Cultural riches?

image from Greg Barnhisel's "Perspectives USA and the Cultural Cold War: Modernism in Service of the State": "This Ford Foundation publicity shot depicts two French existentialists straight from central casting—smoking, drinking, slouching, and discussing the latest issue of Perspectives USA. Tacked to the wall are the reproductions of Arthur Dove's paintings from issue 2."

Earlier today, we clicked through to Eric Bennett’s “How Iowa Flattened Literature.” Three people had emailed us the link by the time we got to our email. They knew that we have for some time been attempting to understand US literary nationalism and the role of literature in US soft diplomacy. Bennett too has been studying, as he puts it, “the relationship between creative writing and the Cold War.” Bennett’s addition is focused on Paul Engle, the second director of the writing program at the U of Iowa: “For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.”

A few hours prior to this, we had been reading Mark McGurl’s The Program Era because we had assigned two chapters of it to our class this week. McGurl, writing about creative writing programs in universities just has this as an aside, “proponents of the program since Iowa’s Paul Engle have argued that it is only because the United States typically offers so little economic support or respect to its artistically ambitious writers, as compared to other countries, that the university must step forth to assume the compensatory function that it does.”

It was just the close mention of Engle two times in one day that got us started thinking about funding again. First off, it doesn’t seem to be true that the US offers little economic support compared to other countries. It just does not all come directly from the government. As George Yúdice in “The Privatization of Culture” points out, the US offers a similar amount of funding to artists as other European nations, but the US does it through a complicated private and public nexus. Perhaps the largest and most far reaching way the US government supports the arts is through an arcane series of tax breaks to not-for-profit institutions. This is one of the reasons why any discussion of US literary nationalism must at the same time consider the privatization of the arts that happens through support from foundations, arts institutes, poets houses, and other forms of nonprofits.

Further, as Bennett is noticing, the US government also provides significant funds for the arts covertly. And has for some time. Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War documents in exhausting detail the numerous conferences, exhibitions, concerts, and readings that were organized by the CIA, often through philanthropic organizations that were basically fronts for the CIA, during the Cold War. Nicholas Cull in The Cold War and the United States Information Agency picks up where Saunders left off and tells the story of US Information Services/US Information Agency, in the 1950s. Andrew Rubin in Archives of Authority looks at the impact the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom had on the careers of writers such as George Orwell, Thomas Mann, W. H. Auden, Richard Wright, Mary McCarthy, and Albert Camus.  

The list of the beneficiaries of US government largess is a who's who of early to mid-century US culture. When we began reading about the CIA, we kept text messaging a friend each surprising name of someone who took money from the CIA at some point. Our friend asked us to stop; she was overwhelmed. It might have made more sense for us to text her the names of mid-century writers who do not show up in these studies. We imagine that list is much shorter. The US government was notably multicultural and aesthetically inclusive in its desires to counter communism during the Cold War. Although it is hard to know the budgetary extent of all of these projects together, the funding that the CIA gave out during the Cold War years might be the most extensive funding of the arts that the US government has ever undertaken. It was not minor. Symphonies went on tours. Plays were produced. Huge conferences were put on. Magazines were edited, for many years. The most famous of these is The Paris Review, the last of the CIA front magazines still meaningfully standing (although several--China Quarterly, Freedom First, Quadrant--are still moribundly publishing).

Bennett’s article is a sort of personalized telling of what it means to be a graduate of the MFA at Iowa and also writing about the MFA at Iowa as a scholar. This article isn’t his scholarly book which is forthcoming (ironically enough) from University of Iowa Press, whose editorial process is largely overseen by Workshop affiliates. Instead, in this article, he goes on to talk about what was acceptable and what not at Iowa. His analysis here is more personal than surprising. Iowa does not like postmodernism. And if one just reads his article, one gets the idea again of the modernist tradition, the experimental, the postmodern — choose your term — as being in its nature revolutionary, free from the state, from soft diplomacy’s base desires. As our more experimental poet friends have linked to this article in the social media feeds, we’ve noticed a sort of glee that the Iowa MFA’s New Critical aesthetic is CIA funded, anti-communist in intention. And a sort of implied, well if the CIA funded Iowa, then finally the resistant politics of my experimental formalism are confirmed.

