Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War

It is a well-known fact that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) secretly funded culture during the Cold War. Parapolitics is not about revealing that scandal, despite the lack of engagement it has met from museums. The exhibition project questions whether the canon of Western modernism can really be retroactively “globalized,” without confronting the ideological structures and institutional narratives that supported and exported it. Against this backdrop, the exhibition traces how the struggle for hegemony during the Cold War helped shape the way modern art came to be defined and defended as “free” — that is, radically individual and beyond ideology. It looks at Cold War constructs of freedom and the ways in which artistic and cultural autonomy are conceived in the anxious liberal democratic consensus that pervades our “post”–Cold War contemporary.

Parapolitics employs the history of one of the CIA’s front organizations, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), in order to reconsider the political appropriation of aesthetic form in the 20th century. It is an exhibition about the long shadows cast by a momentous shift in intellectual affiliations since the 1930s: the rise of Stalinism in the USSR led a number of artists and writers to break away, to varying degrees, from their previous commitments to revolutionary politics. By the 1950s, these former radicals — comprising the Non-Communist Left (NCL) — found themselves enrolled, wittingly or not, in a U.S.–led “freedom offensive,” often under the umbrella of the CCF.

The exhibition displays the work of contemporary artists who engage the struggle for cultural hegemony, breaking through the reductive closures of the instrumental use of both abstraction and realism. Next to these works are a wide range of archival materials, especially publications associated with the CCF, which make explicit how intellectuals and artists became a major strategic target and how modernism became a weapon in the rapidly developing arsenal of “peaceful” techniques. The wide range of historical artworks on view are not examples of what was produced under the patronage of the CIA. Rather, they show how the political use of art, both overt and covert, forced artists to renegotiate the framing and meaning of their work — they write their own stories of subversion, evasion, or critique.

Parapolitics draws attention to what the binary logic of the Cold War overshadowed, excluded, and rendered impossible. Through the interplay between archival materials and artworks, the exhibition seeks to recover the conflict lines that have animated artistic choices and that implicitly haunt the field of contemporary art.