Has There Ever Been a Better Patron of the Arts Than the CIA?

Countering Thomas Piketty’s critique of inherited wealth, Tyler Cowen suggests that such dynastic accumulations of private wealth may be a precondition of great art:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

But the Belle Époque (and its predecessor) has got nothing on the CIA.

 The Central Intelligence Agency on Friday, April 11th posted to its public website nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA’s role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union.  The 1958 publication of Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel in Russian gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.

The declassified memos, letters, and cables reveal the rationale behind the Zhivago project and the intricacies of the effort to get the book into the hands of those living behind the Iron Curtain.

In a memo dated April 24, 1958 a senior CIA officer wrote: “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country [and] in his own language for his people to read.”

After working secretly to publish the Russian-language edition in the Netherlands, the CIA moved quickly to ensure that copies of Doctor Zhivago were available for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.  By the end of the Fair, 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago had been surreptitiously handed out, and eventually thousands more were distributed throughout the Communist bloc.

As it happened, Pasternak went on to win the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, the popularity of his novel  skyrocketed, and the plight of the great Russian author in the Soviet Union received global media attention.

Subsequently, the CIA funded the publication of a miniature, lightweight paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that could be easily mailed or concealed in a jacket pocket.  Distribution of the miniature version began in April 1959.

These declassified documents about Doctor Zhivago are just the latest in a long line of revelations about how central the CIA was to the cultural and aesthetic life of the twentieth century. Was there a better patron of abstract expressionism—of Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, at least on the global scale—than the CIA? And while the Saunders thesis of the cultural Cold War (the thesis long predates her, of course, but she helped popularize it after the Cold War) has its problems and its critics, the CIA did fund literary magazines like Encounter, even Partisan Review when it seemed like it was going to go belly up, international tours of symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles, and art exhibits around the world.

And while we’re on the topic of government patronage of the arts, let’s not forget the Bolsheviks, who managed, before the full onset of Stalinism and Socialist Realism, to fund, support, and inspire some pretty damn good avant-garde art. (And some not so good art: Ever since I learned that Ayn Rand developed some of her most enduring aesthetic tastes by attending, with the help of cheap tickets funded by the Bolsheviks, weekly performances of cheesy operettas at the Mikhailovsky state-run theater, I’ve held Lenin responsible for The Fountainhead.)

My most prized print is the poster of a 1971 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of “Russian Art of the Revolution.” It features El Lissitzky’s Sportsmen, which he did in 1923. (I managed to salvage it from the garbage after the office of a former colleague was cleaned out.) While eclipsed by the later exhibit at the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum show was the first of its kind, I believe, in the States. In any event, it gives a good sense of what Soviet support for the arts achieved.

Russian Art of the Revolution

Cowen’s argument has a long history, but it’s not clear to me why he believes it’s dispositive. When it comes to funding for the arts, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.


  1. Mary Margaret McCurnin April 27, 2014 at 7:12 pm | #

    The one percenters rule and the creative community dies. Just look at places like San Francisco or NYC. Do you think an artist can live there? The middle class supported the arts fairly well in the 20th century. I have been looking for the middle class in the 21st century and it is no where to be found. And neither are the artists. Death by a thousand tax cuts.

  2. Will April 27, 2014 at 8:23 pm | #

    Oscar Wilde addresses an argument of this sort in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

    “But it may be asked how Individualism, which is now more or less dependent on the existence of private property for its development, will benefit by the abolition of such private property. The answer is very simple. It is true that, under existing conditions, a few men who have had private means of their own, such as Byron, Shelley, Browning, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and others, have been able to realise their personality more or less completely. Not one of these men ever did a single day’s work for hire. They were relieved from poverty. They had an immense advantage. The question is whether it would be for the good of Individualism that such an advantage should be taken away. Let us suppose that it is taken away. What happens then to Individualism? How will it benefit?

    “It will benefit in this way. Under the new conditions Individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now. I am not talking of the great imaginatively-realised Individualism of such poets as I have mentioned, but of the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally. For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is.

    “Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road, and encumbering them. Indeed, so completely has man’s personality been absorbed by his possessions that the English law has always treated offences against a man’s property with far more severity than offences against his person, and property is still the test of complete citizenship. The industry necessary for the making money is also very demoralising. In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of. Man will kill himself by overwork in order to secure property, and really, considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living. He is also, under existing conditions, very insecure. An enormously wealthy merchant may be – often is – at every moment of his life at the mercy of things that are not under his control. If the wind blows an extra point or so, or the weather suddenly changes, or some trivial thing happens, his ship may go down, his speculations may go wrong, and he finds himself a poor man, with his social position quite gone. Now, nothing should be able to harm a man except himself. Nothing should be able to rob a man at all. What a man really has, is what is in him. What is outside of him should be a matter of no importance.

    “With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

    • Thomas May 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm | #

      Thank you. Never read that. It’s good.

  3. Yastreblyansky (@Yastreblyansky) April 27, 2014 at 8:27 pm | #

    Classic centralized Big Government from Louis XIV through Napoleon? Hydraulic despotism in the Tang dynasty? Constant religious warfare and political fragmentation in the German Baroque? But the other thing is all the flowers born to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the summer air because there wasn’t any family money.

  4. Jim Brash April 27, 2014 at 9:11 pm | #

    I’d love to see art supported by a democratic revolutionary socialist state in my lifetime. Ive seen the patronage of robber barons, Nazis, French and Italian aristocrats, etc. I’d love to see the type of patronage workers could provide without worrying about the wage system.

  5. Paul H. Rosenberg April 27, 2014 at 11:28 pm | #

    Conservatives say that leisure is good & necessary for the human spirit. But only for the very few. The rest, it only corrupts.

    Humanity itself, it seems, is wasted on humanity.

  6. “Big Bill” Haywood April 28, 2014 at 12:17 am | #

    Jeez, Rand enjoyed operettas by Kalman and Lehar? Too bad she didn’t have the refined palate to appreciate the genius of Tom Jones, Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett. Oh, and *Pippen*.

    But to be fair to Rand, I’m sure the nationalization of her father’s pharmacy more than paid for subsidized tickets to the Mikhailovsky.

    I appreciate that you mention a name you elided in your recent Tumblr post on Piketty and Cowen: Stalin. (Though, of course, Stalin wasn’t the only Bolshevik who decided what art was “bourgeois” and thus verboten.) A rentier may decline to patronize an artist, but he can’t send him off to the gulag.

  7. NathanH April 28, 2014 at 4:44 am | #

    The Russian avante-garde had a big influence on the early aesthetic of Franz Ferdinand (the band, not the Archduke) — in particular the film clip to ‘This Fire’, where the band members fiendishly plot such schemes as “mass hysteria” and “global sex mania”, and celebrate their success with a cup of tea. This would be the point where they diverge from the CIA, who undoubtedly celebrate their fiendish global plots with a fine whiskey…

  8. Roquentin April 28, 2014 at 3:26 pm | #

    The Dr. Zhivago Nobel incident was a total US public relations stunt. The episode certainly tuned out badly for Boris Pasternak. In the best possible light he was mere a pawn in the battle between the US and the USSR.

    On a side note, the Nobel prize in economics only started being awarded later. It was not part of the original awards and was created at the behest of the bank of Sweden in 1969. The entire prize serves as a vehicle to legitimize neoliberal capitalist economics, and it’s hard to put into words how much disdain this inspires in me. All this goes to show that there is no such thing as neutrality or simply picking “the best.” There’s always an ideology at work.

  9. BillR April 29, 2014 at 12:33 am | #

    The Cultural Cold War is a fine book and a talk that raises profound issues by the author:


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