The Chronicle Review

The Myth of the Pure Artist

November 15, 2015

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review
The ending of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, a bildungsroman set largely in 1930s Harlem, is famously strange. The anonymous narrator — a young, black intellectual — escapes a violent street protest via an open manhole and takes refuge in the bowels of the city. "Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace," he reflects, "or if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground." The peace and quiet of the sewer contrast with the heated political rhetoric of the streets — chatter the narrator knows all too well. Recently dismissed from his post as an orator for the Brotherhood, a leftist political organization, the narrator now chafes against any ideological pressure imposed on his work. Thus the retreat below: Only by abandoning society in general, and politics in particular, can the intellectual maintain his integrity.

This vision of the radically independent intellectual was quintessential Cold War liberalism, but in fact artists and intellectuals were implicated in the ideological tensions of their time. In 1950, both the Soviet Union and the United States established committees on cultural diplomacy. The Soviet Union formed the World Peace Council (WPC), which would use artists and writers to advance a global peace movement, one that implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) condemned American imperialism.

In response, the United States founded the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organization funded, staffed, and directed by the CIA. During the two decades that followed, the two groups sponsored competing artistic and cultural events around the globe. These activities included art exhibitions, dance performances, literary journals, and intellectual symposia. A number of respected artists participated in these sponsored events; Ellison himself spoke at a 1956 symposium on "Cultural Freedom in the Western Hemisphere." (He was for it.) The goal of all this cultural production was to win hearts and minds. At its height, the Cold War was fought not only with missiles and mines but also with oil paint and trumpet notes.

For the United States, however, the imperatives of foreign policy presented a challenge. The nation had long prided itself on its practices of democracy and free speech, and the Cold War had amplified rhetoric about liberal tolerance — a value trotted out time and again to show why the U.S. was a superior society. It was one thing for the Soviet Union to sponsor art and shape thought openly, but the U.S. would need to be more covert in its cultural diplomacy efforts. Thus the CCF’s ties to the CIA remained a secret until 1966.

In the intervening years, the myth of the independent American artist took shape. Writers were supposed to be ideologically autonomous, but their tolerance of fellow writers’ politics was limited. In 1949, Robert Lowell redbaited the executive director of the artists’ colony at Yaddo. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Ellison championed the American writer’s "cultural freedom" in print and in public speeches while dismissing those associated with the Black Arts movement. Politicians, too, expressed suspicion of overtly political art. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson invited artists and writers to the White House, where he reminded them, "Your art is not a political weapon." It was by remaining apolitical and unattached that the American artist could advance "peace," the very thing that the Soviet Union, with its state-run culture program, promised to spread across the globe.

But state sponsorship was nothing short of ubiquitous for midcentury artists and intellectuals in the Americas. In Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press), Eric Bennett, an associate professor of English at Providence College, offers an impassioned study of the connection between the Congress for Cultural Freedom and creative writing in the United States. Focusing on two of the nation’s most prestigious creative-writing programs, at Iowa and Stanford, he argues that the contemporary creative-writing workshop was shaped by the CIA.

Cultural diplomacy, like conventional diplomacy, operates by indirection. Artists who receive government money don’t have to produce explicitly political art in order to advance the political agendas of their sponsors. For Bennett, it is precisely the apolitical nature of workshop fiction and poetry that made the midcentury creative-writing program politically useful. Both Paul Engle, longtime director at Iowa, and Wallace Stegner, founder of the creative-writing program at Stanford, encouraged students to put craft and style over intellectual content, which could be easily politicized. Engle and Stegner emphasized style, specificity, and precision because that was the kind of writing the CIA would finance — writing that showcased American excellence, as well as American values, through literary style alone.

The Cold War was fought not only with missiles and mines but also with oil paint and trumpet notes.
And finance it the agency did. Bennett discovers that CIA money made its way into the hands of creative-writing-program directors. Engle expertly acquired significant funding from the Rockefeller and Farfield Foundations, both operating as fronts for the CIA. He used this money to develop new literary initiatives at home and abroad. The Rockefeller Foundation made Stegner a "literary ambassador" on the strength of the Stanford program.

