The Role of Money and Timing in Culture: The CIA and Abstract Expressionism

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Heather Cox Richardson

I have heard talk of the exportation of modern American art during the Cold War as a means of proselytizing, but I’d never considered the mechanics of that propaganda. It seemed to me a wing of art theory, and while that’s a subject that always entertains me, it’s something for which I have very little brain space during the school year.
From Life magazine, August 8, 1949.

A recent article by Frances Stonor Saunders in The Independent explains exactly how the CIA promoted American abstract expressionism worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s. Their goal was to highlight the openness and experimentation possible in America’s capitalist system, contrasting it with the rigid conformity of state-censored socialist realism (some of which, to my Philistinic eye, seems worth looking at even if Soviet state officials thought so, too.) At first, the CIA tried to promote work by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko at home. Quickly, though, abstract expressionism ran into the conformism of the 1950s. Even President Truman announced: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.”

So CIA operatives set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which salted art magazines praising abstract expressionism and sponsored exhibitions that toured European cities. They worked closely with Nelson Rockefeller, president of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (which his mother had founded), to showcase “free enterprise painting.” When museums eager to show the new art could not afford the cost of exhibitions, the CIA tapped American millionaires as ostensible sponsors, then provided the necessary money from government coffers. After World War II, abstract expressionism became the symbol of modern America.

This story opens many fascinating avenues for historical exploration. It also touches on a subject dear to my heart and the hearts of intellectual historians everywhere: the relationship between art and money. Today we recognize abstract expressionism as one of the great cultural developments in history. And yet, the CIA stepped in to underwrite it after one congressman called it “trash.” Would Motherwell and Pollock—both of whose works I find mesmerizing—have become Motherwelland Pollock without a propaganda campaign on their behalf? Would they have had to quit experimenting and start painting advertisements instead? What might have taken over the cultural future in that case?

How much is cultural significance dependent on being in the right place at the right time? Everyone knows that Renaissance masters had patrons, but how much have things changed? Patti Smith’s Just Kids suggests that Robert Mapplethorpe’s fame was underwritten by his wealthy mentor and partner. The Timoney Group has mapped forty years of Bruce Springsteen’s tours and made the case that his access to huge audiences in New Jersey and New York determined his meteoric rise. Would Mapplethorpe have become Mapplethorpe if he had not attracted a rich patron? Would Bruce Springsteen have been The Boss if he had grown up in Nebraska?

It seems to me that the question of cultural significance and money remains a crucial one for study.

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Science, Religion, and the Modern West: The April Issue of Historically Speaking

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Randall Stephens

In the coming week the April 2013 issue of Historically Speaking will be posted to the Project Muse site.  Subscribers can expect it soon in mailboxes.  The issue includes essays on environmental history, ancient religion, teaching, and Harry Truman.It also features interviews with Matthew Bowman on Mormonism in American history, John R. Gillis on seacoasts in history, and turning points of World War I with Ian F.W. Beckett. 

In addition the April issue includes a lively forum on "Scientific Culture in the Modern Era" with intellectual historian Stephen Gaukroger (University of Sydney).  "One of the most distinctive features of Western culture since the 17th century is the gradual assimilation of all cognitive values to scientific ones," writes Gaukroger in his lead essay. "A particular image of the role and aims of scientific understanding is tied up in a very fundamental way with the self-image of Western modernity. One striking illustration of this is the way that the West’s sense of what its superiority consisted of shifted seamlessly in the early decades of the 19th century from religion to science. From that time on, but particularly in the second half of the 20th century, this self-understanding has been exported as an essential ingredient in the process of modernization."

With this major shift in Western thought, soon enough religion came under new scrutiny. Using the perspectives of historical-critical thinking and later developments in science, researchers from the late-19th century forward began to reinterpret the sacred texts of the West. In an essay on "The Dead Sea Scrolls," also in the April issue, John J. Collins  (Yale Divinity School) examines changing perspectives and decades of wrangling about the meaning and context of the scrolls.  ""No archaeological discovery of the 20th century has aroused more interest than the Dead Sea Scrolls," Collins observes.

