Modern American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy: Art and politics converge at the IU Art Museum ◆ by Jenny McComas
In December 1949, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs George V. Allen, notified readers of The Department of State Bulletin about a new and increasingly sophisticated weapon in the diplomatic arsenal—propaganda. “Propaganda as a conscious weapon of diplomacy has increased tremendously during recent years,” Allen explained, noting that radio programs such as the Voice of America directly targeted foreign populations, whereas traditionally diplomacy engaged only with government officials. With its more direct approach, and its use of mass media and cultural forums, propaganda was better able to persuade people to support democracy over communism. Although Allen made no mention of the use of the fine arts within cultural propaganda, the State Department itself had organized one of the most highly publicized—and ultimately controversial—propaganda exhibitions just a few years earlier.
With the emergence of the Cold War, art became a powerful tool for cultural diplomacy. Beginning in the mid-1940s, the State Department, and later the CIA, utilized art exhibitions to spread information about democracy, freedom, and American culture to countries deemed susceptible to Communism. The ambitious traveling exhibition Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, on view at the IU Art Museum from September 14 through December 15, is a reconstruction of Advancing American Art, one of the earliest exhibitions to be conceived as a weapon in the cultural Cold War. Organized by the State Department in 1946, Advancing American Art was divided into two sections, one intended to travel to cities in Eastern Europe and the other to Latin America. To accomplish this goal, the State Department appointed J. Leroy Davidson, a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to purchase paintings by leading and emerging American artists for the exhibition. With just under $50,000 at his disposal, Davidson purchased 79 oil paintings by artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Marin; styles ranged from social realism to geometric abstraction. A further selection of watercolors was assembled with the intent of sending them to China, although this plan never materialized. Although Davidson selected a relatively wide range of artistic styles and subjects, art critics at the time felt that the exhibition was biased towards more “advanced” styles—“extreme expressionism, fantasy, surrealism, and abstraction” according to the New York Times’ critic Edward Alden Jewell. However, for Davidson and the State Department, the emphasis on “advanced” styles was justified, for the exhibition was intended to persuade international audiences not only that the United States had a sophisticated artistic culture, but that American artists working in modernist styles enjoyed great freedom—in marked contrast to artists in the Soviet Union.
The State Department Purchased Works By Georgie O’Keeffe
In October 1946, Advancing American Art received an inaugural showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The 49 paintings destined for Eastern Europe were then sent to Paris, where they were seen in an exhibition celebrating the creation of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), before finally arriving in Prague in early 1947. The Latin American section of the exhibition, comprised of thirty oil paintings, traveled to Havana, Cuba in late 1946 and was then sent on to galleries in Santiago de Cuba and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The ambitious plans for Advancing American Art called for several additional European and Latin American venues, including Budapest, Hungary, and Caracas, Venezuela. William Benton, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, believed that Advancing American Art “is an exhibition in which I believe the United States may well take pride.” However, the State Department learned that modern art had powerful enemies within the U.S. government, including even President Truman, who characterized the works in Advancing American Art as “merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people.” The opponents of Advancing American Art had many different reasons to protest the exhibition. Some disagreed with the use of taxpayer dollars to fund cultural programs, while others disliked the modern styles featured in the exhibition. Others had more ideological disputes with the show, for example taking offense at the inclusion of paintings that did not show America in a completely favorable light. Most astonishingly of all, however, were accusations that some works in the exhibition would disseminate communism. Considering that the exhibition was organized to help combat the spread of communism, this accusation seems nothing less than bizarre. However, certain artists included in the show, including Ben Shahn and William Gropper, had in fact been involved in leftist politics during the 1930s. This seems to have provided enough reason for some politicians to condemn modern art as inherently subversive.
The controversy over Advancing American Art eventually led to the cancellation of the exhibition’s tour in May 1947. The works were returned to the United States and auctioned off by the War Assets Administration, with the majority of the paintings finding homes in university collections. The outcry against Advancing American Art merely foreshadowed the vehemence with which modern art would be denounced by some conservative politicians and artists as the Cold War intensified. During the McCarthy era, Abstract Expressionism ensured American art its first serious recognition abroad, yet anti-modernist rhetoric reached a fever pitch in the United States. For example, the Michigan Congressman George Dondero denounced modern art repeatedly in the late 1940s and early 1950s as “communist” and morally depraved. Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, responded with a program of lectures and articles defending modern art. In 1952 he published an article titled “Is Modern Art Communistic?” in the New York Times, in which he reminded readers that abstract and other non-naturalistic forms of modern art were in fact proscribed in the Soviet Union, as they had been in Nazi Germany. Instead of allowing artists the opportunity to paint as they liked, the Soviet authorities required them to conform to the idiom of Socialist Realism—a style of realist painting which idealized life in the Soviet Union. Barr, like Leroy Davison before him, argued that the diverse styles of art practiced in the United States represented the artistic freedom and cultural tolerance fostered by democracy. Despite the continued attacks on modern art during the 1950s by rightist politicians, organizations such as the Museum of Modern Art and the United States Information Agency (USIA) continued to organize exhibitions featuring modern art for circulation abroad.
