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Historical Controversy of "Advancing American Art" Revisited

The U.S. Department of State assembled a collection of modernist paintings in 1946, to show the world America’s artistic coming of age and to illustrate the freedom of expression enjoyed by contemporary American artists. "Advancing American Art" became a lightning rod of controversy, described by some as subversive and un-American. 

The State Department allotted about $49,000 in order to purchase 79 oil paintings by 45 well-known artists from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This was paired with smaller collections of watercolor, tempera, gouache and other media. Artists included Georgia O’Keeffe, John Mann, Marsden Hartley, William Gropper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Adolph Gottleib and Shahn as well as others.

The exhibition was meant to tour Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America – regions considered the political and ideological battlegrounds between democracy and communism at that time. After premiering in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October of 1946 it was split into two touring groups. The Eastern Hemisphere exhibition traveled from New York to Paris, and then to Prague, Czechoslovakia while the Caribbean and Latin America section premiered in Havana, Cuba in the late 1946 and then traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The tour was stopped before the exhibition could show in Hungary, Poland, or Venezuela.

“Probably the most successful exhibition was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where it was lauded as a very important exhibit,” said Mark White, Chief Curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. “The president of Czechoslovakia at the time, President Benes, visited the exhibition, spent over an hour there looking at the paintings, talking about them. There was a huge fanfare that accompanied that exhibition.”

Despite its success abroad, the domestic reaction to the exhibition was decidedly mixed. Ironically, while “Advancing American Art” was intended to represent freedom of expression and diversity, by early 1947 members of Congress had condemned it as anti-American; some were even challenged the notion of State-funded arts programs in general.

“One of the tactics that they actually took was to look at the political background of many of the artists involved,” said White, “and there were several artists identified as not only as being leftists, but having some affiliation, either at present or in their past, with communist organizations.”

One painting, “Circus Girl Resting” is getting a central placement in the exhibition because of its notoriety. It is by Japanese American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who was one of the best-known artists of the period. The painting received harsh criticism from both the Congress and President Harry Truman.

“If that is art,” said Truman, “then I am a Hottentot.”

In the New York World Telegram George A. Dondero, the Republican Representative of Michigan, who served the Committee on Public Works during that time, voiced his opinion:

“Modern art is Communistic because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country and smiling people and our material progress. Art that does not glorify our country, in plain, simple terms, breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore opposed to our government and those who create it and promote it are enemies.”

So, before the end of the scheduled tour, “Advancing American Arts” was cancelled and the individual works of art were sold off. As a result of policy at the time, public institutions, including the University of Oklahoma received a 95 percent discount on the art. The University bought about 30 paintings; one Georgia O’Keeffe painting went for about 50 dollars.

107 of the 117 works from the original collection were retrieved for the current exhibition – making it the most complete showing of the original “Advancing American Arts” exhibition since it was dismantled.

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