Below are two sections from Collins' fascinating piece on the arguments and counterarguments about the scrolls:

[American biblical scholar and historian] Robert Eisenman argued that the Scrolls, rather than the Gospels, were the primary documents of early Christianity, which was a hate-filled, xenophobic movement. Australian scholar Barbara Thiering claimed that Jesus was the figure called “the Wicked Priest” in the Scrolls. Two British writers, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, published a book called The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception in 1991, in which they argued that Allegro and Eisenman were right, but that the truth was suppressed by the priests on the editorial team at the behest of the Vatican. Most scholars dismiss all of this as nonsense, but it always finds a ready market in the press. Even now, after most of the debates have subsided, laypeople ask earnestly whether Jesus or John the Baptist were Essenes. There is no reason to think that they were.
Text from The Great Isaiah Scroll,
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.


In fact, the relevance of the Scrolls to early Christianity is complex. They fill out many details about the world in which Christianity was born. The followers of Jesus, like the Essenes, believed that history would soon come to an end, that a savior figure would come from heaven, and that messiahs would restore the right order on Earth. Their idea of what constituted the right order, however, was very different from that of the Essenes. Jesus and his followers did not place great emphasis on purity, and were more concerned about what came out of a person’s mouth than with what went in. The sect known from the Scrolls, in contrast, was obsessed with purity, and separated themselves from their fellow Jews to avoid defilement.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 was a turning point in the history of scholarship on the Scrolls. Both the site of Qumran and the Rockefeller Museum where most of the Scrolls were kept came under Israeli
An aerial view of the ruins of Qumran. From the
BBC documentary Traders of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1998).
control. The Israelis did not immediately interfere in the publication process. The old editorial team remained in place for more than twenty years. But Yigael Yadin, who was both a general in the army and a distinguished scholar, took some soldiers and paid a visit to Kando, the cobbler in Bethlehem who was the middleman to whom the Bedouin brought the Scrolls. After some “unpleasant” negotiations, Yadin took possession of a long document called the Temple Scroll, which Kando had hidden in a shoe box under the floor boards. Kando later received a payment from the Israelis by way of settlement. . . .

The debates about the Scrolls have often been acrimonious. Norman Golb, long-time professor at the University of Chicago, has persistently disputed the Essene attribution, and has complained vociferously whenever his position is not acknowledged. His son Rafael, a real-estate lawyer in New York, was convicted in the State Supreme Court in November 2009 of impersonating a prominent Scrolls scholar, Lawrence Schiffman, who disagrees with his father, and pretending to confess to plagiarism in Schiffman’s name, apparently in the hope of incriminating him. Elisha Qimron, the scholar who helped publish 4QMMT, sued a magazine publisher, Herschel Shanks, for unauthorized publication of the reconstructed text and translation. Shanks was convicted by an Israeli court and had to pay damages. Exchanges about the Scrolls have often been more heated than is usual in the normally peaceful world of biblical scholarship.

It is somewhat difficult to say why this is so. For scholars like Golb, the Jewish character of the Scrolls seems to be at stake. The implication is that if they are attributed to a marginal sect, the Essenes, they are not “really Jewish” and are more akin to Christianity. For a long time Christian scholars had seemed to appropriate the Scrolls and set them against rabbinic Judaism. Certainly, some of the claims about the relevance of the Scrolls for early Christianity have been wildly exaggerated. . . .

The full essay will soon be posted at Project Muse. Subscribe to Historically Speaking here.

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Ceibal Reveals Clues to Mayan Origins

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A site called Ceibal in Guatemala is the oldest Mayan ceremonial compound in Central America’s lowlands and is now believed to have functioned as a solar observatory for rituals. It  also suggests that the origins of the Maya civilization are more complex than first believed.

Archaeologists hotly debate whether the Maya -- famous for their complex calendar system that spurred apocalypse rumors last year -- developed independently or whether they were largely inspired by an earlier culture known as the Olmec.
According to Discovery News:
"This major social change happened through interregional interactions," said study researcher Takeshi Inomata, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona. But it doesn't look like the Olmec inspired the Maya, Inomata told reporters. Rather, the entire region went through a cultural shift around 1000 B.C., with all nearby cultures adopting similar architectural and ceremonial styles. 
"It's signaling to us that the Maya were not receiving this sophisticated stuff 500 years later from somebody else, but much of the innovation we're seeing out of the whole region may be coming out of Ceibal or a place like Ceibal," said Walter Witschey, an anthropologist at Longwood University in Virginia, who was not involved in the study.
The finding comes from seven years of archaeological excavations at Ceibal, which was occupied continuously for 2,000 years.