And yet, the history shows otherwise. Greg Barnhisel, writing about modernism in "Perspectives USA and the Cultural Cold War: Modernism in the Service of the State," notices how James Laughlin worked with the CIA and the USIA and the State Department to make modernism part of US imperialist soft diplomacy: "In other words, Laughlin sought to 'corner [the] free market' of ideas about modernism in a way that made modernism useful to the coalition of business, foundations, universities, and the state in the service of their larger politico-cultural objective: creating a cross-cultural alliance of writers, artists, and intellectuals who would discard their disdain of the U.S. and join with the Americans in opposing the Soviet threat." This story continues even into the contemporary. We’ve been interested in how many artists we respect have been willing to work with the state in the name of soft diplomacy in recent years. We first started noticing this when shortly after 9/11 the State Department hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent adwoman often associated with J. Walter Thompson Co, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Among Beers's projects was the publication of an essay collection to be distributed by US embassies called Writers on America. The publication is an unusual example of old-fashioned, government-sponsored literary propaganda. It could not be distributed within the US because of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which forbids domestic distribution by the State Department of propaganda materials intended for foreign audiences. Writers on America features fifteen American writers--among them are the expected, Poet Laureates Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins, and the less expected, such as Robert Creeley--writing about and celebrating being an American. With obvious nationalism, the writers featured in promote US freedoms. Much of the work omits the negative role that the US government plays in the lives of its citizens and does not reference the hugely detrimental impact that the US government has had on the lives of citizens of other nations. The publication is, of course, fairly multicultural and features many immigrant-identified writers writing about the advantages they have received from being included within the US nation-building project.

The Bush administration seemed to be interested in a fairly narrow aesthetic. Steve Evans notices a version of this in "Free (Market) Verse" and he calls his version by the tag name Poets for Bush, a group that comes into formation, he argues, after 9/11. "Through men like Dana Gioia, John Barr, and Ted Kooser," Evans writes, "Karl Rove's battle-tested blend of unapologetic economic elitism and reactionary cultural populism is now being marketed in the far-off reaches of the poetry world." But in recent years we have noticed a more multicultural and diverse aesthetic being embraced by the US government; this is an Obama legacy. Among those who have read recently in the “Reading Abroad: American Writers on Tour,” a series of State Department funded literary tours are Eleni Sikelianos in Cambodia and Vietnam; Annie Finch and Laird Hunt in the Congo; Bob Holman and Ram Devineni in Nepal, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan; Major Jackson in Kenya; Katie Ford  in Tunis, Morocco, and Sarajevo; Eliot Weinberger in Tunisia, Morocco, and Kenya; Olena Kalytiak Davis in the Middle East; Joyelle McSweeney, Matt Hart, Amanda Nadelberg, and Shin Yu Pai in China; Terrance Hayes and Matthew Zapruder in Russia; Alison Deming and Cornelius Eady in Brazil. Ilya Kaminsky, Charles Simic, Cole Swensen, and Weinberger serve on the advisory committee of the State Department’s International Writing Program. Poets have been reading willingly at the Obama White House (notable after Sam Hamill’s “Poets Against the War” protest in 2003). In 2011 Elizabeth Alexander, Billy Collins, Common, Rita Dove, Kenneth Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, Aimee Mann, Jill Scott, and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers all read. Do we need to note that in 2011 the wars with both Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp — the reasons that provoked Hamill’s protest — were still ongoing concerns?

Whether cultural diplomacy is effective or not is anyone’s guess. Edward Said in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, while calling nationalism a "mixed blessing" for humanism (he is, of course, attentive to the role that nationalist literature has played in Palestine), also notes how dramatically "Cold War concerns" have shaped the field of literary study: "This is not to say that everyone who worked in these fields was in the pay of the CIA, but it is to say that an underlying consensus about knowledge began to emerge that was scarcely visible then but has, retrospectively, become increasingly evident.” And it can also be said with confidence that the State Department in its publications is fairly clear about the goals of this sort of programming. The US Department of State’s Paper of the Advising Committee of Cultural Diplomacy equates US “cultural riches” as the equivalent of military action in the war on terror: “History may record that American’s cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership, including the war on terror.” The State Department’s rhetoric does make clear that agreeing to read for the State Department is an agreement to become part of the US war machine, to be willing to be the public face and representative of US policies. In this context, to read for the State Department has a different valence than to accept a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Cultural diplomacy will, the publication notes, counter the negative perception of the US “in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and the controversy over the handling of the detainees at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay.”

So what does any of this mean? We do not know. We’re trying to tell a history, not outline a program. We do not have a five point plan. We are not purists. We are fairly sure we got some State Department money when we taught a writers workshop in Tijuana a few years ago because the check that paid us came from the US Department of Energy.

We here at Commune Editions are probably much more skeptical about the efficiency of cultural riches than the Advising Committee of Cultural Diplomacy. The most we can agree on is that poetry might be a barking dog. We might be interested in the state’s interest in literature because it challenges some of our insistence that literature is at best beside political antagonisms, not a meaningful provoker of them. We are for sure interested in how optimistic the State Department seems to be. Do they know something we don’t? 

It might be that the most we can say is something snide. Like we are fairly convinced that the red baiting that seems to crop up so regularly in poetryland is part of this CIA tradition. And we really hope that at least some parts of poetryland are billing the State Department for their service. We hope, for instance, that the organizer of the AWP panel Goodbye, Lenin: Poets Write the Cold War and Its Aftermath in which poets are going to explore “what it means to have witnessed firsthand the traumas of Communism and to have watched as the region made its delicate transition to democracy” at least got their travel expenses covered.