“The life of our design”: Advancing American Art

“The life of our design”: Advancing American Art

Littleton, Taylor D

For the last two years we have repeatedly been told in television productions and in other ceremonial events aimed at our fifty-year memory that World War II and its immediate aftermath was the time when America lost its innocence. The war, of course, had ended the Great Depression and set in motion a restlessness and a current of energy seeking proper forms of social expression that would give meaning and coherence to the period of national stress. A segregated society, for example, was obviously no longer a sustainable possibility, and the first half-decade of the forties after the war would witness a wide array of cultural confrontations with an image of America that seemed irretrievably altered. One of the most dramatic and defining moments in that transitional stage of the nation’s life is now a faint memory indeed — an art exhibit called Advancing American Art. But in its short, mercurial, perhaps notorious career it conversely attained a long life , and sends to us still a revelatory message about our democracy and its history.*

It was exactly fifty years ago, in the late spring of 1946, that a bold experiment in cultural diplomacy was taking shape in the newly organized Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs of the State Department: a collection of American paintings that would form a two-part traveling exhibit to Europe and Latin America.

This new emphasis in international diplomacy was intended to show the peoples of recently liberated countries or those very much under the threat of Soviet domination not only that the United States was creative artistically, but also that we could through our art speak a humane language of peace and enter into a non-political dialogue that would touch the spirit. It would be a symbol of post-war American reassurance, stability, and enlightenment, showing that America’s creative energy was pertinent to contemporary life and to the new sense of freedom and expectation attendant on the end of the war. The exhibit was, in fact, first sent on its way during the very year in which the most enduring metaphor of the era appeared: Churchill’s “iron curtain” figure, which defined not one world but two.

These were high hopes indeed, even though in the midst of the ardent praise from fine arts journals during the three weeks in October when the paintings had been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the modernity of the collection and its purchase with public funds had been criticized by conservative elements in the art world and by the Hearst-owned newspaper, The New York Journal American. Still, who could have predicted that within six months Advancing American Art would become the subject of a strident anti-Communist attack in Congress and that its contents would be derided in some of the nation’s most popular magazines as examples of the alleged absurdities of modern art] Or, stranger still, that the exhibit’s swift acquisition of political notoriety would prompt newly appointed Secretary of State George C. Marshall to issue its peremptory recall from the overseas tour and approve its disassembly and sale as government “surplus property”?

Perhaps the State Department should have known better than to spend public funds for paintings by artists, many of whom had “foreign” names and who had minor and brief Communist associations in the 1930s. For that was the first wave of the attack on the exhibit, which appeared in the Journal-American under the headline of “Red Art Show” the same week that the show was first previewed at the Metropolitan. The story pressed what was called the “ironic climax” of the State Department’s “officially refusing to compromise with international Communism” and yet sending abroad the work of “left wing” painters who were said to be members of Communist-front organizations. It was only a matter of months before the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, would initiate what Senator Tydings of Maryland in a debate on the floor of the Senate would properly label “witch hunts”: the disloyalty issue that would color so much of our political life in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Once this note of an alleged Communist presence within the exhibit was sounded, this in itself was probably enough to shorten its life.

But the inevitability of its fate was shaped even more surely by the introduction of another allegation of disloyalty, an assertion, accompanied by ridicule, that Advancing American Art set forth a distorted and disfigured portrait of the American scene, particularly because the exhibit, with its emphasis on abstract painting, contained no examples of art that depicted the nation’s values and traditions in recognizable forms. The perceived danger of Red-corruption-from-within, of course, no longer grasps the national imagination as it did with such intensity in the decade after the war. Still, the question of what America stands for has never lost its pervasive rhetorical power in both our domestic and our international discourse. Certainly it was easy enough during the subsequent Congressional debates in the spring of 1947 for some politicians to demonstrate that some of the artists in the exhibit had belonged to organizations which, during the 1930s, were sympathetic to Communism.

But what the exhibit ultimately could not bear was this additional charge of being self-contradictory: that its content was inadequate at this crucial moment in history to show the rest of the world what America was like. In retrospect, such an accusation against the exhibit and the cultural diplomacy it represented could not, perhaps, have been reviewed by a less hospitable jury: a new Republican Congress blatantly suspicious of any New Deal leftovers, a pragmatic give-’em-hell President from the “Show-Me” state, and a new Secretary of State whose experience as General of the Army would presumably not have prepared him to deal patiently with a scandal involving Communist art and the misuse of public funds in his own department.