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Roundup: Biography Reviews

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Copies of classical Roman busts, the
Scottish National Gallery.  Photo by
Randall Stephens.
Susan Ware, "The challenges and rewards of biographical essays," OUPblog, April 11, 2013

One of the first things I did after being appointed general editor of the American National Biography was to assign myself an entry to write. I wanted to put myself in the shoes of my contributors and experience first-hand the challenge of the short biographical form.>>>

"Paul Johnson reviews 'C.S. Lewis: A Life', by Alister McGrath," Spectator, April 20, 2013

C.S. Lewis became a celebrity but remains a mysterious figure. Several biographies have been written, not to much avail, and now Alister McGrath, a professor of historical theology, has compiled a painstaking, systematic and ungrudging examination of his life and works. Despite all the trouble he has taken, his book lacks charm and does not make one warm to his subject.>>>

Jonathan Freedland, "A Man of His Time: ‘Karl Marx,’ by Jonathan Sperber," New York Times, March 29, 2013

The Karl Marx depicted in Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing, meticulously researched biography will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics. Here is a man never more passionate than when attacking his own side, saddled with perennial money problems and still reliant on his parents for cash, constantly plotting new, world-changing ventures yet having trouble with both deadlines and personal hygiene, living in rooms that some might call bohemian, others plain “slummy,” and who can be maddeningly inconsistent when not lapsing into elaborate flights of theory and unintelligible abstraction.>>>

Andrew Wulf, "How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore – review," Guardian, January 4, 2013

In June 1769, 21-year-old Thomas Day and his friend John Bicknell went to the Orphan Hospital in Shrewsbury to select a prepubescent girl for Day. This was not a gesture of charity to remove the girl from her destitute situation but an experiment in which Day was trying to create his "perfect wife". >>>

"First Son: The University of Chicago Press Announces the First Biography of Richard M. Daley," Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2013

On September 7, 2010 the longest-serving and most powerful mayor in the history of Chicago -- and, arguably, America -- stepped down, leaving behind a city that was utterly transformed, and a complicated legacy we are only beginning to evaluate. In First Son, Keith Koeneman brilliantly chronicles the sometimes Shakespearean, sometimes Machiavellian life of an American political legend. Making deft use of unprecedented access to key political, business, and cultural leaders, Koeneman draws on more than one hundred interviews to tell an insider story of political triumph and personal evolution. He explores Daley's connections to the national political stage, including his close work with Arne Duncan, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and others with ties to the Obama administration.>>>

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Commerce Rich in Lost Egyptian Port

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A lost ancient Egyptian city submerged beneath the sea 1,200 years ago is starting to reveal what life was like in the legendary port of Thonis-Heracleion. The city disappeared beneath the Mediterranean around 1,200 years ago and was found during a survey of the Egyptian shore at the beginning of the last decade. Now researchers are forming the view that the city was the main customs hub through which all trade from Greece and elsewhere in the Mediterranean entered Egypt.
According to The Telegraph, Dr. Damian Robinson, director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford, has said:
 “It is a major city we are excavating. The site has amazing preservation. We are now starting to look at some of the more interesting areas within it to try to understand life there.  
"We are getting a rich picture of things like the trade that was going on there and the nature of the maritime economy in the Egyptian late period.”
They’ve discovered the remains of more than 60 ships buried in the seabed. Giant 16-foot statues have been uncovered and brought to the surface while archaeologists have found hundreds of smaller statues of minor gods on the sea floor. Dozens of small limestone sarcophagi were also recently uncovered by divers and are believed to have once contained mummified animals, put there to appease the gods.

Image: Image is archaeological conception of Heracleion.

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John Adams and the Rule of Law in Boston

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Heather Cox Richardson

Message boards and blogs are full of angry people calling for Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be tortured or killed. Or both. Immediately. After all, it’s pretty clear he’s guilty,
A Gilbert Stuart portrait
of John Adams, ca. 1821.
right? Why waste tax dollars on this guy with a long, expensive trial?