Although Bennett acknowledges that CIA money didn’t directly influence writing instruction, he nonetheless argues for the CIA’s importance to the development of these two writing programs. Rockefeller funded the anthologies and journals that published writing from Iowa and Stanford and disseminated their version of good literature. "It would not be an exaggeration," Bennett concludes, "to say that the view of literature outlined ... gained widespread acceptance through articles printed in ink paid for by foundation dollars."

That claim is more accurate than it is forceful. CIA money was everywhere in the 1950s, propping up literary journals as politically divergent as the Kenyon Review and the Partisan Review. Savvy arts administrators knew that they could secure a financial windfall if they made the case that their planned projects would combat Communism and advance U.S. national interests. Often, however, artists pursued their own ends, using state money in ways that the state could neither predict nor control.

By describing how and why Iowa’s standards for good fiction developed as they did, Bennett, who has an M.F.A. from Iowa, hopes to dismantle the aesthetic "orthodoxy" that has long determined the form of program fiction, a category recently examined — and celebrated — by Mark McGurl. "A main priority for me has been to contribute to the artistic freedom of writers writing today," Bennett explains, "by making clear that conventions that often go without saying — assumptions that are invisible because seemingly timeless — once emerged from contingent historical circumstances." Workshops of Empire encourages M.F.A. students to question their workshop instructors more and to police their peers less, aiming for greater "artistic freedom of writers writing today" — an ambition straight out of the era that he studies.

American M.F.A. students weren’t the only writers shaped by the cultural battles of the Cold War. In Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Harvard University Press), Patrick Iber, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso, follows pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet writers and cultural diplomats throughout the hemisphere, from Mexico City to Cuba to Brazil. His extensively researched book narrates the conflicts and compromises that marked the artists’ unstable alliances with the global superpowers that sponsored them. It will be an important resource for scholars across disciplines and fields.

The history that Iber unearths includes familiar figures, such as Diego Rivera and Pablo Neruda, who had Soviet backing, as well as lesser-known individuals, such as the Spanish writer Julián Gorkin, the Argentine writer María Rosa Oliver, and the Uruguayan critic and editor Emir Rodríguez Monegal, anti-Communists all. Many of them had their own political agendas; they used U.S. or Soviet funds to advance collective social movements or individual careers. Thus, for Iber, sponsored writers were more than puppets on a string.

This doesn’t mean that political affiliation didn’t have its costs. Writers and intellectuals who received support from the CCF crusaded against totalitarianism and advocated for artistic "freedom," but they frequently suppressed the speech of local Communist writers. Soviet-aligned writers and artists fought for "peace," but they remained silent about the violence of Stalinism.

Iber approaches the cultural Cold War as an intellectual historian interested in how ideas about art and literature circulated internationally. His book is filled with fascinating anecdotes about how political debates took cultural form. In post-revolution Cuba, for instance, Communist newspaper workers inserted postscripts, called coletillas, that objected to the content of articles they printed.

On the one hand, state patrons constrain and compromise. On the other, they empower and enable.
Cuban journalists were just a few of the many writers who found themselves silenced in an age of ideological constraint. Iber’s attention to restrictions on intellectual freedom sometimes leads him to a kind of fatalism. Reflecting on the failures of Mexico’s Movement for National Liberation, he writes, "prodemocracy movements in Latin America, whether of the anti-Communist or the anti-anti-Communist variety, used languages of liberation that were implicated in support for empire somewhere on the globe. Perhaps there was no other way." All political engagement operates in its own field of contradictions and resulting compromises. Iber is more persuasive when discussing the intersections among artistic, political, and economic forces, all of which shape an artist’s work.

