I think that in a few years time, it will become impossible to talk about modern music without acknowledging its connections with the Cold War. Recent books such as Who Paid the Piper? and Rationalizing Culture show that there is considerable interest in this subject, and is likely to enter mainstream consciousness once the trend begins to grow. If I ever decide to do a research topic in-depth, it will probably be related to this issue in some way or another — it’s a topic that I think has a lot of potential to expand upon, especially in music.
When I tell artists that the CIA funded modern and abstract art as a way to counteract Soviet propaganda, I usually get funny looks or looks of disbelief. (The reaction I get from talking to political scientists, on the other hand, tend to be “well, of course.”) It sounds like something a conspiracy-theory nut would say, and it can be a little hard to stomach the fact that a lot of the artists of the 20th century, many of whom we were taught were revolutionaries and mavericks, would be so easily appropriated towards political means. Still, in a lot of ways the connections are very obvious — American modern art thrived primarily through government and patronage funding, while the most over-arching political event during that period was in fact the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Freedom of Information Act being enacted, there’s a lot more information about the matter coming out — it’s likely that the way we perceive modern music will change very quickly in the near future. It’s probably for the better, at least in the long run.
Speaking very broadly, the New York “Uptown” school of composition, mainly characterized by a very academic and mathematical style, was a product of the “scientific” educational programs geared toward the Space Race; while the “Downtown” school, most strongly represented by the New York School composers and the experimental music tradition, were supported because of their ideological leanings toward individualism and freedom of expression. The ideologies which were spurned during the 50s and 60s high-modernism is often referred to as the “Anti-Communist Left” or some variation on that idea, and can be clearly heard through the music and its aesthetic arguments of its time. Anti-collectivism was the mantra of its day, in opposition to the Soviet Union’s propaganda of censorship and brutality in the name of the proletariat working class.
(Here you can see the CIA totally admitting to it, saying that it was one of the most “daring and effective” programs during the Cold War. There is virtually no controversy on whether or not this had actually happened — it has been well-documented since the late-60s when the program was exposed in the mainstream press. What’s missing are the particulars and details about the whos, hows, and whats, but those things will probably come to light over time.)
The irony of the situation was that in order for the artists to see themselves as mavericks, they had to be purposely kept in the dark about where their means of living were coming from, as government funding would imply a form of social collectivism that transcended the will of the individual. As a result, the CIA, through a program called Congress for Cultural Freedom had decided to fund artists through the guise of anonymous private donations rather than handing them a check directly. In doing so, the government created an atmosphere of contradiction and secrecy within the modern art world that resembled the practices of a nationalized intelligence agency.
This doesn’t make the art of that period any less important, although the way we perceived and appreciated it may not have exactly been what we initially thought. George W. Bush’s foreign policies were largely based on Cold War tactics (former secretary of state Condi Rice being an expert in Soviet politics, for one) and his departure signifies an end of a type of political approach that was based largely on obscuration and psychological control. It’ll be interesting to see how art becomes appropriated during the next decade or so — especially with the new presidential administration, there will definitely be shifts in government arts spending as time goes on.