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Why ''Advancing American Art'' Was Interrupted

Cos Cob
Credit Georgia O'Keeffe / Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art

On March 2, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art opened a recently-reassembled exhibit of modern American art the U.S. State Department recalled from an overseas tour in the 1940’s.

In 1946, Harry Truman had been in the White House for a little more than a year after unexpectedly inheriting the Presidency in the closing days of World War II. The end of that war, and Franklin Roosevelt’s death, meant anti-New Deal resentment bubbling to the surface since the late 1930’s could finally boil over.

A new Republican majority elected to both the U.S. House and Senate in the fall solidified a bi-partisan conservative skepticism of foreign entanglement that clashed with a so-called “liberal internationalism” within the U.S. Department of State. A month before those mid-term elections, the State Department developed an exhibit of 117 paintings to tour politically unstable countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America.

“The art exhibition was a way to convince Europeans that Americans were cosmopolitan and worldly and not just the uncultured rubes of the New World,” said Landon Storrs, an Associate Professor of history at the University of Iowa, and the author of The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left. “Americans had a bit of a complex, I think, when it came to Europe, and the arts, and high culture. So this is an effort to persuade the non-Communist European countries – Western Europeans – that the country that is now providing military and economic leadership and aid to them is culturally coming-of-age.”

The Advancing American Art collection opened at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in October 1946. Mark White is the Chief Curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. He told KGOU's World Views Congress had a real problem with the State Department buying artwork, especially pieces that could be considered controversial.

“Because it was abstract, and abstraction was, even at that time, considered something somehow "un-American." It was something European,” White said. “It was controversial because it didn't always show the best image of the United States. So it might show an image of poverty, or it might show an image of some sort of political or social concern. And finally, there were a number of the artists that were leftist in sympathy.”

In March, 1947, President Harry Truman delivered a speech before Congress outlining what became known as the Truman Doctrine.

“The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms,” President Truman said. “If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”

Storrs says Truman terrified the public by warning of this huge danger of Soviet expansionism, and persuaded Congress to send $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey.

But there’s a contradiction here, and that military and economic aid didn’t necessarily mean Truman was willing to engage in cultural diplomacy.

“He called it 'ham and eggs' art,” White said. “He publicly disparaged this entire exhibit. So it really took a lashing from a number of different members of the federal government. In a way, it was an attempt by the newly-elected Republican majority to, I guess clean house of the last remnants of the New Deal. And this was seen as something that very much in the spirit of the New Deal.”

After a series of Congressional hearings, the new Secretary of State George Marshall recalled the exhibit - the same George Marshall who served as Army Chief-of-Staff during the war, and whose name later became synonymous with the four-year-plan to rebuild Europe’s economy. Despite Democrats regaining both houses of Congress in 1948, Storrs says she doesn’t think the exhibit’s fate would’ve changed.

“By ’48 the State Department is using all of its political capital to promote the Marshall Plan,” Storrs said. “More economic and social relief rather than this kind of cultural diplomacy. I don’t think it would’ve been any more secure. I think things only got worse in terms of the Second Red Scare.”

Curator Mark White says cultural diplomacy still has a life today, although not to the extent attempted in the 1940’s.

“We actively still participate, that is our museum, in a kind of art exchange,” White said. “We will often show aspects of our collection in various embassies around the world. In fact, just recently we had work in Africa, in Finland, and Canada at the embassies there. So it is something that continues, but I don't think that there is, at present, a kind of government incentive, or motivation, to actively use art as form of cultural diplomacy.”

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy opened March 2 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, with a day-long symposium on March 1 featuring both Mark White and Landon Storrs.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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