And anyway, who ever said a terrorist who murders Americans should get a fair trial?

Well, Founding Father John Adams, for one. Right here in Boston.

Adams was a rising lawyer in Massachusetts during the infancy of the American Revolution. On March 5, 1770, eight British soldiers opened fire when someone in a taunting mob threw a rock at them. When the shooting was over, five Americans were dead and others were wounded. Within weeks, a grand jury indicted the soldiers, along with their commander, Captain Thomas Preston. 

It seemed all Boston was inflamed against the murdering foreign soldiers. The “Boston Massacre” became a rallying cry for those eager to revolt against England. Son of Liberty Paul Revere produced his famous engraving rewriting the event to show the soldiers firing systematically into a peaceful crowd. Few wanted to bother to try the prisoners, and in the end, officials delayed the trial for seven months in the hope that emotions would subside. They didn’t.

After a number of lawyers refused to defend Preston and the soldiers, 35-year-old John Adams took the case. Adams supported the Revolutionaries, but also fervently believed in the rule of law. (Ironically, the prosecutor was a Loyalist.) When prosecutors botched their argument—perhaps intentionally—Adams and his team refused to throw the game. Bearing down, they managed to get all but two of the soldiers acquitted. Those two were convicted not of murder, but of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Thus, Adams won his case . . . and won freedom for the men who had killed his countrymen.
A detail of from the Paul Revere of the Boston massacre.
But by insisting on a fair trial for his country’s enemies, Adams served his cause far better than if he had bowed tothe popular desire to mete out mob justice. Adams and his team established that Massachusetts—and by extension, the new nation Massachusetts men wanted to create—would put no man, even a killer, beneath the law, and no man above it. Theirs would be a nation based not on popular sentiment, but on law. “Facts are stubborn things,” Adams said in defense of the soldiers, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates or our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” He went on: “The law no passion can disturb. ‘Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ‘Tis . . . written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but, without any regard to persons, commands that which is good and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low.”

That principle turned the Revolutionaries into our founding generation, and that same generation made John Adams the nation’s second president.

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The Emancipators: Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the Politics of 42

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Chris Beneke

In a famous photograph of baseball star Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, the African American legend prepares to sign his 1948 contract. As he does so, the viewer of this staged scene can make out a small photo hung above Rickey’s head at top right. From that modest rectangular frame, a young, beardless Abraham Lincoln gazes upon the scene.*

Three years earlier, Robinson met Rickey under that same gaze and the two men discussed, among many other things, their shared Christian devotion. During this tense  and seemingly interminable meeting that would lead to the end of baseball’s longstanding prohibition on black players, Rickey had Robinson read a line from Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ: “But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Robinson agreed to turn the other cheek and in April 1947, he joined the Dodgers as the first African American major leaguer in more than half a century. 

There’s no getting around the fact that the latest retelling of Robinson’s epic first season, Brian Helgeland’s film 42, succumbs to Hollywood sentimentality. It’s certainly not a great film, arguably not a good film, and definitely not a subtle one. It aims at a high-level of verisimilitude and mostly achieves it, but too often at the expense of dramatic effect and historical significance. The awkward conflation of events (Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth appears to apparate, Harry Potter-style, into a Missouri gas station where Robinson has just negotiated his way into a segregated bathroom) and a syrupy musical backdrop (including an Olympian trumpet fanfare to accompany one of Robinson’s exultant trots to home plate) will surely disappoint viewers who were lured by the gritty, thumping Jay-Z-scored trailer.
Yet critics like the perpetually outraged Dave Zirin who see here nothing more here than a pious melodrama that idolizes a cigar-chomping, penurious white man (played with gruff, endearing self-righteousness by Harrison Ford) and an overly deferential, assimilating black man (played arrestingly by a stoic Chadwick Boseman), will miss something themselves.

Among other things, they will miss the fact that the script for the enterprise of baseball integration was originally conceived by Rickey and originally dramatized by Robinson. The plan this pair executed was both conspicuously Lincolnian and unapologetically Christian. It required Rickey’s pragmatic liberal management, which proceeded in measured strides, and the transcendent suffering of Robinson, who sacrificed for the larger good of racial redemption. Rickey tempered expectations while moving ahead resolutely, shaping an environment that allowed Robinson enough space to develop as a player without depriving white fans and players of the time they needed to adapt as human beings. Robinson endured uncomplainingly and then succeeded spectacularly in a heroic combination of personal restraint and athletic brilliance.

