The idea that Realism is aligned with Conservatism represents a complete turnaround from times when realist and figurative art were dominant in the U.S.When the State Department of the late 1940s aborted the “Advancing American Art” exhibition in the middle of its South American tour, and cancelled the European leg of the tour altogether, it was the result of a growing awareness of the leftist leanings of many, perhaps a majority of the artists involved. The work was predominately representational and figurative, and much of it was socially engaged.
The U.S. government, through the C.I.A. and the U.S.I.A., eventually returned to the culture industry, organizing and supporting exhibitions of the Abstract Expressionists as a means of creating a diplomatic wedge in post-war Europe. The goals were propagandist, as well as providing a context for the recruitment of European intellectuals as operatives and intelligence contacts. Much of this material came to light in the early 1970s as a result of Freedom of Information Act inquiries, and was detailed in the writings of the late Eva Cockroft. A richer account of this episode in American Art History can be found in “Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War” by Frances Stonor Saunders, Granta 1999.
This episode really serves as the foundation of the modernist art industry in the U.S. Many of the players still hold the highest places in any history of the art of our era, and it is impossible to disengage the reasons for their prominence from the covert support that they received from the C.I.A. It is surprising to this writer that, considering the sources of that support, these artists could still be considered “radical.”
It also seems inimical to the concept of culture in a democratic society to have such behind the scenes manipulation of cultural practice and its enabling institutions. It is not enough to point out that the results of such meddling have been disastrous. We would all be extremely upset to learn of a concerted effort of deliberate disinformation emanating from any branch of government and directed at the nation’s citizens, (although we have become all too familiar with such campaigns over the course of the past half century.)
Figurative and representational practice are the real heirs of radical intellectual engagement. The act of painting, situated between the history of pictorial and representational convention and the exigencies of pure perception, mediated by the technical and technological means available to the artist, by their nature subvert the cultural mediations of the dominate corporate culture.