Saturday, January 10, 2015

President Hottentot

Forty years ago, I worked for Bantam Books.  It was a fantastic job: I finally had a boss who would let me read on the job. 

And I actually met my boss, Ian Ballantine, on more than one occasion.   Ballantine was one of the most fascinating men I have ever met.  The founder of Penguin Books, Ballantine Books, and Bantam Books—he probably put more books into the hands of the common man than anyone else since Gutenberg.  I had several long conversations with this genius, and I have to say that he was always far more kind to me than I deserved.

On one occasion, the company brought me to New York for a conference that was postponed so often that, eventually, no one could remember why it was originally scheduled.  Besides a wonderful week exploring New York, I got taken on a brief tour of the corporate offices by Ballantine himself.  I was astounded by the artwork on his office walls--particularly a couple of M. C. Escher prints.

Naively, I asked how he could come to possess so many incredible originals.  Ballantine smiled and told me a trade secret: the publishing houses looked for prolific, young, and not yet well known artists who could be put under contract.  Some, but not all, of their work would be used for book cover illustrations.  After a few years, the company would produce a coffee-table book of the collected work of the artist, then begin selling off the collected pieces.

The fact that the art world could be…manipulated…to create a market was astounding to a poor dumb ol' Texas boy.  I guess I thought the art world was regulated by pixies or elves or something.  (Come to think of it, Ian Ballantine did look like a large pixie.) 

“Who have you done this with?" I asked.

Ballantine just pointed to the work hanging on his office wall.  The works of  Frazetta, Froud, and Escher were easily recognizable, even to a country hick like me.

Years later, the famous editor founded yet another publishing house:  Rufus Publications.  Ian, acting exactly like a real pixie, named it after his wifes dog.  This new company put together illustrated art and fantasy books, like "Faeries," by Brian Froud, as well as the 1992 best seller "Dinotopia," by James Gurney.  (You probably own one of these.)

But that was decades ago--a lot of decades ago--and I am no longer a poor dumb olcountry boy.  (Now, Im no longer a "boy"!).  And, despite knowing better, I was shocked at the recently declassified  government records that revealed that a lot of popular modern art from the fifties and sixties was a result of—wait for it--the CIA.  (Writing that last sentence gave me giggles.  I feel like an Arkansas conspiracy nut!)

“Them durn black helicopters is puttin' mind-controlling chemicals up thar in them sky contrails—.”  Shit!--I cant even joke about that crap--theres a couple of professors here at Enema U that actually believe that nonsense!  Lately, you wouldnt believe some of the whoppers professors tell about each other!  (I've even heard that one professor thinks that people sneak into her office in the middle of the night and... no, I'll save that nonsensical story for another night.)

The CIA was founded in 1947, during the Cold War.  For those of you under the age of 40, the Cold War was a period when both the United States and the Soviet Union were the only two Superpowers and we disagreed on everything.  (Mostly, there was a lot more shouting than shooting.)  The rivalry was as intense as it was...well...stupid.

What was the American policy on bananas?  I don't remember, but it was the polar opposite of the Soviet Union's.  So when the land of Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, and Tolstoy declared that America was a cultural wasteland, we had to prove that we weren't.  Painting--as with most art in the Soviet Union--had become locked in an ideological straight jacket.  New styles of painting were not going to be accepted by the Communist Party.

So what was the polar opposite?  The CIA embraced, funded, and (more than occasionally) bought paintings in order to artificially support the price of Abstract Expressionist artwork, such as the works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.

This was surprisingly easy to do in the fifties, since the boards of major art museums read like a roster of the founding fathers of both the CIA and the OSS (the WWII precursor to the CIA).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded by Nelson Rockefeller, who chaired the board of directors for the museum.  The CIA set up a dummy organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom--which was a collection of historians, artists, jazz musicians, and writers--that eventually had offices in 35 nations.  Funded secretly by the CIA, it exported American culture, including Abstract Expressionist artwork.

While this program certainly elevated the public acceptance of abstract art, it would be impossible to ever determine how successful this artistic school would have become without the infusion of government support and funding. 

It would be wrong to say that the CIA invented Abstract Expressionist art, however, it would be entirely correct to say they made it popular and helped create a market for it.

The movement did have its detractors: at the very beginning, the President of the United States, declared that he didn't like the new art.  "If this is art," declared Harry Truman, "then I'm a Hottentot."

The program was more successful than the CIA had ever hoped and American culture flourished across Europe and Asia.  To what extent this was due to our clandestine efforts will never be known. 

To be honest, I have to admit that--like Truman--I have never really understood the works of Jackson Pollock.  I've always wondered: if I were to turn any one of my four granddaughters loose on one of Pollock's masterpieces, armed with a brush and similarly colored paint--after 5 minutes could anyone tell any difference?  Could even Jackson Pollock?

I sure as hell couldn't.  But then, I'm just a poor, dumb ol' country boy.


  1. I'm with you on abstract impressionism. I've always thought that those artists were just messin' with us. Of course, I'm a poor dumb Texas Boy too.

    I'm just as skeptical as you with regard to conspiracy theories, but this one I can believe. It's just dumb enough to be a government operation.

  2. When we first moved to Las Cruces 20 years ago, we bought a house on Imperial Ridge that was owned by Frank Hararry, a retired computer science prof. While we were looking at the house prior to buying it, I noticed that he too had several original MC Escher drawings in his house.

  3. If someone is wondering what to give Kevin and I for Christmas this year...