And the ridicule was devastating. In response to what he perceived to be the desire of an international audience to see a new kind of American art and spirit, the State Department’s curator had, as the exhibit’s title suggests, selected almost uniformly non-objective, abstract or expressionist painting. In extended pictorial layouts, first in the Journal American, the paintings were placed before thousands of readers with such editorial comments as being the work of a “lunatic fringe,” as a “bunch of junk.” Such captions as “A portrait a somewhat backward four-year-old might turn out to illustrate a nightmare” and “If you contemplate adding to the suicide rate, we recommend this picture for your guest room” accompanied individual paintings.

Other pictorial treatments, less sarcastic but inherently critical, would shortly appear in Look magazine, under the provocatively political title “Your Money Bought These Pictures”, and in Newsweek, “It’s Striking But Is It Art or Extravagance?” And, now that the astonishing fact was firmly established that an art exhibit was national news, the whole matter came under Congressional scrutiny in the House Committee on Appropriations, with the Chair of the Committee (Karl Stefan, R. Nebraska) leading off a discussion of the State Department’s 1948 budget requests with an allusion to Advancing American Art: “Looking at these pictures it is no wonder that foreigners believe the people in America are crazy.”

There was a good bit of questionable humor as black and white reproductions of the Advancing American Art paintings were passed around on the House floor to the amusement of portions of its membership. The insistent modernity of the exhibit, with its strange and innovative forms and its purchase with public funds, could not withstand such philistine judgments as that of the Republican member from Ohio: “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash … if there is a single individual in this Congress who believes this kind of tripe is … bringing a better understanding of American life, then he should be sent to the same nut house from which the people who drew this stuff originally came.” Within a month of these debates, a screaming headline in the Journal American would proclaim “Marshall Halts World Tour of Red-linked U.S. Art,” and the accompanying story would reiterate that American taxpayers had supported an exhibit of “incomprehensible junk” which included no “truly American” artists, meaning no such representational or American scene painters as Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton.

The facts of the sale and dispersal of the paintings through the War Assets Administration (WAA) bidding procedures are in themselves sufficient to make the exhibit memorable. For, in what has been often called he art bargain of the century, a small number of applicants successfully met the incredibly generous WAA requirements, purchased the 117 paintings at a 95 percent discount on what was established as the “fair value” of each painting, and thus secured the works of many modern masters now valued at several hundred thousand dollars each. Four of the paintings reproduced on the back cover of this issue, for example, were purchased by Auburn University (which, along with the University of Oklahoma, secured almost two-thirds of the collection, thirty-six pictures each) for $50 (O’Keefe’s Small Hill Near Alcade), $100 (John Marin’s Seascape), $100 (Kuniyoshi’S Circus Girl Resting), and $60 (Ben Shahn’s Hunger). Fully as astonishing was the purchase of works done by perhaps the two most prominent African-American painters in the history of American art: Romare Bearden’s Mad Carousel (see back cover) for $6.25 and Jacob Lawrence’s Harlem (see page 26) for $13.93]


But aside from its politicization and partisan resurrection throughout the election campaign of 1947-48, Advancing American Art has a more significant dimension for our post-war memory. What was clear even then was that many Americans, even though they could readily approve generous economic and military gestures toward a devastated Europe, did not want a demonstration that their national art had become international, that it had in fact advanced in its forms and styles into a bond of solidarity with the older culture of Europe. Though designed principally for European viewing, the exhibit’s sudden prominence allowed it to be seen in newspapers and magazines by millions of Americans beyond that segment of the public who would normally have found their way to a new show at the Metropolitan. The taste of many citizens had been greatly influenced by federal art programs of the 1930s, which often created an art of the post-office mural variety — deliberate glorifications of the American scene wherein cheerful heroic workers riveted girders or felled trees against a background of industrial might and rural vigor. And when the relatively mild versions of the forms and styles represented in the State Department exhibit -which, incidentally, contained almost none of the more radically modernist work of the new Abstract Expressionist group with their troubling mythic-primordial forms and hints of psychic improvisation — when these pictures suddenly leaped into the media, presented in the most garish form, they became easy targets for the judgment that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on them, perhaps because they did not look like the pictures in the local post-office.

Several of the Advancing American Art artists are actually among the pioneers of modern art in America whose styles had, for at least two decades before the war, with their rejection of the static pictorial vocabulary of the regional illustrators and painters of the American scene, been offering to a resisting native audience a different kind of artistic reality and the possibility of expanded aesthetic perception. And in its sudden dramatic encounter with the popular taste of a national audience, the Advancing American Art exhibit helped to hasten the public toleration and acceptance of abstract art that was already underway.

