Wall Street and the US State Department, to support the construction of anticommunist unions in Latin America. Its top man was ex-Stalinist Jay Lovestone, the director of the AFL-CIO International Affairs department. Both Lovestone and Irving Brown, head of the American-African Free Labor Institute, were linked to the CIA.
AFL-CIO President George Meany stonewalled the charges, claiming he opposed connections between the AFL-CIO and the CIA. He brazenly denied any knowledge of affiliated unions receiving CIA funds and said he would conduct a private investigation of the allegations.