Cold War and transatlantic networks – yesterday and today

On the exhibition “Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and Cold war”

by Urs Knoblauch, Cultural Publicist, Fruthwilen

Only until 8 January 2018 the Berlin Museum “Haus der Kulturen der Welt” (House of Cultures of the World, HKW) attends to the reappraisal of propagandistic cultural policy during the Cold War from the 1950s onwards in a large exhibition and events. But also beyond this date, the topic remains relevant.
A thorough clarification of this important historical period is needed. For sure not incidentally the Berlin “Haus der Kulturen der Welt” was chosen for the exhibition, as this house was at the centre of the cultural-political activities outlined here. It was built on the initiative of Eleanor Dulles, the wife of the political hardliner and Secretary of State John Forster Dulles. She worked for the American State Department in Berlin, as Paul Jandl states in his article “Der Geheimdienst fördert die Kunst (The Secret Service promotes art)” in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 30 November 2017. Jandl continues writing that there were many members of the Dulles family who “made their career in the ideological shade of America, namely inside the CIA”*.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom

After the Second World War, the battle of political systems was fought in Europe and especially in Germany and France, but also in Austria and Italy on a large scale funding art, culture, media and education with millions of dollars. “This is exemplified by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF)” according to the HKW’s lead-in to the exhibition. In the “Cold Cultural War”, so the informative article about the exhibition in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” (18/19 November 2017), cultural hegemony and “modernity” were promoted in all cultural areas of the West. From 1950 onwards, the CCF organised numerous conferences, cultural events with famous personalities to spread American values and political concerns in Europe against the influence of communism and socialism, which had many followers among the intellectuals. “Starting from its headquarters in Paris, the CCF supported numerous cultural programmes in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia and supported a network of journals, conferences and exhibitions to promote the ‘universal’ language of modernity in literature, art and music.”
The CCF intervened more and more in the intellectual debate by supporting artists and media. Not only “Heinrich Böll and Sigfried Lenz are said to have benefited from the activities of the CIA treasurer”, but also “journals were founded which developed into important instruments of exchange. In Germany it was the ‘Monat’ (Month) created by the American journalist Melvin Lasky, with articles of André Gide and Arthur Koestler, but also Theodor W. Adorno and Hannah Arendt”.
“1967 it turned out that the CCF had been secretly financed by the CIA to promote the anti-communist consensus and thus the hegemonic interests of the USA in a Cold War of Cultures. The unveiling of the CIA scandal ruined the CCF’s reputation. The ideological contradictions and the morally dubious defence of freedom and transparency by means which, in turn, evaded democratic accountability were too obvious” (HKW). 44 West German newspapers, including the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and important newspapers from neighbouring countries, such as for example, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, were “subsidised” with large amounts of money.

The road to postmodernity

More than two dozen American foundations supported the “Cold Cultural War” with huge funding with millions of dollars besides the official and semi-official institutions. In music the avant-garde was promoted, in fine arts the modern, abstract painters were promoted above all. “Jackson Pollock’s pictures and the abstract Expressionism favoured by the Congress for Cultural Freedom were the epitome of formal freedom in absence of direct political messages”, according to the informative article in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. This was not about the historical “modernity” in art and architecture of the early 20th century, but about an abstraction without fundamental values, about an arbitrariness in terms of content and, in particular, about a devaluation of the valuable European tradition of realistic and value-oriented art and culture, which was since then hardly promoted any more.
In the Berlin exhibition, modern paintings by numerous well-known artists can be seen. The spectrum is shown from the propagated radical abstraction (un-representationalism) to the devalued figurative art (realism). The large-format Guernica painting by Picasso can be seen, refashioned by the Art&Language group of artists in Jackson Pollock’s “action painting style” in the 1980s. The pictures were compiled by the curators under the open term “Parapolitics”, which characterises the global dimension of cultural policy in the Cold War, the instrumentalisation, its influences and the “changing meanings and goals” of modernism and postmodernism.

A book by Volker Berghahn

The basic work “Transatlantic Cultural Wars – Shepard Stone, the Ford Foundation and European Anti-Americanism” (Stuttgart 2004) by the German historian Volker Berghahn, who taught at Columbia University in New York, is worth reading and particularly informative on the complex problems that the exhibition deals with. Using the example of a key person such as Shepard Stone (1908-1990), staff member of the “Ford Foundation”, special advisor to the US in the “Cold Cultural War”, and head of the influential Berlin Aspen Institute from 1974 to 1988, the reader gets a detailed insight into the historical source-material documenting how, from 1945 onwards, at various cultural fronts a battle for “the hegemonic power within the Western alliance” took place.
The literary scientist, film producer and cultural publicist Frances Stonor Saunders had already opened many artist’s eyes with her book “Wer die Zeche zahlt (Who finally pays) – the CIA and the culture in the Cold War” (New York 2000; Berlin 2001). The book’s reviewer at the time, Norbert Seitz, described how “prominent Western intellectuals intendedly or unintentionally became tools of the American secret service”. (Süddeutsche Zeitung 18.4.2001)

Effects to date

The cultural strategy of the Cold War has a major impact to this day. Paul Jandl rightly writes in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”: “One should not be fooled. When it matters, it [the art, uk] is still degraded to become a servant of politics. When it became clear in 2003 that the USA would declare war on Iraq, the United Nations in New York‘s headquarters quickly covered the tapestry showing Picasso‘s ‘Guernica’. President Bush’s so-called campaign of the good and foreign minister Colin Powell in front of Picasso’s anti-war picture: That won’t look good.”
The topic of the Cultural Wars, which is briefly presented here, deserves further deepening, especially with regard to the behavioural research and educational policy that America “promoted” centrally in connection with the “Cold Cultural War”. Similarly, today’s elaborate political propaganda and manipulation methods based on Edward Bernays, as well as the effects of theories and practice of “cultural hegemony” by Trotsky and Gramsci should be included.
Studying the programmes and activities for education at the “Haus der Kulturen der Welt” in Berlin, one can realise the actuality of the exhibition. It highlights the need not to misuse concepts such as “culture” and “freedom” and to define them more precisely. In this way, exhibitions and books can open our eyes and encourage us to reflect, including on the need for cultural ethics, to contribute in an honest, humane way and to take more care of the great wealth of European cultural tradition.    •

A publication on the exhibition will be published in English in spring 2018 at: www.hkw.de 

*    Translation of all quotes Current Concerns