After classical antiquity, Christianity became the predominant power shaping European culture between the 13th and 19th centuries. Biblical texts, commentaries, and apocryphal stories inspired artists and patrons alike to create these objects of devotion such as the visions experienced, miracles performed, and other profound theological beliefs and debates. The CIA’s involvement in the promotion of Abstract Expressionism (1950’s-70’s) exemplifies the aesthetic terrorist’s strategy of tricking opposition into abandoning its self-avowed principles and adopting nihilism, which has been commensurate with America’s cultural decline. Since its introduction, American art has almost completely eschewed any expressions of truth and beauty. Instead, most modern American art celebrates all that is ugly and unintelligible. This trend is symptomatic of a pervasive nihilism that has choked the life out of most American principles.
The relationship between art and religion has a long and rich history that has inspired and continues to inspire believers and non-believers alike. Is there any doubt that the adversary and his beast system would find a way to suppress and artificially replace beautiful and inspiring art with simple, uninspiring art?
Weaponizing the Arts
Popular opinion tends to regard philosophical discourse as the province of academia’s hierophants. There is good reason for this self-imposed intellectual segregation. On the theoretical level, philosophy can be somewhat tedious. Given the field’s justifiable insistence upon the clarity of definitions, philosophy is replete with specialized terminology that typically requires explanation by theoreticians. As a result, few people are eager to engage in discussions concerning the various Weltanschauungs populating the marketplace of ideas. Yet, philosophical outlooks abound and they are held by both neophyte and adept. Thus, the question arises: How are belief systems engendered among pop culture’s novice-level thinkers? According to Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, most people are not introduced to philosophy through the superstructure of theory. Instead, they are exposed through an infrastructure of the arts, which “has shaped the national mind-set in everything from determining war strategy to electing presidents, to finding one’s identity in cars and deodorants” (Can Man Live Without God? 12).
Such was the case with existentialism, a movement whose logically untenable foundations were camouflaged by cleverly employed artistic mediums. Existentialism presented a dysteleological depiction of the world as the basis for a libertine philosophy of self-definition. A central contention of the outlook was that because the world was supposedly meaningless, man was the ultimate arbiter of meaning and values. Unmoored from a God, purpose and all of its entailments became the province of the subjective conscious. Of this absolute autonomy, Soren Kierkegaard writes:
The subjective thinker’s form, the form of his communication, is his style. His form must be just as manifold as are the opposites that he holds together. The systematic eins, zwei, drei is an abstract form that also must inevitably run into trouble whenever it is to be applied to the concrete. To the same degree as the subjective thinker is concrete, to the same degree his form must also be concretely dialectical. But just as he himself is not a poet, not an ethicist, not a dialectician, so also his form is none of these directly. His form must first and last be related to existence, and in this regard he must have at his disposal the poetic, the ethical, the dialectical, the religious. Subordinate character, setting, etc., which belong to the well balanced character of the esthetic production, are in themselves breadth; the subjective thinker has only one setting—existence—and has nothing to do with localities and such things. The setting is not the fairyland of the imagination, where poetry produces consummation, nor is the setting laid in England, and historical accuracy is not a concern. The setting is inwardness in existing as a human being; the concretion is the relation of the existence-categories to one another. Historical accuracy and historical actuality are breadth. (357-58)
Thus, existentialism contended that meaning and values originated inwardly with the individual, not outwardly with God. Man was left to define himself. This Promethean enthronement of the absolutely autonomous individual was a natural consequence of the existentialist outlook, the disparities between its theistic and atheistic formulations notwithstanding. In the case of so-called “Christian existentialism,” man’s ability to make choices within a fundamentally paradoxical universe entailed his enthronement as the measure of all things. In the case of atheistic existentialism, the nonexistence of God resulted in the abandonment of any divinely determined anthropology. This abandonment would lead atheistic existentialists to the very same anthropocentric conclusion as their theistic counterparts. Concerning the Biblical schematic for humanity, atheistic existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre writes:
When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan. Whatever doctrine we may be considering, whether it be a doctrine like that of Descartes, or of Leibnitz himself, we always imply that the will follows, more or less, from the understanding or at least accompanies it, so that when God creates he knows precisely what he is creating. Thus, the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the mind of the artisan: God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula. Thus each individual man is the realisation of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding. (“Existentialism Is a Humanism” 148)
Sartre correctly observes that the rejection of imago Dei leaves humanity anthropologically adrift: “…there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is” (“Existentialism Is a Humanism” 349). The resultant anthropological indeterminacy necessitates man’s assumption of a creatological role that was initially reserved for the Divine. Bereft of a Maker, man must make himself. Thus, as was the case with its theistic variant, atheistic existentialism enthroned man as the measure of all things. According to Sartre, the process by which humanity defines itself is effected a posteriori: “… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards” (“Existentialism Is a Humanism” 349). This claim is encapsulated in the aphorism, “Existence precedes essence.”
Within this aphorism, astute readers will discern echoes of the Enlightenment’s tabula rasa anthropology. Not surprisingly, it was Kant, the Enlightenment’s leading luminary, who laid the groundwork for existentialism with his rationally derived ethical theory. By divorcing ethics from God and relocating their point of origin within the rational mind, Kant unintentionally affirmed the existentialist’s forthcoming enthronement of the absolutely autonomous individual. Zacharias elaborates:
…Kant’s effort to provide a rational basis for ethics apart from God or personal happiness was unsuccessful, but he paved the way for others, not the least of whom were the existentialists. The one best known in that struggle to find an ethic is Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher. The step from Kant to Kierkegaard was long but predictable. The former approached ethics from the perspective of reason; the latter from that of the will and of the individual’s power to choose. The key word in Kierkegaardian thinking is choice, which he presents in his book Either-Or. This choice between the ethical and aesthetic was not so much the choice between good and evil, he said, as it was the decision whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil. The doctrine that emerged in his writings was that when the ethical way of life is adopted, it should be adopted for no specific reason but as a choice that lies beyond reason. Once he made his choice, said Kierkegaard, the ethical person had no problems of interpretation. Once again a deep incoherence surfaces as reason is jettisoned. The trend was the same for Hume and Diderot. (Can Man Live Without God? 39)
Given its inherently Gnostic character, it is no surprise that the Enlightenment foreshadowed existentialism’s philosophical apotheosis of man. This transfiguration was ostensibly affirmed by the biology of Darwinism, which was arguably an updated Gnostic myth. These three movements—Gnosticism, the Enlightenment, and existentialism—are bound together by the common thread of dysteleology. Gnosticism’s dysteleology is made evident by its contempt for the created order, which is depicted as a sort of cosmic abortion. The Enlightenment’s dysteleology is made evident by the tendency of its theoreticians to situate God at an unbridgeable ontic distance from creation, thereby leaving the world to the whim of mindless and purposeless forces. It is with this same sort of dysteleology that one recognizes the untenable premises of existentialism.
The dysteleological outlook is self-refuting. It portrays the universe as meaningless while simultaneously expecting such a portrayal to be regarded as meaningful. Evidently, there is meaning in the universe. Otherwise, even dysteleological contentions could not be coherently conveyed. Because existentialism is premised upon the self-refuting dysteleological outlook, it must be considered equally untenable. Given existentialism’s hopelessly flawed premises, it became necessary for the movement to plead its case through a medium that didn’t entail logical argumentation. That medium was the arts, which were designed to appeal more to the emotions and imagination than to logic. By conveying their message through a medium dominated by emotion and imagination, the existentialists managed to draw a large number of adherents to an otherwise logically unsustainable outlook. Commenting on this stealthy method of inculcation, Zacharias states:
Existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus did not waste their time establishing syllogisms. They harnessed the passion of an empty world within the human psyche and fused it with their own ethos, affecting the mood and feeling of an educated herd. A homogenization of our cultural tastes quickly ensued, and a fastening upon our sensitivities or rather, a desensitization of conscience, was securely in place. (Can Man Live Without God? 12)
By and large, existentialism rose to prominence astride the Theatre of the Absurd. Existentialist playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco revolted against conventional theatre with their own anarchistic variety of anti-theatre (Culik, “The Theatre of the Absurd”). Gone was beauty and truth. Theatrical productions became celebrations of the nonsensical and ugly. In turn, this profane form of “art” found its roots in the avant-garde artistic experiments of the 1920s and 1930s (ibid). According to Professor of Religious Studies Carl A. Raschke, avant-garde culture advanced its normative claims through “aesthetic terrorism.” Raschke elaborates:
The concept of the aesthetic terrorist has been enunciated in an article in Harper’s Magazine by Alberto Moravia. Terrorism, Moravia points out, is an idiosyncrasy of the modern era and of modern thought and fashion. It is the scimitar of avant-garde culture. Terrorism can only thrive where there is constant revolutionary agitation and movement, where there is an obsession with history, and there is an actual set of cultural values adulating change. (Painted Black 171)
Avant-garde culture exhibited an overwhelming preoccupation with history and the supposed mutability of values. From this vantage point, terror was viewed as an instrument by which values could be rendered perpetually ephemeral. Terror not only engendered fear, but a sense of impermanence. Because terrorism tended to irreversibly alter the course of human events, avant-garde culture viewed violent activism as a means by which truth could be historicized. The rationale for this appropriation was that if history could be irrevocably changed through extremism, so could any notion of eternal verities. Subject to the continuous flux of history, the terrorized masses were left with nothing immutable to which they could cling. Moravia explains:
[T]error is connected to the idea, also bourgeois, that there is something called history. In history, as is well known, nothing endures or remains fixed or stable; everything is in continuous movement, in a continuous state of development. Everything is subject to aging, to obsolescence, to de-fashionization. Everything transforms itself from the tragic into the comic, from the real into the unreal, from the true into the false, from the adequate into the inadequate, from the current into the obsolete. It is here, in the realm of historical change, that terror comes into play as an instrument of power. (“The Terrorist Aesthetic” 38)
For classical culture, which was exemplified by ancient Greece and the ancien regime, terror was only associated with the fear of death. It was not causally related to values. No matter how real the threat of death was for the traditionalist, never once did he waver in his conviction that truth remained invariant. This conviction, however, would be seriously challenged by the modern incarnation of terror, which was harnessed by avant-garde culture to achieve sociocultural primacy. Moravia states:
Classical antiquity does not seem to have been acquainted with terror. Nor was the ancien regime. Terror before the Revolution of ’89 was real terror, based on the fear of death. Real values did not move; they were situated outside of time. Consequently, the movements of values in time could not be used to attain and maintain power. The Greek city-states and the ancien regime threatened the life and liberty of their adversaries, but they were unacquainted with the cut-and-dried guillotine of “history.” Today, only certain curators of the ancient do not know how to use modern terror based on duration, and must resort to real terror based on the fear of death. But this curatorial mentality is rare, surviving only in the most backward countries of Latin America and Asia. Elsewhere, modern, bourgeois terror has been universally adopted, by Marxists as well as by their adversaries. (“The Terrorist Aesthetic” 39)
In classical culture, according to Moravia, values were “eternal;” they never changed. Values were timeless plumb lines of right and wrong, truth and falsity, justice and injustice. In modernity, on the other hand, values are forever in transit – they are constantly writhing and flipping over into their opposite. The modern revolutionary temper has arisen from the rage to overturn old values and supplant them with shining, new ones. Terrorism becomes a “style” of revolutionary political struggle, because it is not only a regime that must be replaced, it is the people’s very moral fabric and intellectual marrow as well. Terror is connected, as Moravia emphasizes, “to the idea of power” inasmuch as “person who gives the impression of knowing how to foresee the movements of values through time will be the one who gets hold of power.” (Painted Black 171-72)
In contradistinction to classical culture, modernity rendered values perennially mutable and, as such, were believed to be contorting themselves into their antithetical forms and back again. The key to wielding power over others lay in one’s ability to discern the next destination point where values would sojourn before resuming their ongoing oscillation. In this Nietzschean conviction, one might discern echoes of the Illuminist system of control, which supplanted God as the ontic referent for morality. In the absence of God, Adam Weishaupt was free to enthrone himself as the ultimate moral authority. E. Michael Jones correctly observes that “[m]orals, cut off from their ontological source, became associated as a result with the will of the man who understood the mechanism of control” (16). The resultant system of control “proved effective in the absence of religious sanction” (16). Jones states: “The older order, which was based on nature and tradition and revelation, was replaced by a new totalitarian order which was based on the will of those in power” (16). The new terrorism, which would give rise to the avant-garde, boasted a similar gnosis. The ability to predict the next form that values would supposedly assume was considered the prerequisite for seizing power.
The modern conception of terror, which threatens target populations with a sense of impermanence and installs a new moral authority, was eventually extrapolated to the arts by the opponents of classical culture. This extrapolation birthed the avant-garde, a movement devoted to the destruction of traditional art and the eternal truths that it expressed. Moravia writes:
Terrorism in art is called the avant-garde. The avant-garde is terroristic because it believes not in values but in time. The Futurist who decreed that the Mona Lisa was a mere piece of trash was saying something else. And that is: “I don’t know exactly what the Mona Lisa is, I don’t know whether or not yesterday I admired it, I don’t know whether or not today I despise it. I know extremely well, however, what it is I am doing: I am placing the Mona Lisa in time and myself outside of time. That is, I am placing my opinion, which is probably incomplete or, in any case, temporary, into the sphere of the absolute. And I am placing the Mona Lisa, a masterpiece which is by all appearances absolute, inside the sphere of time. By doing this I am transforming the relative (my opinion) into the absolute and the absolute (the Mona Lisa) into the relative.” (“The Terrorist Aesthetic” 39)
In short, avant-garde culture represented the ultimate inversion. It undermined confidence in objective truth with its depictions of a bleak, Godless world. In the place of objective truth, the avant-garde enshrined its own appetite-laden values. It is not difficult to see how such a movement presaged the rise of existentialism, which also asserted that man created his own meaning. Where the avant-garde situated itself outside of time and declared itself as the absolute, existentialism advanced its mandate for man to customize his meaning as an objective metaphysical principle. The irony is that an objective metaphysical principle invariably arrives at a definite teleology, which stands in direct opposition to the dysteleological premises of existentialism. This internal contradiction aside, existentialism’s enshrinement of the individual as the ultimate arbiter of meaning was preceded by the avant-garde’s enshrinement of the relative as the absolute.
As Raschke previously stated, aesthetic terrorism was the “scimitar of avant-garde culture,” effecting the usurpation of eternal truth on a level far deeper than mere political structures and other miscellaneous societal constructs. Aesthetic terrorism represented a revolution of the soul because it assailed that which Plato described as “soul knowledge”: morality. If morality and the soul are inextricably linked, then any attempt to alter or obliterate the values of the masses must deal with humanity on the animate level. Because aesthetic terrorists attempted to demolish morality, they were, by extension, waging a revolution of the soul.
With the advent of this innovation in revolutionary activism, artistic radicals eventually supplanted political radicals. This new variety of radicalism frequently interfaced with the invisible networks of occultism, a milieu whose role in the development of the revolutionary faith is tirelessly documented by scholars like James Billington. Raschke writes:
The concept of art as a revolutionary battering ram that flattens the old values of society and drives their opposite into the shafts of experience developed during the Romantic age. It became a favorite theory among the artistic radicals of the nineteenth century, whose fellowship frequently overlapped with the occult underworld. The growth of aesthetic terrorism as a surrogate for political radicalism had its origins in France, especially within the circles close to [Charles] Baudelaire, and it seems to have flowered at approximately the same time the political momentum of revolution throughout Europe was waning. (Painted Black 172)
Moravia states that modern terrorism, whether expressed as political or artistic radicalism, does not concern itself with the provision of rebuttals to detractors. Instead, modern terrorism tricks its opponents into rejecting the very principles that they once held dear. This rejection is subtly induced by convincing the terrorized that the radicals can only be defeated through the employment of equally extremist methods. Thus, the terrorists’ opponents can no longer lay claim to the moral high ground. They have become the very monsters that they were initially fighting. The victims have become victimizers. Bereft of their treasured principles, the rivals of terrorism engender an overwhelming sense of nihilism. There is no enemy left to fight because the besieged have become their own assailants. Moravia explains:
The terrorist does not answer his adversary’s arguments with other arguments; rather, he exiles his adversary to a state of nihilism. Let us look at how he manages to carry out this operation. It is clear that to be in a position to accuse, the terrorist must speak not in his own name but in the name of principles. Just as clearly, these principles have to be accepted by the adversary whom it is necessary to put in a state of nihilism. The whole operation, then, consists in making the adversary, like the dog of the fable, abandon his own principles for the principles of his accuser. How? In the simplest way possible: by making it understood that principles do not exist, that the discussion will take place on what seems to be the fair and neutral ground of reason. The adversary, confident that he is fighting with equal weapons, accepts. Then and only then does the terrorist reveal the weapon he has kept hidden. So, says the terrorist, there are no such things as principles. If the terrorist’s adversary concedes the point, he proves that he does not have principles of his own. As for the terrorist, he has not abandoned his principles at all; but his adversary, having been forced to abandon his, has in effect accepted the principles of the terrorist. And what about reason? Reason was a trap. His adversary fell into it. (“The Terrorist Aesthetic” 39)
Such a trap might have been laid by the Soviets for the West during the Cold War. Like the artistic radicals of the Romantic age, the Soviets managed to trick their Western adversaries into abandoning their self-avowed principles and embracing the very nihilism they initially rejected. In its propaganda war with the West, the Soviet Union began suggesting “that America was a cultural desert” (Saunders). In response, elements in the West began presenting Abstract Expressionist painting “as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete” (ibid). Again, the Soviet propaganda architects may have anticipated and desired such a response from the West. In all likelihood, the Soviets knew that certain factions in the West would cast off moral restraint in order to beat their Eastern competitors on every front of the Cold War, including culture.
Clearly, the vast majority of Americans did not wish to embrace Abstract Expressionism. Strong resistance emerged in 1947, with the cancellation of a touring international exhibition that was organized and paid for by the U.S. State Department (ibid). Entitled “Advancing American Art,” the exhibition offended Americans (ibid). President Harry Truman accurately expressed public outrage when he described the exhibition as taxpayer-subsidized “trash” and stated, “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot” (ibid). In order to break down resistance and promote acceptance of Abstract Expressionism, the U.S. government enlisted the help of an organization that has never been known as a paragon of morality: the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This move was not at all surprising; the Agency had endeavored to weaponize art and culture since its inception. Writer Frances Stonor Saunders elaborates:
The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.
The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America’s anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism. (ibid)
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