DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Art Proliferation

Propaganda and Patronage during the Cold War


During the first half of the 20th century the world had witnessed two great wars and enough injustice to make democratization a priority in US foreign policy. The end of World War two specifically marked a shift in international politics, society and culture. After WWII Western Europe was in a state of distraught. The multipolar balance of power that reigned over the international system, and was heavily influenced by European countries, came to an end. The United States and the Soviet Union, the two countries that had aided Western Europe, rose as the world’s super powers. The resulting bipolar world system highlighted opposition and encouraged competition. Although most of the world came to view war as passe after WWII, the tension between the United States and Soviet Union created a new type of warfare. The Cold War, or the Long Peace, marked the period between 1947 and 1991 during which both countries engaged in an economic, political, and cultural race to hegemony. The silent warfare relied on greater sophistication than nuclear missiles. Art became a political weapon aimed toward ideological destruction. 


Art, as a social and cultural pastime, is periodically used as a means of mass communication. During the Cold War, art became the medium for propaganda. Propaganda is defined as the distribution of ideas with a distinct motivation to “further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause” (Marian Webster). It can be argued that all art and expression derives from underlying motivations, and thus is a form of propaganda. However, the goal is not to debate the innate propagandist qualities of art, because they indeed exist, but to analyze their political use. In Claude Cernushi’s article titled The Politics of Abstract Expressionism, he asserts that “the potential of visual art to disseminate political propaganda to both an illiterate and educated populace, art and politics, image and power, have throughout history fit together like hand and glove.”  Prior to the Cold War, Soviet and American art had become a platform for nationalistic propaganda, boosting social morale in the process. The two world wars and global depression made artistic nationalism necessary. The Cold War made political art strategic foreign policy. Just as communism collided with democracy in the political arena, two opposing art movements arose in each country. Socialist realism, which depicts socialist  philosophies and glorifies the working class, became the Soviet’s emblem of revolution. On the other side of the Atlantic, Abstract Expressionism, free of technical and thematic style, embodied American individualism. 

Soviet Socialist Realism is typically attacked as mere ideology and propaganda, but it must also be argued that Abstract Expressionism was used by the United States for similar purposes. During the Cold War the U.S. and Soviet Union utilized art to antagonize each other. Both countries were guilty of manipulating art and using it as political propaganda, within and outside their borders. Of course, comparing U.S. policy to Soviet Russia’s repressing government proposes a bold, and some may argue, exaggerated theory. Thus, although both countries used art as propaganda it is important to distinguish the type of art, and the manner in which it was used. To do this one must explore the impact of ideology on art, which includes but is not limited to political, economic, social and cultural ideals. Secondly, the role of government patronage and art must be considered. Applying these questions to U.S. and Soviet art will help unveil whether artistic propaganda is ever permissible in the political arena. 

The United States and Russia had been allies during WWII. However, Russia’s socialist government, which took power after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, quickly became the central conflict between the two countries. The renamed USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, paved the way for communist, class-less regimes of the 20th century. Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin led an authoritarian regime that practiced an extreme form Karl Marx’s communism. After Lenin’s death Josef Stalin followed in the Marxist/Leninist tradition, ruling not with an egalitarian heart but an iron fist. The Soviet Union’s communist politics and socialist economics clashed with U.S. capitalism and democracy. Furthermore, after the atrocities of the Holocaust caused by Nazi Germany the United States had vowed a “never again” policy towards political and social injustice. The U.S. perceived  Soviet influence in Eastern Europe a clear and present danger to democracy and humanity. Stalin’s intervention in Poland’s election, communist flared civil wars in Iran, Greece and Turkey, and extensive purging perpetuated U.S. anger and disapproval of the Soviet regime.  


  To avoid another great war, specifically a nuclear war, both countries resorted to psychological warfare. As Louis Momad commented in his article, “An Unpopular Front” written for The New Yorker in 2005, the Cold War was “ a war for hearts and minds- an idea war, an image war, a propaganda war” ( paragraph 1).  In the battle for international superpower, both countries targeted the other’s society and culture. The U.S. was determined to make democracy the hero and communism the villain. The Soviets wanted to rid the world of bourgeois ideas like democracy, and create a utopian, communal society. These ideologies are reflected in Cold War art, and were perpetuated upon the masses as progressive and repressive propaganda. 