These unmistakable Lincolnian and Christian themes may elude progressive critics who desperately want to see broad-based social movements in action against institutionalized racism. Eric Foner’s influential critique of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln—that it ignores the work done “at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of [African Americans] themselves to acquire freedom”—has already been leveled against 42. It is demonstrably true that baseball integration was the product of larger forces which Rickey capitalized upon. And 42 does elide the political pressures that were mounting in Harlem and Washington D.C., while slighting the work of civil rights activists such as Wendell Smith.**

But 42’s protagonists, Robinson and Rickey, really did matter. The defining historical role they played may be gauged by remembering that Rickey originally considered signing a number of other exceptional African-American ball players, several of whom possessed baseball potential surpassing Robinson’s. But Rickey saw something else in Robinson that exceeded his ability to play baseball, something intimately related to Robinson’s Methodist faith. Helgelend briefly evokes that other thing when he has Ford utter one of the film’s better lines, expressed with Lincolnesque economy and wit: “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist! We can’t go wrong.” A teetotaler who neither smoked nor womanized, with a well-established commitment to racial justice and Christianity, Robinson was precisely the person Rickey wanted for the job. The fact that he had Hall-of-Fame baseball talent also helped. After all, Rickey, the dogged pragmatist, intended to win on the ball diamond as well as in the contemporary moral universe.
Poster from the 1950 Jackie Robinson Story. See full film here.

Robinson repaid Rickey’s faith with humble Christian expressions and herculean acts of self-control. The things Robinson refrained from saying during his witheringly difficult rookie season often made the difference. He would eventually have plenty to say about his experiences and about civil rights, but in these early years he deployed his words carefully, sticking to Rickey’s script and gaining tens of thousands of admirers in the process. After his first, harrowing game in the majors, Robinson told an inquiring reporter that he’d thanked God the night before, adding that he belonged to a Methodist church in Pasadena and had taught Sunday school. “[T]hey gave me the bad little boys,” Robinson recalled, “and I liked it.” Robinson also repaid Rickey’s Lincolnian aspirations by suggesting in his autobiography that while Rickey’s hero, “Mr. Lincoln,” had ended the institution of slavery, that institution had survived into the twentieth century in the form of segregation and discrimination. With Robinson’s entry into major league baseball, the second emancipation commenced.

Like Lincoln in the nineteenth century, Rickey and Robinson drew on untapped reservoirs of decency and inchoate conceptions of fair play among their fellow Americans. They demonstrated, more than a decade before Martin Luther King, Jr., that the perpetrators of injustice in a democracy may be worn down by dignified and well-publicized suffering. 

If 42 neglects the bigger picture, if it privileges a couple of extraordinary individuals at the expense of the collective movements that enabled them to do their work, it also reminds us of the good that morally grounded pragmatists can accomplish.


* The signing took place on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday. In another staged photo, only Lincoln’s portrait hangs above Rickey, the picture of Rickey’s daughters and manager Leo Durocher having been removed, though you can still see the nail that may have held Durocher’s photo. Rickey, who claimed to have read every biography of Lincoln, was sometimes called the “Second Great Emancipator.” 
** Smith, played by Andre Holland has a large supporting role in the film, but we don’t see the behind-the-scenes campaign for desegregation in which he had been engaged for several years. 

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Robot Explores Teotihuacan Chamber

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Portion of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl

Archaeologists are eager to begin robotic exploration of a tunnel beneath the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacan, one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in Mesoamerica. The tunnel contains a 2,000-year-old chamber likely used for burial of dignitaries.
According to the National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH), this is the third time anywhere in the world that such an automaton is used to execute excavation strategies.
The Tlaloc II-TC robot, which will be the first to travel the remaining 30 to 35 meters (100 to 115 feet) of the tunnel, is composed of three independent mechanisms, the first being the transport vehicle that reaches a length of over a meter (3 1/4 feet) once its arms are stretched out. The robotic arms serve to deal with any obstacles in the vehicle’s path.
With the exploration of these areas, the INAH looks forward to making some of the most important archaeological discoveries yet at Teotihuacan.

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