Friday, March 12, 2010

The CIA and the Art Conspiracy

Oleg Korolev, a fellow painter, writer, and philosophical ally; sent me a link to this article about the CIA meddling in the Art market. This is a theory that I had not yet stumbled upon, a theory that modernism arose - not because of philosophy, shifting aesthetics, or modern life, but for economic and political reasons. Being sceptical of but fascinated with all conspiracy theories, I boldly dove in. I have to say that the underlying theory seems logical to me. The idea that all of western culture would shift so remarkably in such a short amount of time over a few logically, aesthetically, and ethically flawed philosophies seems a bit much to swallow. I've always thought that there was more to it: some profiteering collectors, art historians, etc... The common driver to most paradigm shifts in history tends to be money and power.

So, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Clement Greenberg was one of the first to buy Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollack at dirt cheap prices, then after showering praise upon them the likes of which you might find in a tent with Billy Graham, Greenberg sold the works at astounding profits. But the theory that the CIA was also behind the success of American abstract expressionism, in order to combat communism, came as an interesting surprise to me.
Now, I have not done a fact check on this article any further than Clement Greenberg, which I know to be true. The rest I will have to reserve judgement on until more information surfaces. But it is certainly compelling.

Also, Oleg pointed me to the list of the most influential artists of 2010.

1. Andy Warhol
2. Pablo Picasso
3. Bruce Nauman
4. Gerhard Richter
5. Joseph Beuys
6. Robert Rauschenberg
7. Cindy Sherman
8. Paul Klee
9. Sol LeWitt
10. Henri Matisse
11. Ed Ruscha
12. Louise Bourgeois
13. John Baldessari
14. Sigmar Polke
15. Joan Miro
16. Martin Kippenberger
17. William Kentridge
18. Roy Lichtenstein
19. Man Ray
20. Lawrence Weiner
21. Vasily Kandinsky
22. Max Ernst
23. Georg Baselitz
24. Olafur Eliasson
25. Fischli & Weiss
26. Andreas Gursky
27. Thomas Ruff
28. Dan Graham
29. Marcel Duchamp
30. Douglas Gordon
31. Jasper Johns
32. Alberto Giacometti
33. Paul Cezanne
34. Mike Kelley
35. Donald Judd
36. Salvador Dali
37. Nam June Paik
38. Pierre Huyghe
39. Marina Abramovic
40. Damien Hirst
41. Anselm Kiefer
42. Richard Serra
43. Thomas Struth
44. Francis Alys
45. Claude Monet
46. Paul McCarthy
47. Vincent van Gogh
48. Gilbert & George
49. Rosemarie Trockel
50. Jeff Wall
51. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
52. Pipilotti Rist
53. Franz West
54. Max Beckmann
55. Rodney Graham
56. Bill Viola
57. Christian Boltanski
58. Tacita Dean
59. Wolfgang Tillmans
60. Vito Acconci
61. Alexander Calder
62. Gabriel Orozco
63. Yoko Ono
64. Fernand Leger
65. Jackson Pollock
66. Claes Oldenburg
67. Maurizio Cattelan
68. Edgar Degas
69. Jeff Koons
70. Jenny Holzer
71. Mona Hatoum
72. Richard Prince
73. Valie Export
74. Nan Goldin
75. Tony Oursler
76. Felix Gonzalez-Torres
77. Dieter Roth
78. Ellsworth Kelly
79. Willem de Kooning
80. Gordon Matta-Clark
81. Marcel Broodthaers
82. Cy Twombly
83. Liam Gillick
84. Michelangelo Pistoletto
85. Ilya & Emilia Kabakov
86. Paul Gauguin
87. Lucio Fontana
88. Anri Sala
89. Philip Guston
90. Daniel Buren
91. Jonathan Monk
92. Thomas Hirschhorn
93. Frank Stella
94. David Hockney
95. Yves Klein
96. Dan Flavin
97. Matthew Barney
98. Carl Andre
99. Pierre-Auguste Renoir
100. Erwin Wurm

Whether or not the CIA was involved in this, is up for debate and research, but one valuable purpose this article did serve was to begin a train of thought that revealed quite a bit about the Art market to me. And it has given me some more ammunition to reveal a couple of common myths associated with realist art.

1. That realist or Academic Art dominate and repress modernism, creativity, free expression.

One glance at this list will reveal to you the opposite. At least a quarter of the artists in the top 100 don't even make their work. They buy cheap skilled labor (i.e. us) and have them design and execute the work for them. These are the people in power. Notice that the first person you come to who has any skill whatsoever is Van Gogh at #47. Degas is just above Jeff Koons at # 68. And they're both dead. Not one old master, not one living master in the top 100. Most of them in the top 500 hundred are living artists that I've never heard of, but they quietly rake in the dough for their "work".

Andrew Wyeth #1,925
Odd Nerdrum #8,798.

