‘Taking Venice’: The Strange Story of the U.S. Government and a Painter

Something about “Taking Venice,” Amei Wallach’s new documentary about the 1964 Venice Biennale (in theaters), feels almost like science fiction, or maybe fantasy. Imagine the U.S. government taking such a keen interest in the fine arts that there may or may not have been an attempt to rig a major international prize for an American artist. A painter, no less!

History buffs already know that during the Cold War, American intelligence agencies were heavily involved in literature, music and the fine arts, seeing them as a way to export soft power around the world and prove U.S. dominance over the Soviet Union. “Taking Venice” tells one slice of that story: a long-rumored conspiracy between the State Department and art dealers to ensure that the young painter Robert Rauschenberg would win the grand prize at the event sometimes called the “Olympics of art” — and a “fiesta of nationalism.”

So … did they conspire? “Taking Venice” does not exactly answer that question, though various people who were involved give their versions of the story. But that question is far from what makes the documentary so interesting. Instead, it’s a tale of Americans crashing what had been a European party in a moment when American optimism was at its height. Artists like Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Frank Stella, John Chamberlain and Jasper Johns were making work that exploded ideas about what a painting should be and do. As one expert notes, they dared to make art that suggested the present was important, not just the past.

And they had support from their government in ways that were weird and complicated. In a 1963 speech a month before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy declared, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” Then again, as several people note, the freedom of expression that American art was supposed to illustrate on the world stage — often without the artists’ full realization of the government’s involvement — was subject to its own kind of censorship. Government entities like the House Un-American Activities Committee and intelligence agencies decided who was allowed to represent the country and whose voices were unwelcome.

Yet it’s still fascinating to imagine a time, not all that long ago, in which painting, sculpture, jazz, literature and more were considered keys to the exporting of American influence around the world. It’s a cultural attitude that’s shifted tremendously in the years since, at least on the broader scale, away from seeing art as embodying a culture’s hopes and dreams and toward something more crass.

But with this year’s edition of the Biennale underway, the question of what it means to be an American artist (or an artist from any country) is still one worth wrestling with, and something “Taking Venice” explores, too. “Art is not only about art,” Christine Macel, the curator of the 2017 Biennale, says at the start of the film. “It’s about power and politics. When you have the power, you show it through art.”

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