After the Bolshevik Revolution a socialist economy and communist society was established in the newly declared USSR. Unlike capitalism, which is based on market competition, socialism advocates public ownership and equal distribution of resources.  To compliment a socialist economy, communism proposes an egalitarian society without class systems. Proponents of the movement claimed Socialist Realism the art of the proletariat, the working class, and scorned bourgeois ideals. In August of 1934 the first Congress of Soviet Writers convened in Moscow to proclaim Socialist Realism the foundation of literature and art. Andrei Zhadanov, Stalin’s cultural commissar and Secretary of the Communist Party, led the event and proclaimed Socialist Realism the art of Communism. Zhadanov stated, “ the whole life of our party, the whole life of the working class and its struggle consists in the combination of the most stern and sober practical work with a supreme spirit of heroic deeds and and magnificent future prospects.” Socialist Realism was to portray communists leaders as heroes and depict the utopian future of communism. It reflected deologies of labor, community, and party loyalty. However, these ideologies were pure propaganda and demonstrate how ideology can, “provide symbolic features that can be perceived in a culture or emulated, if the culture needs to redefine itself or find its core beliefs and foundations.” (Cicotello, Sassower p 27). The newly declared Soviet Union found itself in such a state and had to falsify art in order to prolong their power. In doing so they also falsified culture and ideology. 


Stalin’s regime was greatly responsible for this resurgence of proletariat versus bourgeois,Western culture. He also emphasized party art and consolidated art into one organization. In 1932 Stalin and the Central Committee disbanded all artistic groups in On the Reformation of Literary-Artistic Organization. The previous Proletkult, proletarian art movement, was replaced by Stalin’s party art. ( Elliot) The authoritarian, power driven regime was shifting away from genuine, communist images of  average workers and farm communities. Stalin emphasized party art that glorified party leaders instead of  Soviet laborers. Thus, communist ideology became further removed from the art, and relied on images of “heroic” communist leaders. Proletarian art may have falsely portrayed the communist reality in Russia, but it continued to uphold socialist ideals. Stalin’s party art however, was pure myth and reflected neither communist ideology nor political truth. Party art distinguished an elite class, which is contradictory to communist philosophies. Also, Stalin was not the hero he was portrayed as, but a tyrant who controlled the country with censorship and purging. The shift from proletarian to party art is parallel to the false realism which the Soviet art movement claimed. Although the Communist party claimed Socialist Realism the new party art, vast discrepancies between political ideologies and political power resulted not in Realism, but in Romanticism.


The Soviet regime supposedly scorned Romanticism and viewed it as art of the old, traditional Europe. Romanticism emphasized nature, emotion, passion and individual expression. An idealistic aura lay at the heart of the romantic movement. The Soviets replaced such Western ideals of individualism with the productivity of Socialist Realism. Furthermore, art as personal expression or enjoyment was not a Soviet concern. Art in Soviet Russia was to depict labor, industry, community and prosperity. Yet, it can be argued that just as these themes were based on ideological myths, the paintings were also romantic fantasies. As professor John E. Bowlt stated in his essay Stalin as Isis and Ra: Socialist Realism and the Art of Design,  “ Soviet Art and photography grew ever more exuberant....creating a magic kingdom that had little to do with real life.”  Bowlt’s observation is evident in Sergei Gerasimov, Collective Farm Harvest Festival  and Boris Ieremeevich Vladimirski’s Roses for Stalin. (see images 1 and 2) These paintings demonstrate romantic aesthetics and false Soviet ideology. They also highlight the shift from proletarian to party art. Most important, the scorn and use of romanticism was yet another propaganda technique, a form of reverse psychology. 


