The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War

By David Caute | Go to book overview

19
Passports for Paintings:
Abstract Expressionism
and the CIA

On 20 March 1957 B. J. Cutler, Moscow correspondent of the Herald Tribune, reported how a chimpanzee’s ringer painting had been ‘seized as a weapon in the ideological cold war’ and ‘used by Communist art propagandists in an effort to discredit the entire field of modern art’. This Soviet campaign was touched off when the 6-year-old simian Betsy was given a ‘one-chimp’ show in Baltimore and local connoisseurs bought $125-worth of her work, including Cabbage Worms for $40 and Hell for $25. The story was widely picked up in the USSR. A cartoon showed a chimp at an easel wielding paint-brushes with its feet while three moronic modern-art lovers applauded. Sovetskaia kul’tura did grant to Betsy that her style was ‘more restrained’ than that of one unnamed artist recently exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ‘financed by the Rockefeller family’. Cutler complained that the Soviet press campaign ‘carefully omitted the information, available here [in Moscow], that money from her paintings is to go toward buying a male chimpanzee, since Betsy is lonely as well as artistic’.

So there you go: Monkey Business—or Russians Bury Human Angle on Chimp.

Recent studies of American cold war art require correction. For more than twenty-five years art historians and journalists have sought to prove that one particular American style, ‘abstract expressionism’ or ‘action painting’, known as ‘tachisme’ in France, was the cutting edge of the American cultural offensive against Soviet art. By the same theory, the CIA intervened, both rapidly and clandestinely, to support the private museums’ export of abstract

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