1. Japanese aesthetics
  2. Abstract Expressionism and the CIA

Japanese aesthetics

[T]he philosophical discipline in Japan corresponding to Western “aesthetics” did not get underway until the nineteenth century. A good way to survey the broader field is to examine the most important aesthetic ideas that have arisen in the course of the tradition, all of them before aesthetics was formally established as a discipline: namely, mono no aware (the pathos of things), wabi (subdued, austere beauty), sabi (rustic patina), yūgen (mysterious profundity), iki (refined style), and kire (cutting).

Abstract Expressionism and the CIA

Was Jackson Pollock a weapon in the Cold War? There is a lot of barbed wire surrounding that question. The Cold War had battlegrounds all over the world, and it was a hot enough war in some of them, but in the main battleground, Western Europe, it was a war for hearts and minds—an idea war, an image war, a propaganda war. Global combat on these terms was the policy of the American government. There was no secret about the policy, and most of its enactments—such as the Fulbright Program, which was established in 1946—were carried out in broad daylight and to public acclaim. But some were carefully shrouded, made to appear the work of individuals and institutions acting on their own, without government sponsorship, as was the case with the magazine Encounter, which was published in London and contributed to by prominent American and European intellectuals, and which was revealed, in 1967, to be a creature of the C.I.A.


[T]he promotion abroad of American art and letters after 1946 required a delicate form of intrigue between private institutions and government agencies. The more radical or modernist the art and letters, the more covert the government’s participation needed to be. The State Department and the U.S.I.A. could send “Oklahoma!” around the world (and did), but they could not very comfortably arrange emergency funding to keep Partisan Review afloat, as the C.I.A. seems to have done in 1953, or promote a style of avant-garde painting offensive to congressional tastes. The revelation about Encounter was part of a general exposure of the considerable extent to which the C.I.A., by means of dummy foundations and front organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, headquartered in Berlin, had subsidized and promoted activities that it calculated to be anti-Soviet. The fall-out was unpleasant. Many of the writers and editors associated with Encounter claimed that they had had no idea about the man behind the curtain; these people looked like dupes. Others claimed that “everyone knew”; these looked like the people Julien Benda warned about in “The Treason of the Intellectuals.” A shadow of suspicion fell over everything that might have elicited the interest and assistance of the C.I.A., and one of those things was Abstract Expressionism.

What would have been the geopolitical uses of abstraction? The theory, as it was proposed in articles published in Artforum and other journals in the nineteen-seventies, and then elaborated in Serge Guilbaut’s “How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art” (1983) and Frances Stonor Saunders’s “The Cultural Cold War” (1999), is that abstract painting was an ideal propaganda tool. It was avant-garde, the product of an advanced civilization. In contrast to Soviet painting, it was neither representational nor didactic. It could be understood as pure painting—art absorbed by its own possibilities, experiments in color and form. Or it could be understood as pure expression—a “school” in which every artist had a unique signature. A Pollock looked nothing like a Rothko, which looked nothing like a Gorky or a Kline. Either way, Abstract Expressionism stood for autonomy: the autonomy of art, freed from its obligation to represent the world, or the freedom of the individual—just the principles that the United States was defending in the worldwide struggle. Art critics therefore developed apolitical modes of appreciation and evaluation, emphasizing the formal rigor or the existentialist drama of the paintings; and the Museum of Modern Art favored Abstract Expressionists in its purchases and international exhibitions, at the expense of art whose politics might have been problematic—the kind of naturalist art, for example, that was featured in the “Advancing American Art” exhibition. But the C.I.A. lurked in the shadows. It turned out that a Pollock had a politics.