In Sergei Gerasimov, Collective Farm Harvest Festival, political ideologies are expressed through romantic not realist aesthetics. The painting depicts the utopia which the Soviets strived to attain. A farm community gathers for dinner, demonstrating community life, effort and success. The food and wine at the table symbolize prosperity, but not extreme affluence. The women’s participation further reinforces themes of equality. Gerasimov’s painting upholds socialist ideology by highlighting and encouraging the life of the proletariat. Romantic qualities can be found in the aesthetics of the painting. Nature is chosen as the setting, creating a soft and aesthetically pleasing background. Yet, it would be wrong to assume that the majority of Russians lived in such areas. In reality, the housing and health care that was guaranteed to all citizens was badly organized and favored government elites. Thus, the egalitarian community that the Soviets strived for failed under an authoritarian government.


Ieremeevich Vladimirski’s Roses for Stalin is an example of party art. The painting depicts Stalin among a group of young children, whom are handing him roses. The use of color in the painting is imperative. Stalin is dressed in all white and appears an angelic, heroic figure. Heroic and God-like portrayals of Stalin were common in Soviet art, and part of the greater political myth of benevolent patronage. The children are dressed in very simple, clean-cut white shirts and blue shorts with complimenting red scarfs. The red of the scarves and roses creates a stark contrast against the tranquil blues and green hues of the painting. A field and a lake fill the backdrop and parallel romantic themes of nature. Stalin’s poise and the children’s awed expressions evoke a sense of pride and respect. The use of red and Stalin’s presence are direct attempts of government patronage in favor of political propaganda. Aside from these symbols the painting is simple and even pleasing. There is little room for interpretation outside the overt message to appreciate and support Stalin.


The Soviet Union adopted art as propaganda to distract from its more brutal forms of forced communism, such as political purging and forced labor. Art was intended to dupe the mostly illiterate public into believing in ideal, communal prosperity. In their book, Political Blind Spots: Reading the Ideology of Images, Louis Cicotello and Raphael Sassower state  “ In reality, the collective was chiefly a means of social and political control over the individual” (614). Their observations are further supported by the reality of the Soviet state. The inefficient regime, acting behind  a mask of collectivism, produced little or unstable progress. The rapid industrialization of the first and second Five Year Plans resulted in hunger and poverty. While the plans advanced steel and electric power, agriculture suffered. An influx of urbanization led to cramped cities where food shortages were common. Furthermore, Stalin brutally enforced collectivism and punished workers who could not meet the demands of production. (Davies)  Stalin’s administration of labor collectivism was just as deceiving as party art. Artistic consolidation and control contradicts ideas of egalitarian participation. The contrasting realities of the Soviet Union, its political dissent, purging and poverty directly contrast its art and dismiss it as pure myth.


The Soviet use of propaganda to sway public support and contradict international dissent did not fool the United States. The United States could not allow another medium for  communism to infiltrate through societies. In her article, Art and Politics in Cold War America, Jane de Hart Matthews explains U.S. foreign policy when she states “ If they could not control the power of a militant Russia, then they would at least impose an ideological and aesthetic conformity associated with their standard of Americanism.”  The United States retaliated with its own form of artistic propaganda.  Abstract Expressionism arose in post WWII America and replaced social realism, the socially and politically activist art of the Great Depression. The new art movement claimed an apolitical culture, but arguments on non-subjective art remain. Regardless of the politics of Abstract Expressionism, stylistically it upholds a free and individualistic ideology. Art by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (see images 3 and 4) expresses no specific subject or style. Color, line and shape are used to evoke emotion not represent tangible objects.


Abstract Expressionism directly contradict Soviet communism by emphasizing individualistic, human emotions. The U.S. hoped to make Abstract Expressionism its newest diplomat and proponent of Americanism. The United States sought a prominent role in the art world, and a favorable position in the international system. To combat the Soviet Union the U.S. would need international approval. Through international Modern Art exhibits the country won the popularity war against the Soviet Union. Thus, art became a political strategy in U.S. Cold War policies. Abstract Expressionism became another form of containment, a passive non-intervention method aimed at breaking down Soviet myths and ideology.  Yet, it appears counterproductive to advocate democracy in such a nondemocratic manner as propaganda. The United States, like the Soviet Union, allowed government patronage to discretely manipulate and convert art into propaganda. 


