Jackson Pollock and the Cultural Cold War
Come Carpentier de Gourdon
30 August 2010
The film Pollock directed by Ed Harris, who plays the title role (2000) on the relatively short (1912-1956) and not so eventful but symbolically significant life of American painter Jackson Pollock, provides a vivid picture of a period in recent history which continues to heavily influence most of our (Western) cultural reality.
Pollock is shown as he certainly was, according to the records we have of him. The fifth son of a Scottish family from Wyoming, who was expelled from two schools in childhood for indiscipline and violent behaviour, his life was marked by serious mental problems and alcoholism. He was severely depressive, given to bouts of violent rage, and probably would be diagnosed as bi-polar nowadays.
For years he was a rather unknown painter in Greenwich village, with very little formal training until a local woman artist, Lee Krasner, became his lover (after, it seems, deliberately seducing him) and dedicated her considerable energy to promoting him. She was limited in her professional ambitions by her gender, but had good contacts in the New York oligarchy which was gaining ground against the Dutch-WASP old guard. Lee was thus able to introduce Pollock to Howard Putzel, adviser to the “queen of modern art”, the eccentric heiress Peggy Guggenheim, niece of the founder of the famed Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, who under the advice of Putzel and other influential critics such as Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, proclaimed her admiration for Pollock’s art, till then generally regarded as “brainless decorative wall paper” (Craig Brown wrote) and exhibited his works in her private gallery.
It must be noted that Peggy Guggenheim, who was a shrewd investor, did not behave quite as an old-fashioned disinterested patron in the tradition of Maecenas. Firstly, she put Pollock under a contract which gave her property of any painting that he could not sell and ensured for herself a large percentage fee on any sales, and secondly, she made him her lover. The film hints that it was part of the bargain that the millionairess, who was not physically prepossessing but was rumoured to be sexually predatory, and claimed to use her fame and wealth to get men into her bed, made with the impoverished and uncouth painter, fifteen years her junior. As the film reminds us, he had once urinated in her living room’s fireplace in the midst of a New Year party.
However, a more interesting context of this relationship is to be found in US establishment policies at the time, which promoted as a weapon against Communism and its artistic philosophy of social realism, a form of artistic anarchism or boundless individualism that its most articulate theorist, Rosenberg, in a 1952 ARTNews article, translated in the language of the graphic arts as “action painting” in which painting is no longer “a picture but an event”, going on to write that it amounted to “a liberation from value – political, aesthetic, moral”. There perhaps lies the origin of modern Installation Art.
The aforesaid manifesto of the aptly named Harold Rosenberg heralded the call for breaking all taboos, announcing both the sexual and hallucinogenic revolutions which rose in the following decade, but it was also reportedly connected to the Campaign for Cultural Freedom (later to become the International Association for Cultural Freedom or IACF), funded by the CIA’s International Organization’s Division since its start in 1950. During the Second World War, Rosenberg was deputy director of domestic radio for the Office of War Information, which connects him even more clearly to the intelligence community.
Rosenberg and Greenberg were both founding members, as well as the future father figure of Neo-Conservatism, Irving Kristol, and many other influential intellectuals and artists. Rosenberg, Greenberg and Leo Steinberg (who made his name by writing a book on the depictions of the genitalia of the child Jesus in Italian Renaissance art) were at the time, as Tom Wolfe called them in a later book, “the three kings of Culture Burg,” and no artist could break into the US art scene without getting their blessing.
Some may find it hard to believe that both the artistic revolution of the after-war years and the wave of drug consumption and “moral emancipation” which began a few years apart were instigated, or at least supported not so covertly, by an agency in the service of the ruling classes of the United States. But, apart from the fact that the CIA itself owns up to sponsoring the CCF, the documentary and financial evidence assembled by researchers such as F.S. Saunders and Eva Cockcroft is solid and validates the conclusion that the powers behind the Intelligence Establishment supported a form of cultural and spiritual disintegration in the pursuit of their larger goals, which may have been the breakdown of traditional family-based Christian society in the West, to be replaced by a technocratic organization of separate individuals within a morally anomic society, under the control of global Capital, mass media, and entertainment corporations.
The perception by the-powers-that-be, – in particular perhaps the cosmopolitan financial plutocracy that was fast replacing the old Christian industrial oligarchy, – was that old fashioned values and standards were inadequate to hold Stalinist Communism at bay, at a time when it was paradoxically becoming rather conservative in social and cultural terms. They held that iconoclastic, seemingly nihilistic alternatives would in fact reinforce the liberal financial system and effectively prevent any mobilization of the underprivileged against the ruling class while appearing to promote freedom against any kind of order or discipline. Such a call was carried in Europe by grassroots leaders such as Herbert Marcuse and Cohn Bendit.