As to Academia, it has been run by modernist and post-modernists for the last 100 years. Any University you go to anywhere in the world will teach you the 20th century philosophies of Art and very little else. The economics and educational systems in the Art world are both controlled by the 'good ol boys club'. So, the post-modern establishment can't claim to be the underdog.

2. That honoring skill is elitist, aristocratic, and undemocratic.

First, let me say that paintings are not created equally. And even though the American constitution says that people are, that is not the case. However, we cannot know or judge anyone's potential (I, for instance, once lived in a trailer park), and often people don't even know their own potential. So, I think what the constitution should ensure (and the art market, like any other sector of business) is equal opportunity.

Since the market is obviously controlled by collectors/investors, and Art historians/investors, (and I'm guessing that insider trading wasn't invented by Martha Stewart) then having or acquiring skill does you no good. It's all about who you know. And who knows the Oligarchs who run the game? Mostly other Oligarchs. With the 'good ol boys club' artificially controlling all the prices, there is no equal opportunity. You don't have the opportunity to work very hard and become a great great artist unless you get lucky enough to cozy up to the powers that be. But I'm telling you nothing new, though I think it's important to point out in this context.

3. That realist painters have sold out and make lots of money.

Take another look at that list above. One of the factors that they take into account when calculating these rankings is the price of the work. Damien Hirst is the richest artist alive. Not far behind are Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Brice Marden, Julian Schnabel, Anish Kapoor, and Jasper Johns.

There is a glass ceiling for contemporary realist painters because the big collectors mostly buy from the list above. There are a few incredibly independent collectors with good eyes, minds, and hearts who buy good work, and that is why you have some successful masters. But even Odd Nerdrum, who probably commands the highest price for a living master, only sells for a small fraction of what Koons, Hirst, or anyone in the top 500 do. The rest of the public, who largely prefers realism, generally can't or won't spend more than $10,000 for a painting. That may seem like a lot to you, but when you spend 3 or 6 months (or a year) on a painting and it sells for $10,000 (half of which the gallery keeps) you have a hard time just paying the bills. You either have to paint faster and possibly compromise your work, work at least 80 hours a week (like I do), come up with a clever gimmick and meet the right people, or become an abstract painter.

So, is there a CIA conspiracy? Perhaps. But one thing is certain, the Art world is more about politics and power than it is about Art.

Oleg also gave me a reading list which I will tackle, but may take some time to complete.

“Literary Star is Reborn” by Celia McGee
“Abstract Art and the Cultural Cold War” by Mark Vallen
... See More
The Real Agenda” by Richard Cummings
“The Empire Strikes Back,” by Karl Wenclas, and “A Crazy Tale“:
“The Fiction of the State” by Richard Cummings
War Stars — by H. Bruce Franklin
The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters — by Frances Stonor Saunders
“Cold War Duplicity” in Reluctant Radical — by Maxwell Geismar
The CIA calls the tune…“ iMomus


MCGuilmet said...

Want to really change the game? Then we change the playing field; and the rules. Only artists can do this. I am firmly convinced all the others take their cues from us in the first place. There is a logical path of least resistance that can accomplish this. Arguments such as 'beauty' and 'taste' will not regain all lost ground, never mind hold it. All they do is sustain more argument and feed profiteers bank accounts on both sides of the fence.

Kieran said...

"Notice that the first person you come to who has any skill whatsoever is Van Gogh at #47."

Ooh, I disagree. DalĂ­, at #36, may have been a bit mental, but you can't deny he had talent, if of a twisted sort.
Monet was pretty good too, again in his own way.

I'd say too, that although Schnabel's painting seems pretty awful, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly was an incredible film, so he deserves some credit as a director at least.

Overall, I can't help but share your sentiment. Keep up the great blog, I've recently found it and will keep coming back, promise!

RichardTScott said...


I completely agree with you. I must have overlooked Dali for some reason and The Diving Bell & the Butterfly was excellent.

Though film is a different form of visual art, just as conceptual art is. Bruce Nauman is largely an installation artist and Joseph Beuys was a performance artist, yet there are also a lot of painters included here. A problem with lists like these is that when you lump them all together as "artists" people have a tendency to judge a painting according to the same criteria for judging conceptual art and vice-versa. We're really talking about apples and oranges. Sure they're all fruit, but we don't judge music to be "irrelevant" according to the criteria for sculpture do we?

Moira Cue said...

Your comments about the old boys' club are accurate though I would say that you have missed the fact that the postmodern agenda is fully in control in today's academic system, and it is antagonistic to the Modern masters, particularly Picasso and friends. This postmodern clique is hostile to singular genius as it depends on cabals to perpetuate its "conspiracy of epigones." Postmodernism is no more than a shell game intended to dismiss or engulf the identity movements of the sixties and seventies. Put a few more doors on the museum and build it in the shape of a cash register, then foist the corporate hacks (and the art schools corporations, not benevolent institutions) off as artists. Painting is not dead, but too many of the humans who understand it are.