Civil Liberties

The FBI Files

Federally funded art takes on new meaning.


"The only reason the FBI stopped spying on me in 1973 is that their funding was cut off," says the 79-year-old artist and left-wing activist Arnold Mesches. "Otherwise they might still be on my tail."

I can't refute an expert. Mesches spent 26 years under federal surveillance. His 760-page file, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, recently has become the most celebrated FBI dossier in the United States. Mesches has turned dozens of the documents—crisply typed white pages thick with black bars, dating from 1945 to 1972—into an art exhibit, "The FBI Files," that was widely seen and lauded during its extended run at New York's P.S.1 gallery. It got a similar reception at Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center (where I caught the show in early February), and is next appearing in Buffalo.

Seeking to determine whether Mesches was a Soviet spy, investigators from the 1950s into the '70s relied on a wide network of paid (sometimes threatened) informants to document a private life down to its most minute details: the weight of his newborn daughter, news of a contribution to Mad magazine, the apparently incriminating way he wore his trousers rolled. Almost 10,000 days of surveillance, much of it post-McCarthy, should have been more than enough time to uncover whether a man was slipping state secrets to Moscow. But after grasping the total irrelevance of much of the data collected on Mesches, you start to feel that 10,000 years might not have been enough, even if he had been the KGB's favorite paint-soaked spook.

For the record, Mesches first publicly acknowledged in an October 2002 New York Times piece that he was indeed a Communist Party member. "To me," he says, apparently in earnest, "being a Communist meant that I was for peace, rights for black people, for women. It was never about overthrowing the government. I never even heard anything like that." While he was aware that he was being watched, he felt more annoyed than threatened: "We weren't doing anything that could actually get us arrested, so we weren't worried. We were marching for peace. Is that a Communist Party line?"

What's made the exhibit so popular—besides its jarring resonance in these days of the USA PATRIOT Act and of high-tech surveillance methods that make J. Edgar Hoover's FBI look quaint—is how beautiful the images are. Mesches first FOIAed his files not because he was curious about what the feds knew—"it was a long time ago"—but because while looking at another friend's file, he was struck by the pages' aesthetic beauty.

He calls the pieces "illuminated manuscripts." They feature austere, typed, heavily-censored pages from the files set off by various historical, pop cultural, and commercial icons of the period. Among the images in Mesches' palette are a Warholesque shoe ad, a 3-D movie audience, Walter Cronkite, Batman, Sputnik, and what looks like a colorful rendition of Robby the Robot. Mesches frames the collages with elegant, colorful borders reminiscent of medieval illuminations.

Radio journalist Tony Kahn, while moderating a discussion on civil liberties at L.A.'s Skirball, called Mesches' FBI file "a monologue of innuendo." Kahn, son of the blacklisted screenwriter Gordon Kahn, suggests the exhibit turned that monologue into a dialogue, giving Mesches a voice in this careful study of himself. By this account, creating art—and exhibiting it—lets Mesches escape from a passive, fearful "surveilled" condition. This outlet seems especially important when thinking about being watched less as an information-gathering technique than as a tactic to scare Americans into meek, 1984-style obedience.

I like that interpretation, so I ask Mesches about it.

"Well, it sounds good when you say it," he tells me. "But no, I didn't do that at all. I didn't do the series to respond to anything or get back at anybody. I felt it was a way to make art." He considers the exhibit historical more than political or personal. "The old illuminated manuscripts are one of the most beautiful art forms we have," he says. "I wanted this to have that kind of feeling—retaining things for posterity as they did.

"What you put onto the canvas and you draw, it's all about you, what you live through. An artist is not a predictor or a prophet. You make art about the times you live in. But it turned out to be as timely as hell."

Indeed. The day after I spoke to Mesches, the PATRIOT Act lost one of its first legal challenges when a federal district judge limited its ban on giving "expert advice or assistance" to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, the Bush White House was laying groundwork for plans to expand the act, which already permits surveillance of citizens who are not suspects in any crime. The administration would also like to make the act permanent, rather than allow some provisions to sunset in December 2005.

"I worry that the PATRIOT Act will make my years under surveillance look like a Zen garden," says Mesches, a target in a previous age of government snooping. "The fear is not what happened then; it's what's going on now."