At the end of her book Think Tank Aesthetics: Midcentury Modernism, the Cold War, and the Neoliberal Present, Pamela M. Lee summarizes the ethos propelling the pernicious nexus of art and politics suggested by her title: “How to instrumentalize freedom—weaponize it?” Lee’s is one of two recent studies that aim to historicize the ways that the language of art has served to legitimize the logic of neoliberalism. The affinities are well known, and hinge on this duplicitous use of “freedom.” Artists are the ideal neoliberal worker: innovative, flexible, inclined to valorize and personalize risk. Corporations are quick to frame their profit motives using the terminology of experimentation and social praxis that once enlivened avant-garde manifestos. American politicians in both parties continually invoke freedom of expression and personal choice to justify dismantling social services such as public schools and health care, subjecting them to the operations of the market. These convergences among art and neoliberalism are largely formal, and feed on slipperiness: What kinds of erasures have to occur for creativity and experimentation to legitimize privatization? What sort of collapse in historical understanding has to take place for the proprietary practices of corporations to be articulated as the pinnacle of democratic engagement and the common good?
John Beck and Ryan Bishop’s Technocrats of the Imagination: Art, Technology, and the Military-Industrial Avant-Garde takes on these questions by focusing on the agency of language. Examining actual collaborations between artists and Cold War era military-industrial institutions, the book is organized around a series of case studies: György Kepes’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, founded at MIT in 1967; John Chamberlain’s 1969 residency at the RAND Corporation, organized through the Art + Technology program at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the group Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), cofounded by Robert Rauschenberg and Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver; Buckminster Fuller’s construction of geodesic domes for the US military; and Charles and Ray Eames’s immersive film installations for IBM and the State Department. The authors show how such partnerships were made possible by a shared vocabulary: creativity, experimentation, collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and research. They also stress an alignment between these artists and institutions in their techno-utopianism, mutual enthusiasm about new technologies like computers and cybernetics, and a sense that these were not only new tools but models for a nonhierarchical, flexible, efficient, and more enjoyable world. Politically, the artists ranged from staunch Cold Warriors (the Eameses) to progressive leftists (Kepes) to casual bystanders (Klüver and Chamberlain), but they were all “liberals,” and the vagueness of this term is part of the point. At the center of Beck and Bishop’s analysis is the history of US liberalism as it mutates from the interventionist agenda of the Progressive Era to the soft-power mechanisms of neoliberalism, with its emphasis on deregulation, free trade, privatization, and the uncoupling of the government from public interests.
Technocrats of the Imagination sets out to chart the active—albeit at times unwitting—role that artists played in this political shift. Central to this history, Beck and Bishop argue, are the philosopher John Dewey’s ideas about the interrelation of science, art, and democracy. Through institutions structured by his pedagogical vision, such as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, as well as reading groups among those working with the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Art Project, multiple generations of artists—including many of the figures examined in the book’s case studies—were exposed to Dewey’s ideas about interdisciplinary work and experimentation, and sought to put them into practice. For Dewey, these creative models were part of a larger program of expanding public access to knowledge and implementing an experimental, liberatory program of education for all. In the hands of artists, Beck and Bishop claim, Dewey’s broad social vision narrowed into a focus on technology, organizational structure, and experimental and collaborative methods of research as valuable in and of themselves. As Beck and Bishop argue, “progressive liberalism delivered a conception of science and technology as coterminous with democracy and creativity that was realigned during and after World War II as a mode of expert technocratic managerialism.”
The book’s case studies help us see that this realignment occurred as radical social imagination was displaced by an emphasis on the formal qualities of technology and artistic practice. This is not a story of depoliticization, Beck and Bishop argue, but the replacement of one political strategy with another. The pressure on arts to embody politics—immediately and absolutely—engendered a set of categorical confusions: calls for participatory democracy morphed into claims for the liberatory potential of interactive media; interdisciplinary exchange among experts replaced visions of expansive, emancipatory public education for all; and demands for publicly funded research to solve social problems were tempered as private corporations implemented experimental research methodologies that unleashed a wave of cool new things on the market.
Lee’s Think Tank Aesthetics takes this argument one step further by contending that this formalization of politics—the slippage between surface and substance, politics and form—is endemic to neoliberalism. It’s not just that concepts like creativity, collaboration, and interdisciplinarity have changed, but that they are purposefully capacious, strategically employed to obfuscate and even instrumentalize paradox. This is by design: Lee shows how neoliberalism thrives on confusion, the breakdown of coherence, the degradation of signals, and the perpetuation of noise. It functions through forgetfulness, the erasure of history, and a continual shape-shifting that makes its operations of power difficult to locate and thus counteract.
Usually historians look to the economic crises and austerity measures of the 1970s as the start of neoliberal policies, but Lee locates the seeds of neoliberalism earlier, in the US think tanks founded in the postwar period and aimed at research and development in the broadest terms. It was here that interdisciplinarity came to be understood as an inherent good. Think tanks not only collaborated with artists (something Lee addresses in her 2006 book, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, but mentions only briefly here), they also drew on methodologies and theoretical insights from fields as diverse as psychology, anthropology, political science, engineering, aesthetic theory, design, and art. Think tanks are therefore characterized by “structural blurriness,” a descriptor Lee borrows from sociologist Thomas Medvetz. They are universities without students, spaces where the government can go to pursue projects without accountability—they are, in her words, “extra-academic” and “para-political,” terms that indicate how unbounded these institutions are, uncoupled from oversight, regulation, and protocols. Think Tank Aesthetics shows how aesthetics are instrumental in perpetuating and operationalizing this blurriness, because, Lee argues, they take our attention away from history and point away from the actual seat of power.
