January 1, 2010

Glad The CIA Is Immoral


[This text was originally published in C Magazine #99.]

Lene Berg’s artist book arrives in the mail in a zip lock bag. On the front of the bag is a large green sticker with a text in white letters. The heading reads INSTRUCTION MANUAL and it begins as follows:

Gentlemen & Arseholes consists of the first issue of the cultural journal Encounter from 1953, along with a series of supplementary materials that are inserted between the original pages. The inserts were collected over a long period, from books, newspapers, private albums, conversations, and so on, and thus vary in their character and form. What they all have in common is that they describe aspects of that which, for various reasons, was never mentioned in Encounter, nor in connection with any of the other undertakings of the sponsor and publisher, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (1950-1967).

The ‘aspects’ in question, which were never mentioned in any issue of Encounter but are documented extensively in it’s re-printing as Gentlemen & Arseholes (2006), concern the fact that the Congress for Cultural Freedom – which also organized international conferences, artist residencies and publications in other languages – was secretly funded by the CIA with the objective of turning the European intelligentsia away from Communism and Socialism and of ameliorating the image of the United States. For a long time these aspects have no longer been secret, and in fact now anyone can read about them on the CIA website.

The re-printed first issue of Encounter features beautiful literary texts and essays from Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Christopher Isherwood, the Japanese writer Dazai Osama and many others, all of whom apparently knew nothing about the CIA agenda of the publication (though as the years rolled on there would certainly be rumors.) Neither did editors such as Stephen Spender or ‘Honorary Chairmen’ such as Karl Jaspers and Bertrand Russell.

But one man definitely did know. In a sense Gentlemen & Arseholes is the story of Michael Josselson, founder and head of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Many of the inserts in Gentlemen & Arseholes tell the story of Josselson and the charm and persuasiveness with which he led his double life as both the head of a prestigious cultural foundation and a CIA agent. In Lene Berg’s accompanying video The Man In The Background (2006) his widow Diana Josselson is interviewed at length about their life together:

It was life pervasive. […] You couldn’t talk freely to anybody that was not a co-CIA person. And as I said: it comes at every turn. This was easy, because Michael was a charmer and he did it naturally. I followed as well as I could.

Later she goes on to defend him quite bluntly (and yet I also found this moment strangely touching):

It wasn’t a question of what these people in the books say, that he was a stooger for the CIA. He was an independent thinker and actor, and part of his problem was to keep the boss happy, and mostly he did that.

Berg focuses on Michael Josselson not only because he was in charge but also, more importantly, because when in May 1967 Thomas W. Braden (in fact one of the very bosses mentioned above) published the article I’m glad the CIA is ‘immoral’ in The Saturday Evening Post, an article which confirmed the link between the CIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Josselson almost exclusively took the fall. All of the other writers and thinkers associated with Encounter emerged from the scandal relatively unscathed, claiming they didn’t know a thing, continuing their prestigious careers in the arts and academy. But Josselson’s life was completely ruined. Braden’s article was apparently the CIA’s way to get rid of an organization that had become a burden. By 1967 speculations about the CIA link had grown pervasive, focusing on the fact that there had been no mention of Vietnam in any issue of Encounter. (What better way to ‘ameliorate the image of the United States’ than to act as if the Vietnam war simply didn’t exist.)

Thomas W. Braden – who was head of CIA’s international Organizations Division (IOD) from 1950-1954 – makes other appearances in the inserts of Gentlemen & Arseholes, including this quote from the Granada television program World in Action: The Rise and Fall of the CIA (1975):

It [CIA] never had to account for the money it spent except to the President… the funds were not only unaccountable, they were unvouchered, so there was really no means of checking them – ‘unvouchered funds’ meaning expenditures that don’t have to be accounted for… […] Since it was unaccountable, it could hire as many people as it wanted. It never had to say to any committee – no committee said to it – ‘You can only have so many men.’ It could do exactly as it pleased. It made preparations therefore for every contingency. It could hire armies; it could buy banks. There was simply no limit to the money it could spend and no limit to the people it could hire and no limit to the activities it could decide were necessary to conduct the war – the secret war… It was a multinational. Maybe it was one of the first.

This notion of the CIA as the first multinational strikes me as extremely resonant. For many years now I have often found myself thinking that the world we live in is so utterly influenced by CIA thinking, strategies and money. The more I learn about the extent of CIA activities since the end of World War Two the more I feel that other, more subtle, explanations for our current predicament – the startling rise of the right and concurrent decline of the left, the war on terrorism, the unfettered expansion of capital, etc. – are relatively unnecessary. The CIA of course cannot be held responsible for all of the world’s ills, but they worked really hard and did a lot. Definitely more than most people realize. And yet at the same time I am extremely careful who I say such things around. To be branded a ‘conspiracy theorist’ is a further marginalization I don’t exactly feel like I need in my already marginalized cultural existence. (Ironically, who else but the CIA could dream up a strategy as simple and effective as branding someone a conspiracy theorist.) So it is likely that before I had even opened the zip lock bag, Lene Berg had already found a true fan. But this work then went on to earn my love, speaking to my interests with an eloquence, perceptiveness and conceptual rigor that for me are the very essence of art.

There is no evidence that the CIA ever censored Encounter, or in any way told the editors or writers what they should write, think, or say. Judging by all available facts, the whole thing was based on a tacit agreement between what the people associated with Encounter wanted to do, and what the CIA wanted to fund.

Because Gentlemen & Arseholes is not only about the possibly CIA-influenced world in which we currently live. It is also, like all of Lene Berg’s work, about a more basic relationship between art and politics. The secret nature of the CIA funding makes it a particularly insidious example, but we can certainly find parallels for this ambiguous dynamic in all historical periods in which artists have received support, whether it be from the church, the king, the bourgeoisie, the state or the market. Artists always need money and, fiercely dedicated to artistic concerns, it might even seem natural not to question too much where the money comes from or why. Why not simply be grateful that it is possible to continue producing artistic works in (what are always for artists) difficult times?

It seems clear to me that Josselson believed he was doing the right thing and genuinely believed that he was taking government money and putting it towards a good cause. Of course he also believed in the fight against communism. Much like the fight against terrorism today, such battles are an excellent pretext for the re-distribution of priorities and the re-distribution of wealth. Give the money to artists and writers who are not communist, raise their profiles, build their careers and reputations. The writers and artists who are communist will take the hit indirectly, falling ever so slightly behind, with only unfounded suspicions as to the real reasons why. In The Man in the Background Berg questions the long-term effects of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, wondering if perhaps it is one of the reasons that today 90% of all cultural products in Europe are produced in America. Of course there is no way we can find out what the world would be like if Michael Josselson and the Congress for Cultural Freedom had never existed. But there is plenty of room to speculate.

There is much art today that gives lip service to being ‘political’ but it is rare for an artwork to ask difficult, compelling, real-world political questions in a manner that at the same time resonates so effortlessly with the dilemmas of artistic praxis. Such battles are political but they are also, on so many levels, deeply romantic: concerning the real questions of what we believe in, how much we believe in it, and whether or not we are willing to fight. It is rare I get to write about art that makes me think and feel as much as the work of Lene Berg. And therefore I would like to end with something that, like all romantic battles, goes a bit too far: far enough to take on the violence of the very rigged historical battle between the CIA and the left, to match Michael Josselson’s perhaps inevitable, yet somehow still tragic, fall from grace. But all I have come up with is this (and I write it here because it is true): Lene Berg is the artist I have been waiting for all of my life.


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