THE UNITED STATES GOVERNment wants to enlist members of the art community to help win "hearts and minds." This fall, the American Association of Museums will award almost $700,000--half of it from the State Department--to American grant applicants for overseas artistic outreach projects. The idea isn't new, but the level of control the government may assert over the actual art is.
At first blush, this program, Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad (MCCA), appears to be an earnest extension of U.S. "public diplomacy" efforts, intended to help our country regain the international admiration it has lost during the Bush presidency. Under closer scrutiny, however, it is less benign. For one thing, the State Department requires that each proposal explain "how this project promotes U.S. foreign policy." For another, it turns out that U.S. embassies and consulates are allowed--or, one might guess, encouraged--to preselect foreign museums for participation. The application guidelines also specify that proposals involvingpreselected museums "may receive additional consideration by the MCCA selection committee."
In this light, the MCCA program raises the uneasy question of whether the government should be influencing art for political purposes through state largesse at all. The issue is not altogether unfamiliar. During the Cold War, the CIA subsidized the avant-garde through front organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which supported abstract expressionist painters as well as intellectual magazines like Encounter, Monat, and Partisan Review. The idea was precisely not to attach political strings to specific artists or projects, but to show ambivalent foreign elites that
Western capitalist democracy constituted the most fertile ground for artistic freedom. Indeed, many of the artists and writers that the CIA supported tilted to the left, which, as writer Louis Menand has noted, betrayed the rather sophisticated conviction that "it's possible to be left-wing, avant-garde, and anti-communist."
As CIA operations went, supporting the arts was benign and enlightened. Its clandestine nature raises red flags, but the reality was that in the 1950s and 1960s American citizens were highly suspicious of the avant-garde. The majority didn't appreciate the new art that the government was promoting; they preferred more traditional realism. Moreover, they saw the avant-garde message as sympathetic to communism and, more broadly, as anti-American--not an affirmation of American freedom.
Unlike that previous effort, the State Department's joint venture with the American Association of Museums is able to be entirely overt without raising conservative hackles. …