Role of Art in the Cold War

Sophia Xiao
March 17, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Mitrofan Grekov, "Trumpeter and standard-bearer" (1934). (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the death of Hitler and the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, World War II slowly came to an end. [1] However, as the war ended, the uneasy alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States also came to an end. By 1948, the Cold War had solidified with the Soviets' determination to maintain control of eastern Europe in their attempt to safeguard against any potential future threat from Germany and the West's determination to limit the spread of Soviet influence. [1] In 1949, the USSR exploded their first atomic warhead, which ended the United States' control of nuclear warfare, and suddenly, the Cold War became largely a nuclear standoff between the two superpowers. [1] At its peak, the US conducted 96 separate nuclear weapons tests and the USSR conducted 40 over the course of one year. [2] Ultimately, however, the Cold War was a battle of ideologies between the communist USSR and the capitalist West, and since no physical fighting between either side was ever done, the "war" between the two superpowers very much manifested as a battle of art as propaganda. [3] This report will look at how the use of art as propaganda differed between each side.


The greatest difference between how the USSR and the US used art as a means of propaganda was the style that embodied each. For example, the art used as propaganda for the communist Eastern Bloc was characterized largely as Socialist realism, which included work that displayed clearly defined political content and a "heroic style." [3] Socialist realism was largely defined by artists using realistic styles in order to create extremely optimistic depictions of life in the Soviet Union, and it manifested in both propaganda posters as well as paintings displayed in Soviet museums and galleries. [4] These formulaic pieces often contained many similar elements, like idealized portraits of peasants and soldiers framed by agricultural details such as grains, leaves, and tools for farming, which represented both the bounty of the countryside and the strength and security provided by the Communist Soviet government. [4] Only a few of the Soviet artists and designers are known, as the USSR valued celebrating collective accomplishment over individual creativity (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Sculpture Le Halebardier (1971) by Alexander Calder outside the Sprengel Museum (of modern art), Hannover/Germany. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast, the art used by the capitalist West celebrated individuality and freedom of expression. Valued by the US government were artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder, who were celebrated for their avant-garde abstraction (Fig. 2). The US government fostered the production of abstract art because to them, these pieces demonstrated that capitalism fostered a freedom of expression and progressiveness that the Soviet Union lacked. [3] Unlike the Soviet government, western governments did not attempt to limit the style of the artwork created by artists. Rather, they had the tendency to encourage artwork that did not follow a predetermined style and spotlight the different artists and their vastly different pieces. Furthermore, Abstract Expressionism proved that the US was not the cultural desert that the Soviet Union accused it of being. [5] Ultimately, Abstract Expressionism served to emphasize the rigidity and heavily stylized nature of the USSR's Socialist Realism.


In conclusion, the greatest stylistic difference between the Soviet Union and the West in art was in the Soviet Union's use of Socialist Realism to show the bountiful nature of communist society and the West's use of Abstract Expressionism to highlight the freedom artists and intellectuals experienced in capitalist societies. More interesting, however, was that this celebration of Abstract Expressionism was meant to directly criticize the USSR's control of artistic expression in the Soviet Union, yet at the same time, the CIA was also found to have been directly involved in sponsoring many budding American Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock himself. [3] Moreover, through extremely covert methods, the CIA funded and supported this movement by being official sponsors of touring exhibitions, by using magazines that it supported under the table to provide useful platform for favorable critics of this new type of American painting such that not even the artists themselves would be any wiser. [5] While each side of the Cold War strongly disagreed with the ideologies of the other, which was particularly evident in the artistic movement each government championed, the methods through which the two sides disseminated their ideologies were very similar.

© Sophia Xiao. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] L. Edwards and E. E. Spalding, A Brief History of the Cold War (Regnery Publishing, 2016).

[2] N.-O. Bergkvist and R. Ferm, "Nuclear Explosions 1945-1998," Defense Research Establishment of Sweden, FOA-R-00-01572-180-SE, July 2000.

[3] S. Kinzer, "Arts in America; 'Avant-Garde' Artists Come In From the Cold (War)," New York Times, 14 Feb 01.

[4] E. Dobrenko, Political Economy of Socialist Realism (Yale University Press, 2007).

[5] F. S. Saunders, "Modern Art Was CIA 'Weapon'," Independent, 21 Oct 95.