Neither Peace Nor Freedom focuses largely on political and aesthetic failures of expression, and it ends on a despairing note. If the early 1960s saw the height of Latin American utopianism, the late 1960s and 1970s brought about the diminution of hope for egalitarian change. In 1966, The New York Times published accusations that the CCF was a CIA front organization. The following year — the same year Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia — the magazine Ramparts published an exposé showing that many private foundations funneled CIA money. All Latin American cultural efforts that received U.S. financial support were immediately suspect, even though, as Iber points out, few individual recipients knew the extent of the CIA’s involvement. The scandal effectively ended the cultural Cold War as well as the dreams of many Latin American writers and intellectuals.

Even today, decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, claims about the CIA’s involvement in the arts can still generate controversy. Bennett’s discoveries about the financial connection between the CIA and Engle, published in The Chronicle Review in 2014, outraged many readers, who expressed disbelief that a pre-eminent writing program could possibly have been allied with a governmental institution engaged in surveillance and espionage. A blog post that Iber contributed for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History about Mexico City’s Centro Mexicano de Escritores and CIA funding earned him the ire of the Mexican writer Heriberto Yépez, who accused him of being a secret right-wing plant. But the critics mistake historical argument for moral censure; neither author condemns those who accepted CIA funds. This is scholarship, not slander.

Still, these disputes should give us pause. They display an enduring belief in the idea of the independent, unaffiliated artist — an ideological construction of Cold War liberalism. President John F. Kennedy once called the artist the "last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state" and believed that an artist "must often sail against the currents of his time." In mid-20th-century America, writers were not supposed to be mouthpieces for the government. If a writer were to intervene in the political sphere, he or she would presumably do so not as an instrument of state power but as an impartial critic. Even the revelations about the CCF’s ties to the CIA failed to shatter this belief. Roughly a decade after the Ramparts exposé, John Updike testified to Congress about the freedoms afforded the American writer. "My friendship with writers and critics pursuing careers in Communist and Third World countries has made me emphatically appreciative of the freedoms and opportunities I enjoy as an American," he reported. "I love my government not least for the extent to which it leaves me alone."

In truth, however, there is a long history of writers seeking patronage from state agencies. Nathaniel Hawthorne worked at a U.S. Custom House, Robert Lowell at the Library of Congress. During the New Deal, 6,600 writers worked for the Federal Writers Project, including Jack Conroy, Richard Wright, and the consummate Cold Warrior, Ralph Ellison. In 1967, Ellison teamed up with Engle to create the Creative Writing Fellowships of the National Endowment for the Arts. Winners received two-year grants, designed to liberate them from demanding day jobs and delivered without strings attached. Some of these state-sponsored writers harbored political beliefs that cut against the political agendas of their patrons.

Others channeled any ambivalence about state affiliation into their work. Raymond Carver, a two-time NEA grant winner, filled his celebrated short-story collections with reflections on the labor and leisure a writing life affords. For Carver, literary professionalism was an odd concept, one that had to be worked through in fiction. More recently, in 2014, the prize-winning writer Lydia Davis published a story about how her NEA grant liberated her and changed her relationship to money and to work.

On the one hand, state patrons constrain and compromise. On the other hand, they empower and enable. Historically, writing was a profession for the aristocrat, an individual whose wealth freed him from financial worry and liberated him from the literary marketplace. The rise of patronage in the postwar era granted individuals of different backgrounds — women, writers of color, working-class people — access to a literary career. The question of who gets to write is all the more pressing today, when student debt, unemployment, and the gutting of public arts agencies have combined to make an artistic life extremely precarious. Without institutional patronage, writing becomes the privilege of the few.

To be sure, institutional affiliation is not always about financial need — some writers, such as Engle, truly believe in their patron’s political cause. But for many other writers, institutional affiliation is just a means to an end. Taking money from state coffers surely compromises the writer in some ways. But what kind of politics — what kind of life — is entirely free of compromise?

Maggie Doherty is a lecturer at Harvard University, where she teaches writing, history, and literature. She is working on a book about literary patronage in postwar America.