Art: A Cold War Battle for the Soul

Lost in the intrigue and adventure of ‘hotter’ missions during the Cold War (1947-1991), art became camouflaged propaganda.  Art as a mechanism for propaganda floats up and recedes back into human consciousness with the regularity of an unseen tide. The Smith-Mundt

Propaganda Poster promoting corn sales

Propaganda Poster promoting corn sales

Modernization Act of 2012 became effective on July 2nd and its key opens the doors for the CIA’s, Central Intelligence Agency’s, well-oiled propaganda machine to enter American living rooms. The 1948 version of the bill allowed the CIA to plaster the outside world with propaganda and forbid its use on the American people. Kurt Nimmo, an Info Wars reporter, writes; “The law set the stage for Frank Wisner, who headed up the CIA’s covert action division in the early 1950s, to build his “mighty Wurlitzer,” described by none other than the New York Times as “the means for orchestrating, in almost any language anywhere in the world, whatever tune the CIA was in the mood to hear.”

Propaganda is different from disinformation. The difference is intent. Disinformation entered the lexicon about fifty years ago and, according to the Business Dictionary, it is “Information that seems truthful, relevant and based on unbiased facts, but has been concocted to mislead the recipient in order to attain fraudulent monetary, military, political, or religious objectives. The information explosion has been continuously shadowed by an almost equally powerful disinformation explosion, especially on the internet.”[1]  The University of Arizona’s Don Fallis provides a fascinating study of the subject in A Conceptual Analysis of

Soviet propaganda for future Olympians

Soviet propaganda for future Olympians

Disinformation. [2] The former Soviet Union considers disinformation a science and teaches it as such. In June, Lieutenant General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking Soviet bloc intelligence official to defect to the West, and Professor Ronald Rychlak released Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategy for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism, a book that explores exactly how this technique was used. Propaganda, on the other hand, is a lighter subject; the mass marketing or branding of an idea.

The propaganda blitz of the U.S. and Soviet ‘Art Battles’ engaged visual and performing arts as heavy artillery to illustrate the wonder of each culture. Illinois Representative Fred Busby provided the government’s objectives when in the late 1940s he said, “This is what the communists and other extremists want to portray…that the American people are despondent, broken down or of hideous shape—thoroughly dissatisfied with their lot and eager for a change in government.”[3] The U.S. devised the “Advancing American Art” idea for a major propaganda push. The brains behind the U.S. art propaganda effort were Joseph LeRoy Davidson’s, a U.S. State Department employee who was the former curator of the Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. Founded in 1879, the Walker Art Center was the first public art gallery in the Upper Midwest[4] and provided Davidson with a unique understanding of how art communicates. The intent was to highlight the importance of the artists within the U.S. culture through individual achievements in the arts.

Davidson’s “Advancing American Art” crashed on the coral reef of politics. The conservatives had a congressional heart attack when they saw the selection of art for the exhibits. Davidson had

Georgia O’Keeffe served on Davidson's panel. (photo by Alfred Stieglitz 1918)

Georgia O’Keeffe served on Davidson’s panel. (photo by Alfred Stieglitz 1918)

engaged a panel of artists to select individual exhibit pieces. He bought 117 pieces from 69 different artists based on the advice of Alfred Stieglitz, curators from the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, established artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Max Weber as well as newcomers like Philip Guston and Ben-Zion. (See Footnote 3) According to The Art Newspaper’s Lauren Ross in When art fought the Cold War,[5] … “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.”… Ross goes on to talk about the reconstitution of “Advancing American Art” as a touring historic exhibit.

The “Advancing American Art” mission may have failed miserably but the idea of communicating with art is enduring. One of my favorite art devolutions is

the use of posters to sway public opinion. The creation of the three second message for propaganda must be great fun. Each side of the Cold War wanted to galvanize its population to

This may be U.S. Cold War propaganda but I cannot find a second source so it may also be newly minted to make a point.

This may be U.S. Cold War propaganda but I cannot find a second source so it may also be newly minted to make a point.

reach the winner’s circle. Fresh ideas and campaigns were entertained on a daily basis; keeping a war ‘fresh’ for forty four years is not easy. Each side must demonize the other and individual players must remain loyal to a ‘side’. There are several angles from which to approach each idea and there are twists in every angle, so the permutations for propaganda generation are, for all intents and purposes, infinite. Naming a few of the known angles may stir the imagination; the human herd instinct to join with the crowd, endorsements by famous people or ‘the common man’, transfer techniques, which use symbols, quotes or images of famous people to convey a message not necessarily associated with them, promotion, fear, logical fallacies where the premises may be accurate but the conclusion is not, glittering generalities and name calling. Fun isn’t it?

For most of us war, even the Cold War, was about the struggle of cultures for the right to survive

Soviet propaganda reassuring the people of weapons system superiority.

Soviet propaganda reassuring the people of weapons system superiority.

. The idea of war evokes visions of horror, terror, and death. War also transports the brilliant spinners, who convert data into convenient information or misinformation, onto center stage and under the spotlight with their words and images. Determining the truth of the message returns, as it almost always does, to personal responsibility.

While the CIA is now formally sanctioned to hit us between the eyes with propaganda, we do not, as individuals, have to accept their view of the world. We have been bathed in propaganda from the government and the private sector for generations and it is why the vast majority of Americans no longer believe their government or the crony capitalists. We, as individuals, must also guard against skepticism for the sake of skepticism, which is also a belief system.

It is time for each of us to ‘source’ our knowledge base. The path to this lofty goal is not flat, in fact the walk is up-hill most of the way. It is time consuming and a royal pain in the ‘okole but it is the only way to assure that our decisions and opinions are based in fact rather than in what others want us to decide or believe.


[2] University of Arizona; Don Fallis; A Conceptual Analysis of Disinformation;


[5] The Art Newspaper; Lauren Ross. Features, Issue 246, May 2013; When art fought the Cold War;

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