U.S. government and institutions used Abstract Expressionism to gain international allies and rouse dissent against the Soviet Union. Eva Cockcroft defends this claim in her article “ Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War.” She specifically criticizes the patronage of museums such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the CIA. According to Cockcroft these institutions “ sought to influence the foreign intellectual community and to present a strong propaganda image of the United States as a ‘free’ society as opposed to the ‘regimented’ communist bloc” (86). Led by Porter A. McCray, MOMA’s international program of 1952 provided traveling exhibitions of contemporary American Art in London, Paris, Sao Paulo and Tokyo. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund financed the exhibitions through a five year grant of 625,000. (Cockcroft) Thanks to the Rockefeller’s wealth and influence, MOMA had an advantage in the art world. The Soviets opposed this exact privatization and elitism of art, and thus had implemented socialist art. However, Socialist Realism depicted the false reality of a tyrannic, not communist Russia. MOMA may have been influenced by the Rockefeller family, but is this not better than if it were controlled by the government?


U.S. patronage precipitated Soviet scorn toward the individualism and imperialism with which they characterized Abstract Expressionism. The international Modern Art exhibits, along with various government funded projects were perceived as imperialistic and imposing. Thomas W. Braden, a former secretary of MOMA, led the CIA in cultural initiatives such as the 1952 Paris tour of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Braden defended the event by acknowledging its cultural and political gain, “ the Boston Symphony Orchestra won more acclaim in the United States that John Foster Dulles or Dwight D. Eisenhower could have brought with a hundred speeches.” ( qtd. Cockcroft p. 85) The CIA was central to cultural diplomacy because public opposition to Modern Art often intervened with the exhibitions. A greater level of government secrecy was necessary to aid the Abstract Expressionist operation.  Thus, just as the Soviet regime idealized paintings to dupe the public, the U.S. government covertly perpetuated Abstract Expressionism abroad. The U.S. government remained detached from the art movement at home in order to appeal to public dissent. Both countries acted as self-interested actors and abused art as a means for political control. The question remains however, did one form of propaganda express greater legitimacy, or was the U.S. equally guilty of falsifying art for political purposes? 


Cockcroft argues, “ Links between cultural cold war politics and the success of Abstract Expressionism are by no means coincidental, or unnoticeable. They were consciously forged at the same time by some of the most influential figures controlling museum policies, and advocating enlightened cold war tactics designed to woo European intellectuals” (83).  She argues that Abstract Expressionism was controlled and perpetuated among the European elite to sway political opinion against the Soviet regime. However, her claim that Abstract art was forged to compliment cold war tactics is controversial and often causes fellow scholars to dismiss her entire argument. One such scholar is David Craven, whose counter argument in Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique states “ Given that the majority of these artists saw their own works as opposing the values of American nationalism and capitalism, then on these grounds alone, any attempt to see Abstract Expressionism as an analogy to American Cold War rhetoric or to American cultural imperialism abroad flounders disastrously.” Craven’s  focus is primarily on the ideology of Abstract Expressionism, not on its utility. However, the artists’ opposition to American nationalism and capitalism actually supports its use in Cold War rhetoric. It is further proof of the liberty enjoyed in democratic governments. To quote Cockcroft, “ linkages to controversial political activities might actually heighten the value of these artists as a propaganda weapon in demonstrating the virtues of ‘freedom of expression’ in an ‘open and free society’ ” (86). Government exhibitions of apolitical art communicated to the world that the U.S. was a proponent of freedom and democracy. 


Both scholars fail to find a medium in their arguments and defend extreme claims. Cockcroft offers evidence of government patronage and propaganda, but she does not acknowledge the apolitical philosophies of Abstract Expressionism. Craven on the other hand premises Abstract Expressionist ideology to dismiss its use as political propaganda. Yet, Cockcroft’s presentation of MOMA’s and the CIA’s influence over Abstract Expressionism is evidence of government involvement. Individually their articles explain ideology of Abstract Expressionism and government propaganda. Had the authors explored these two concepts simultaneously they would have better understood, and defended, Abstract Expressionism as a progressive force of propaganda in Cold War politics. When viewed for its free and individualistic qualities, Abstract Expressionism can be distinguished from its propagandist utility. 


The U.S. may have advertised Abstract Expressionism against Soviet ideals, but the art movement was not created for political purposes. Abstract Expressionism arose as the art of the American avant-garde. It was a distinctly American movement, but did not reflect tangible “American” values. If anything, Abstract Expressionism was a revolution against organized art and institutions. The individualistic and rebellious nature of Abstract Expressionism were exactly what the Soviets wanted to avoid.  Thus, Socialist Realism was created and developed as the art of the Communist party.  Socialist Realism, unlike Abstract Expressionism, deliberately depicts political ideologies of labor and collectivism. However, the utopian paintings did not coincide with the country’s  authoritarian regime. Unlike Soviet art, Abstract Expressionism did no express false ideologies but was a progressive movement that embodied the liberty and diversity of the United States. President Eisenhower phrased it best when he said  “ how different it is in tyranny. When artists are made slaves and tools of the state; when artists become the chief propagandists of a cause progress is averted and creation and genius are destroyed.”  (qtd. in ) Regardless of Eisenhower’s claim and pride over American artistic freedom, Abstract Expressionism did become susceptible to government patronage and propaganda.  The United States realized the potential benefits of avant-garde art as cultural and political foreign policy. American artists may not have been “chief propagandists” as they were in the Soviet Union, but their abstract art was used as a “tool of the state.” Thus, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are equally guilty of utilizing art as political propaganda.


Finally, Abstract Expressionism  was used to maintain the status quo of democracy just as Socialist Realism was used to maintain Soviet power.  Ideology and government patronage further perpetuated the role of art in Cold War politics. Soviet ideology is viewed as repressive propaganda because of the contradicting reality of the failing Soviet state. In the United States the use of Abstract Expressionism as propaganda was aimed at an international public. Thus, it could pass off as discrete propaganda while ignored in domestic politics. Although both countries are guilty of disseminating artistic propaganda, art’s ideology stands independently of its utility. Thus, Abstract Expressionism, aside from it political use, remains a proponent of democracy. In Cold War combat the United States came armed with stable ideologies, supported by a democratic society. However, the Soviet Union tottered on ideals of communism that were mystified and constrained by authoritarian leaders. 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.
User-uploaded Content

Sergei Gerasimov, Collective Farm Harvest Festival, 1937, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Image from Fisher Fine Arts Library online database, U. Penn.



DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Works Cited


Bowlt, John. “Stalin as Isis and Ra: Socialist Realism and the Art of Design.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol. 24, Design, Culture, Identity: The Wolfsonian Collection (2002), pp. 34-63


Cernushi, Claude. “The Politics of Abstract Expressionism.” [Review of David Craven’s Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissent During the McCarthy Period] Archives of American Art Journal 39 no. 1 & 2 (2000): 30-42.


Cicotello, Louis and Sassower Raphael. Political Blind Spots: Reading the Ideology of Images. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Oxford, UK. 2006.


Davies, R.W. and Wheatcroft, S.G.“Further Thoughts on the First Soviet Five-Year Plan” 

Slavic Review. Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 790-802


Elliot, David. Introduction. Art and Power: Europe Under the Dictators. London: Mayward Gallery, Thames and Hudson, 1995. pp. 186-190.


Mathews, Jane de Hart. “Art and Politics in Cold War America” The American Historical Review, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Oct., 1976), pp. 762-787


Momad, Louis. “An Unpopular Front.” The New Yorker. October 17, 2005.


Cockcroft, Eva. Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War. Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts. New York: Phaidon, 1993. pp. 82-90


Zhadonov, Andrei. “ Speech to the Congress of Soviet Writers” Art in theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Massachusetts:Blackwell Publishing, 1992. pp. 426-429.




DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.