Countering Thomas Piketty’s critique of inherited wealth, Tyler Cowen suggests that such dynastic accumulations of private wealth may be a precondition of great art:
Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.
Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.
But the Belle Époque (and its predecessor) has got nothing on the CIA.
The Central Intelligence Agency on Friday, April 11th posted to its public website nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA’s role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union. The 1958 publication of Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel in Russian gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.
The declassified memos, letters, and cables reveal the rationale behind the Zhivago project and the intricacies of the effort to get the book into the hands of those living behind the Iron Curtain.
In a memo dated April 24, 1958 a senior CIA officer wrote: “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country [and] in his own language for his people to read.”
After working secretly to publish the Russian-language edition in the Netherlands, the CIA moved quickly to ensure that copies of Doctor Zhivago were available for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. By the end of the Fair, 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago had been surreptitiously handed out, and eventually thousands more were distributed throughout the Communist bloc.
As it happened, Pasternak went on to win the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, the popularity of his novel skyrocketed, and the plight of the great Russian author in the Soviet Union received global media attention.
Subsequently, the CIA funded the publication of a miniature, lightweight paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that could be easily mailed or concealed in a jacket pocket. Distribution of the miniature version began in April 1959.
These declassified documents about Doctor Zhivago are just the latest in a long line of revelations about how central the CIA was to the cultural and aesthetic life of the twentieth century. Was there a better patron of abstract expressionism—of Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, at least on the global scale—than the CIA? And while the Saunders thesis of the cultural Cold War (the thesis long predates her, of course, but she helped popularize it after the Cold War) has its problems and its critics, the CIA did fund literary magazines like Encounter, even Partisan Review when it seemed like it was going to go belly up, international tours of symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles, and art exhibits around the world.
And while we’re on the topic of government patronage of the arts, let’s not forget the Bolsheviks, who managed, before the full onset of Stalinism and Socialist Realism, to fund, support, and inspire some pretty damn good avant-garde art. (And some not so good art: Ever since I learned that Ayn Rand developed some of her most enduring aesthetic tastes by attending, with the help of cheap tickets funded by the Bolsheviks, weekly performances of cheesy operettas at the Mikhailovsky state-run theater, I’ve held Lenin responsible for The Fountainhead.)
My most prized print is the poster of a 1971 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of “Russian Art of the Revolution.” It features El Lissitzky’s Sportsmen, which he did in 1923. (I managed to salvage it from the garbage after the office of a former colleague was cleaned out.) While eclipsed by the later exhibit at the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum show was the first of its kind, I believe, in the States. In any event, it gives a good sense of what Soviet support for the arts achieved.
Cowen’s argument has a long history, but it’s not clear to me why he believes it’s dispositive. When it comes to funding for the arts, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.