Aesthetics can be used to various ends, of course, but for Lee, this is precisely what makes them useful for a political system that thrives on obfuscation and deceit—especially when this system seems to be at its most liberal, accommodating, and free. Case in point: Lee’s conclusion looks at the David H. Koch Plaza outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, because there “a public plaza becomes a sanctuary from a billionaire’s caustic mission against the notion of the public itself.” One strength of Lee’s book is how it excavates much less obvious examples of the insidious use of aesthetics and art to argue that this operation is at the core—rather than mere surface or facade—of contemporary power.
The book is organized into a series of encounters between individuals responsible not only for collaborating with artists but also for importing a whole analytic armature derived from art history into think tanks, and eventually the apparatus of neoliberalism at large—developing what Lee argues amounts to an entirely aestheticized worldview. One chapter looks at the relationship between art historian Meyer Schapiro and RAND defense analyst Albert Wohlstetter, who took courses with Shapiro at Columbia in the 1930s and regularly corresponded with the scholar for decades. Lee analyzes Wohlstetter and Schapiro’s distinct engagements with semiotics, a field indebted as much to cryptography and information theory as to literary studies or art. Both drew on the already interdisciplinary field of semiotics to grapple with the instability of the signifier—in Wohlstetter’s case, to plan for all possible contingencies in a wartime scenario, and in Schapiro’s, to open up the overly prescriptive practice of iconography in order to acknowledge a range of possible interpretations. Lee’s purpose in examining how these figures intersected is to show that debates about the relationship between form and its meaning were not confined to art history or the humanities but also occupied the intellectual energies of those at the center of US strategy and power.
Again and again, Lee returns to the ways that forms come to mean different things in different contexts and can be deployed to distinct ends. In a chapter on “pattern recognition,” she traces the usage of this approach—which presumes the meaning of visual signs is inherent to their surface, capable of disclosing previously unseen dimensions once decoded—through anthropology, art criticism, and Gestalt and pop psychology, all fields that intersected with RAND in the late 1940s and ’50s. She also locates this way of thinking through patterns and surfaces in contemporary strategies of computing and data analysis, which similarly reduce everything to a set of signifiers and codes. In contrast, Lee’s chapter on Cybersyn, the real-time information-sharing network designed for Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile between 1970 and 1973, offers a model of a data network intended to be collectively owned, operated, and controlled, reminding us that such technologies can be wielded differently outside our current surveillance capitalist system.
Crucial for think tank aesthetics is the erasure of examples like Cybersyn that not only point to other worlds but suggest that the power of things is in their use, not their form or design. Allende’s government was overthrown by a military junta before Cybersyn could be fully implemented, but it was resurrected as an artwork in 2007 by the Chilean new media collective or-am. For Lee, its continued existence as an artwork is evidence that art can counteract the amnesia so important to neoliberalism, if it effectively operates like history or archival research. The book’s final chapter is devoted to contemporary artists whose work examines the relationship between secrecy and power, including Jamal Cyrus, Trevor Paglen, and Jill Magid. Works like Cyrus’s large-scale drawings of redacted COINTELPRO files (Cultr-Ops on Wax, 2015) or Magid’s Authority to Remove (2008)—an installation of neon text and an artist’s novel based on her real-life interviews with members of the Dutch Secret Service, for which she was not allowed to take notes—thematize governments’ power to censor and withhold, but as the book makes clear, they also can and should be read as evidence of the proprietary politics of knowledge that uncouples governments from the people that they no longer even pretend to serve.
Think Tank Aesthetics covers a sprawling range of examples and counterintuitive comparisons spanning disparate fields, but the crux of Lee’s book is the stark contrast between RAND and Cybersyn. Both are interconnected networks of information sharing, data analysis, speculation, and projection, as well as centers of control. But Cybersyn was intended to decentralize information sharing so as to optimize industrial production and better meet the public’s needs, while RAND funded experimental research in an expansive array of fields for the sole purpose of centralizing power by privatizing knowledge in the hands of a technocratic elite. To forget form’s historical contingency is to fall into the trap of “think tank aesthetics,” which not only distracts us from the real operations of power but naturalizes them, obscuring how things could be otherwise.
Utopian wagers about the power of both art and technology often hinge on the idea that small experiments can be seamlessly scaled up—that a flexible network of information sharing, for example, can not only foster democracy but is democracy realized. Together, the historical narratives charted in Think Tank Aesthetics and Technocrats of the Imagination show that such assertions about the politics of form mean very little when forged within institutions and social systems that so blatantly contradict these claims. What becomes apparent is that an emphasis on certain forms can obfuscate the agency of others, such as the form of modes of production or the distribution of knowledge and control. Far from marking the end of formal analysis, these books move toward its expansion by applying it to these framing structures instead of artworks. There may be hope for the tools of art history yet.