The present touring exhibition, Art Interrupted, brings together most of the works from Advancing American Art, providing today’s audiences with the opportunity to consider how the arts have been impacted by politics, censorship, and issues of national identity in the 20th century. Indeed, the presentation of this exhibition in Bloomington illuminates Indiana University’s own connections to the cultural Cold War. The university was drawn into the world of foreign affairs when university president Herman B Wells became cultural affairs advisor to the American military government in occupied Germany in 1947. Likewise, Henry Radford Hope, who founded the IU Art Museum and chaired IU’s fine arts department from 1941 to 1971, was deeply engaged in American cultural initiatives abroad from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. His activities demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting artistic expression from government censorship or political interference, and revealed his belief that artistic freedom was an integral element of a democratic society. Hope’s concerns about artistic freedom were likely based on his experience in 1930s Europe, where he had gained insight into the aims and ideologies of Nazi Germany. For example, while living in Paris as a student at the Sorbonne, he would have seen the Third Reich’s imposing pavilion, designed by architect Albert Speer, at the 1937 World’s Fair. After returning to the United States in 1938, Hope found that the relationship of the American government to arts funding and sponsorship was complex and ambivalent—as indeed it still is. He was obviously disappointed by the censorship imposed on Advancing American Art, signing a petition to President Truman in 1947 in protest of the exhibition’s recall. In 1949 he participated in a symposium on “Government and Art,” organized under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts. The symposium was conceived partly as a response to the virulent anti-modernism expressed by members of Congress in reaction to Advancing American Art, and in recognition of the “country’s growing international role, and our increasing realization that both guns and butter as exports (or gifts) are insufficient international vehicles” of American foreign diplomacy. In the 1950s, Hope deepened his commitment to art as a vehicle for international understanding and cultural diplomacy. From 1951 to 1963, he served as the United States’ delegate on art activities and advisor on cultural affairs to UNESCO, a position that aligned well with Indiana University’s ever broadening activity in the field of international education during the same decade.
Hope’s most direct involvement with cultural diplomacy, however, was in 1959, when he served on the selection committee for the American National Exhibition, which was organized by the USIA for display in Moscow. As an example of cultural exchange, the exhibition was a first in U.S.-Soviet relations, as it exposed Soviet audiences for the first time to a range of western artistic styles, including Abstract Expressionism. Yet, in an apparent repeat of the controversy sparked by Advancing American Art, some members of Congress protested that the abstract art included in the exhibition was itself Communist propaganda. The House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) even scheduled hearings, issuing subpoenas to three of the participating artists—Jack Levine, Ben Shahn, and Philip Evergood—all of whom had previously been featured in Advancing American Art. In 1959, unlike in 1947, however, the exhibition’s organizers refused to be intimidated or to cancel the exhibition. In an open letter to President Eisenhower, Hope and the other jurors wrote that:
Contrary to misleading statements by certain artists and members of Congress, the exhibition is not communistic, negative or un-American. Nor does it consist of pretty idealized pictures of our country, such as artists of totalitarian nations are obliged to paint. It demonstrates the freedom of artistic expression and the variety of individual viewpoints that mark a democratic society. It is unquestionably the broadest and most balanced representation of recent American art ever sent abroad by our Government…. The current attacks on the exhibition are based almost entirely on the alleged personal opinions and backgrounds on some of the artists, in most cases dating back many years. We believe that such considerations are irrelevant. The Government is not exhibiting the artists, but their works…. We believed…that the freedom of artistic expression shown in this exhibition is a living demonstration of the freedom of democracy, and that exclusion of any works would give communist propaganda the weapon it needs.
Although Eisenhower requested that twenty-seven paintings dating from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries be added to the American National Exhibition, he refused to censor any of the modern works selected by the exhibition’s jury. Twelve years after Advancing American Art, the American National Exhibition was allowed to remain on view, where it apparently fulfilled the goals of its organizers. Soviet visitors to the exhibition expressed surprise that America had no “official” art and made the desired connection between artistic and political freedom.
Although the use of art within government-sponsored diplomatic initiatives is not as prominent today as it was during the Cold War, government involvement with art and culture continues to be a controversial subject. Exhibitions such as Advancing American Art and the American National Exhibition—and the accusations leveled against them—reveal that art and politics have long been intertwined.
Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy was organized by the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at University of Oklahoma with funding provided by the Henry C. Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.The presentation of the exhibition in Bloomington was made possible by the Class of 1949 Endowment for the Curator of Western Art after 1800 and the Indiana University Art Museum’s Arc Fund. Additional support was provided by a challenge grant generously issued by David Jacobs and matched by the IU Art Museum National Advisory Board.
Art and Cultural Diplomacy in the Cold War: A Symposium
The Symposium will run in conjunction with the opening of the IU Art Museum exhibition, Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy. The symposium will examine the role of the visual arts in the Cold War. Friday, September 13, 2013, Hope School of Fine Arts, Room 015, 2:00-5:00 p.m. Information.
◗ Scrambled Eggs: The Rise, Demise, and Reprise of Advancing American Art
Dennis Harper, Curator of Collections, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University
◗ Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke and American Films on Art in the Post-WWII Era
Natasha Ritsma, Curator of Academic Programs, Gund Gallery, Kenyon College
◗ Art and Politics in Occupied Germany (1945-1949)
Cora Goldstein, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California at Long Beach
◗ ‘A Little Too Strange for the Average Russian:’ Abstract Art and Cold War Diplomacy at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959
Michael Krenn, Professor of History, Appalachian State University
The exhibition opening reception will immediately follow the symposium, 5‒7 pm in the Thomas T. Solley Atrium of the IU Art Museum.
Both the symposium and the opening reception are free and open to the public. No pre-registration for the symposium is required.
In November, the Ryder and the IU Art Museum will co-sponsor the film Hidden Hands: Art and the CIA.
The Ryder ◆ August 2013
Jenny McComas is the Class of 1949 Curator of Western Art at the IU Art Museum.