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Cia etc.

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WOID #V-23. Review: Miffed Moles
Thu, 7 Dec 2000 09:30:54 -0500 (EST)

Frances Stonor Saunders, "The Cultural Cold War. The CIA and the World
of Art and Letters" New York: The New York Press, 1999

There is nothing more satisfying for a paranoid than finding there
actually is someone hiding under your bed; but what do you do for an
encore? Do you check every night for that very special someone? And
wouldn't you feel a great sense of loss if there were no one there?
Frances Stonor Saunders has written the story of the Congress for
Cultural Freedom, an international coterie of cold-war intellectuals
that had its its tentacles wrapped around almost every aspect of art
and culture. In its heyday in the 'fifties and early 'sixties The CCF
sponsored travelling exhibitions of abstract expressionist art, panels
of international scholars, and journals of opinion throughout the
world. Eventually it transpired that the Congress was a conduit for CIA
money: its charter was a call for intellectual freedom but its secret
mission was the defense of American interests and the countering of
Soviet propaganda.

This book is worth reading for its index alone: it seems as if every
other intellectual or artist in the so-called Free World was taken in -
if not outright bribed. Okay, since you asked, there's a juicy bit
where Michael Kimmelman, art critic for the New York Times, is hired by
the Museum of Modern Art to "investigate" their association with the
CIA - and clears them, of course.

Hello? I once worked for a CIA front - about two weeks, the time it
took to figure out what they were up to. That was also the time it took
for the boss to figure me out and cut me loose. So how come it took all
these brilliant luminaries of the art-world twenty years to discover
what a clumsy teenager could see within days?

Saunders has great empathy for the intellectuals who ran the operation,
their reasoning, their personalities and their rationale for promoting
free speech and a democracy of the mind through hidden subsidies, the
manipulation of information and the promotion of third-rate talents.
All along they described themselves as the "Non-Communist Left,"
meaning what we'd call today "progressives."

Eventually it was the CIA itself that shut down the operation: the
Congress was not sufficiently supportive during the Vietnam War. The
tragic hero of this farce - tragically flawed, of course - is Michael
Josselson, a head puppeteer for the organization. When it was all over
Josselson and his "witting" friends insisted that they would have done
what they did even without the backing of the CIA.

Well and good; but it's not clear whether "what they would have done"
means a) taking up a particular intellectual position; b) lying to
their friends and colleagues or c) being rewarded for it, whether by
the CIA or anyone else. This is worth noting, because the kinds of
shenanigans described here go on every day of the week: on panels, on
the news, in "progressive" or "liberal" journals. I'm not saying the
CIA still pulls the strings, I'm saying the strings are still being
pulled: there's something pathetic, actually, about these "panels of
artists" that are meant to co-opt, these news items obviously planted,
these appeals to marches leading nowhere. Maybe, like Pinocchio, there
are a lot of puppets adrift in the world these days, desperately
seeking handlers.

So it's not the CIA that concerns us, after all: it's the attitudes,
the arrogance, the power fantasies of a small elite, that led Josselson
and others to this pass. Oddly, the hero of Stonor's story is Jean-Paul
Sartre, still one of the most systematically vilified intellectuals of
our time. Sartre, it seems, was one of the few intellectuals who would
not be bought by Right or Left, but would lend himself, fully, rightly
or wrongly, to whatever cause he chose.

In Sartre's play "The Devil and the Good Lord" there is a character
named Heinrich. Heinrich has been captured by Goetz, the enemy general,
and he expects to be tortured until he hands over the key to a besieged
city. Goetz suggests that if Heinrich absolutely insists he'll be glad
to torture him, but since Heinrich has already decided to turn traitor,
why should Goetz provide him with an excuse? Think about it the next
time you pick up a copy of some radical rag, or the Journal of Record.
Think about it when you admire some "engaged" artist or sit through one
of those interminable meetings. Think about it the next time you hear
that "I support X but I'm voting for Y." We have met the enemy, etc.,

Paul T Werner, New York

WOID: A journal of visual language

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