That call was not only a declaration of war against socialist art and its educative or at least ideologically forming mission, it was also a denunciation of ancestral traditions, common to both the West and the East, according to which the artist and artisan are servants of the spiritual ideal of society, empowered with the task of showing divinity as beauty and truth in a visible or audible manner, thereby creating delectation for the beholder or the hearer.
Beauty itself, which Communist artists on the other side of the Iron Curtain sought to cultivate, was described by the new prophets as purely subjective, but above all “fascistic” and hence evil, or at least deeply suspect. The artist was no longer to refer to external models or ideas but only to his inner reality (as Pollock said in various interviews), especially if the latter was sickly, troubled, incoherent and dark. There was to be no meaning in his work, just a value expressed in monetary terms by the financial elite which controls the art market as if it were any other commodity or stock exchange.
The German and French Romantic icon of the “cursed poet” or pariah artist found thus its full expression, but was implicitly brought into the capitalistic system of ever growing financial values and profits through the closed system of monopolistic critics, controlled mass media, dominant galleries and billionaire collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim and her Upper-East Side coterie.
Clement Greenberg, pioneer of the word “kitsch”, used to refer disparagingly to the quest for beauty of traditional art, dedicated monographs to three other famous painters of his time, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Saul Steinberg. Advocating that painting should renounce creating the illusion of three-dimensional space and remain “flat”, which was incidentally to the advantage of those who had not learnt the techniques of perspective, he supported abstract expressionism (or painting as freely gestual), as being a symbol of the new American dominance of the art market, to be exported worldwide as an ideological tool for the promotion of capitalism. He was in line with the IACF’s agenda of aggressively exporting an “anti-traditional” message in the name of globalised Americanism, as an alternative to both ‘Old Europe” and the young USSR.
Pollock, a pioneer of this emerging brand of artistry, promoted as a weapon against both its traditional and socialist rivals, was both a poster child and a victim of the system for, until his later years, he was not able to get out of poverty in spite of churning out large numbers of canvasses covered in what old-fashioned critics called “baked macaroni”, produced by the technique of dripping industrial paint on canvas with the aid of sticks, trowels and other tools in order to give a chaotic result. That earned Peggy’s protégé the nickname of “Jack the Dripper”. After years of giving his works names which were called “pretentious” by many, he ended up simply numbering them by year as if he had renounced attributing any meaning to them, possibly on Greenberg’s advice, who favoured the blindly instinctive in artistic expression.
Settled in New York state countryside with Lee, who had become his wife after apparently giving him an ultimatum to marry her in 1945, his frequent and devastating bouts with drunkenness which led him more than once to spend nights on the pavement in soiled stupor, gradually took a toll on his productivity and appeared to betray chronic insecurity about his talent as he often referred to himself as a “phoney” and was hyper-sensitive to criticism such as Reynold’s remark that his daubs were “joke(s) in bad taste”.
Towards the end of his life, Pollock grew increasingly tired of Lee Krasner’s protective but stifling company, and reportedly shouted to her once in front of several guests that “he had never loved her”. She, however, refused to give him a divorce, as she had refused to bear him a child, though she left him when he took in a new lover, Ruth Kligman, a former mistress of De Kooning and an abstract painter herself. In 1956, the 44 year old Pollock, who had not painted for a year and was once more acutely depressed, seems to have voluntarily crashed his car (at least this is the version the film adopts) with Ruth and her friend Edith Metzger, who died; Ruth survived the accident. If he had indeed committed suicide, he is also guilty for the murder or at least the homicide of one of his two passengers, which throws a rather lurid light on the character of one of the idols of contemporary art.
Lee Krasner, his estranged but lawful wife, collected the material reward for her long standing devotion and far-sightedness after the tragic death of her philandering and abusive husband. She lived until 1984, inheriting and managing his estate, whose worth by then was estimated at many millions, and she is buried near him.
An epilogue to Pollock’s story is that in 2006, one of his works (the no. 5 of 1948) was acquired for 140 million USD from Hollywood moghul David Geffen by an unnamed German collector, making it at the time the most expensive painting in the world. A postscript might be that a reported lost Pollock was acquired for 5 Dollars by an American truck driver in 1992 at a thrift store, and would be worth more then 20 million if the authorship could be proven beyond dispute. Of course, if it is by an unknown dauber, then it is probably not worth the canvas on which it lies. What more telling illustration of the utter delusion that contemporary art (which gets old fast) is based on?
The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal