‘Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War’ at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) reveals scandals, reshapes narratives, and interrogates ideologies. The exhibition uses the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) secret funding of culture during the Cold War as a starting point to examine the politicized appropriations of 20th-century aesthetics, from realism to abstraction. ‘Parapolitics’—whose title refers to “soft power” tactics during the Cold War—challenges the retroactive “globalization” of Western modernism with the ideological and institutional structures that both buttressed and disseminated its canon. Abandoning the binary logic of the Cold War, the exhibition engages with historical ephemera and documentation, as well as works of contemporary art, to foster cultural hegemony.
The international perspectives of curators Anselm Franke, Nida Ghouse, Paz Guevara, and Antonia Majaca yield a rigorous, global analysis of the period. The exhibition opens with a look into the international cultural currents that describe the ideological mindsets of the time. From Der Monat (Germany) and Black Orpheus (Nigeria) to Sasanggye (South Korea), ‘Parapolitics’ uses ephemera as a primary source, granting each thorough visual and textual evidence. Ripe with didactic material, the exhibition also examines the dogmas of the Cold War through historical accounts of pivotal shows and organizations, such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), with video documentation and visual recreations. Finally, the aftermath of Cold War ideologies prevails in the plethora of contemporary works by artists Doug Ashford, Romare Bearden, Liu Ding, Philip Guston, Faith Ringgold, and Martha Rosler, among others.
Perhaps the paragon of the exhibition, Art & Language’s ‘Picasso’s Guernica in the Style of Jackson Pollock’, brings two iconic figures of modernism and simultaneously collapses their practices. The artists reproduced to scale Picasso’s famous anti-war painting with photocopies, stencils, and Pollock’s iconic drip technique. Hinged on the conceptual nature of Art & Language’s work, the painting is a realist copy, a “’portrait’ of the cultural moment at which it is made”. As viewers, we recast the heroes of modernism with new perspectives, considering and critiquing the cultural phenomena that render them canonic. Not all works in the exhibition are so illustrative in ideologies, and some of the political work included only considers contemporaneous politics.
‘Parapolitics’ straddles Picasso’s assertion that “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” and the CIA’s philosophy that “art lies in concealing the means by which it is achieved”. The exhibition shows how contemporary artists negotiate and navigate the political use of art to consider the framing and significance of their own work through elusion or critique. Investigating the political perspective of form, and artists’ coming to terms with that realization, we reconsider the narrative of modernism on a global scale and discover key players in its fabrication. The result of remarkable scholarship, ‘Parapolitics’ will culminate in a forthcoming publication and is accompanied by a two-day conference, ‘Freedom in the Bush of Ghosts’, from December 15–16, 2017. Documenting struggles for artistic autonomy through a loose framework of global ephemera and ‘political’ contemporary art, the exhibition ultimately asserts a new way of considering how 20th-century ideologies and perspectives shaped the canon of modernism, without exhibiting many modernist works at all.