Yokelist Manifesto 6: Could the CIA help?
It's not much talked about in the art world, but from the 1930s to the ‘60s, the CIA, U.S. State Department, and U.S. Information Agency – with help from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and major American corporations – organized exhibitions of avant-garde American art in Europe and Latin America to exemplify the benefits of American-style democracy, capitalism and freedom. These cultural diplomacy programs were a sort of classy American propaganda, aimed at countering the spread of communist Soviet influence during the Cold War. But they were also key in showing, as MoMA leaders said, “that America was not the cultural backwater,” in promoting New York artists, and in establishing that city as the post-war world capital of art.
Maybe we need the CIA’s help in promoting the best of New England art today.
The art world tells a fairy tale that the best art prevails on its own because the art world is some sort of meritocracy. And, by corollary, New England art doesn’t prevail because it is provincial junk. But that’s not true. Most artists that rise to the top – institutionally, economically – do so because they’ve gotten the support of a huge infrastructure that incubates and champions their work – and then aims to profit off it.
New York didn’t just become the capital of art at midcentury because it had good artists. It claimed that spot because it had the backing of major institutions, including, amazingly enough, the CIA, that made it their mission to promote New York art to the world. It helped that the art was good. And it helped that the former capitals of Western art – Paris and Berlin – were shattered by a world war. But the promotional infrastructure played a key part – and still plays a major part.
I expect the CIA won’t come to New England’s aid. So we’ll have to do this ourselves. Our local institutions – our museums, schools, news media – need to engage more with art made here. And shows of local art organized here need to tour to museums outside the region. Looking to the example of those midcentury cultural diplomacy exhibitions, I propose a New England exhibition exchange program. For example, DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum in Lincoln, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Portland Museum of Art organize annuals and biennials championing exciting art made in New England, but how many people outside the region see them? How many people outside of the towns they’re in see them? I propose that these shows be swapped across New England, and then also swapped with regional art roundups from, say, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia. If you need a model, look at a similar program that local curators already often tap when looking for artists to fill our museums – it’s the New York-centered Circuit of art biennials, art fairs, art auctions and New York museums and galleries.
Over and over you hear it said that we live in a global art world, but so much of art world success still depends on where you live, on your geographic proximity to that art world infrastructure. A third of the artists featured in Phaidon’s major new art world survey book “Painting Today” reside in New York. Not just show in New York – reside in New York. If that’s not successful provincialism, what is?
If the main mode for art world success remains living in New York, we might as well all give up here. But the decentralized nature of the Internet offers a new model for how the art world can work. We can become art localvores. We can build institutions that incubate and champion art made here. We can found our own circuit with other local yokels in supposed cultural backwaters off the Circuit’s beaten path.
Some will talk of the dangers of provincialism, but look at how well provincialism did for New York, which is an example of how to be provincial while still maintaining high aesthetic standards. If we don’t risk the pitfalls of being proudly provincial – let’s call it Yokelism – then we’re just supporting a status quo that says we don’t, won’t ever matter.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 1: Boston lacks alternative spaces?
Yokelism at the 2008 Boston Art Awards.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 2: Montreal case study.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 3: Hire locally.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 4: We need coverage of our living artists.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 5: We need local retrospectives.
Yokelism update: Coverage of our living artists: Sebastian Smee responds.
Pictured at top: The CIA's Intelligence Art Gallery, for real.