Defining the world in different ways, of course, is always accompanied by an apprehension that something important in our heritage has been lost, and it is often this sense of attenuation that allows such perceived radical expressions of the culture as Advancing American Art to gain

prominence. This alleged sense of loss, always pervasive in periods of transition and reorientation like the forties, was perhaps felt by no one more deeply than the most famous critic of the Advancing American Art exhibit When confronted by the exaggerated shapes and irregular planes contained in the more abstract pictures, President Truman used the exhibit to derogate the carelessness and lack of coherence he perceived to be characteristic of “so-called modern art.” He proclaimed it as

… merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people. An artistic production is one which shows infinite ability for taking pains and if any of these so-called modern paintings show any such infinite ability, I am very much mistaken … many American artists still believe that the ability to make things look as they are is the first requisite of a great artist. …There’s no art at all in connection with the modernists, in my opinion.

Unlike Truman’s better-known comments made earlier in 1947 to a group of Washington reporters — that modernist paintings are “ham and egg art” — and concerning Kuniyoshi’s Circus Girl Resting: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot,” these judgments were not the extemporaneous, acerbic public wit of a man already looking toward the 1948 elections. Rather, they were part of a carefully written response to the State Department’s letter that had attempted to explain the purpose of the beleaguered exhibit. And though the President’s preferences for representational art are clear enough, his deliberate additional assertion that there is a moral deficiency in those who paint pictures which do not “make things look as they are” suggests his strong concern that it was critical for American traditions of hard work and vigorous forthright values to be reasserted during the difficult postwar period of transition through which the nation was then passing. To President Truman, the Depression and the war undoubtedly had been unifying experiences that had brought the country closer together, and perhaps he too, no less than any of us, regarded art as one of our most immediate mnemonic agents, organizing and stimulating our sense of the past. The new art, largely unpictorial and thus not bringing back the veracity of recognizable appearance, seemed almost a confrontation with the belief that there was, indeed, a regenerative and redemptive national past which, now that the war was over, would reappear in solid cultural forms.

Advancing American Art was but one of many responses of redefinition, both political and aesthetic, to that disappearing image of America that President Truman perhaps wished to return. Certainly, therefore, part of the relevance of this almost forgotten exhibit for our fifty-year memory is that its career captures a significant connecting moment between two stages in our history and serves as a minor harbinger of a developing plurality in the national life. If the paintings in the exhibit seemed somehow undemocratic in that they did not permit an immediate accessibility to a shared experience, a satisfying communion between the picture’s content and the expectations of the viewer, they can now be perceived as part of a larger matrix of reorientation, of transition between the decades within many dimensions of the culture. But in the process, the paintings had to bear the burden of even a Presidential denunciation that hey did not make things “look as they are” and the charge of a member of the 80th Congress that they, as all of modern art, derogated and ridiculed those “institutions that have been venerated through the ages.”


The decisions to recall the exhibit and disperse it through public sale were, of course, politically inspired. And in a peculiarly innocent way, the exhibit helped to expose the difficulty postwar America was encountering in its attempt to reconcile the memory of an immediate past with the anticipation of an emerging, uncertain future. Now, as we are looking back through five decades to seek intersections of time and place, we might see that the crucial configuration of past and future appears nowhere in the half-decade more powerfully than in Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men. Published in 1946, the same year in which Advancing American Art was conceived and initiated, the novel presented the contradictory and strangely prophetic figure of Willie Stark, whose political fundamentalism and strident, corrupted sense of power made him a transitional and intensely charismatic presence in an America still carrying Depression and isolationist memories but slowly seeking new forms of liberation for the enormous energy it had assimilated during the war. Willie Stark has always, of course, waited in the wings of the democratic stage to emerge during periods of hesitation or stress in the national life; and he was certainly present during the debates of the 80th Congress into which allusions of our art exhibit were projected. A political environment pervaded by that presence could hardly admit that an artist’s alleged subversive background could be dissociated from the abstract images on his canvas.

Our fifty-year response to Advancing American Art, of course, could be one simply of wry amusement, hoping that the strident and hysterical elements of that time will not return. And after all, we still have the pictures: the hand of the hungry child still reaches out, the circus girl in her repose still gives us her enigmatic smile, the anxious mother and child stand frozen yet in their apprehension of the urban world, and a mysterious fusion of nature and humanity is reassuringly evoked in O’Keefe’s mothering landscape. Certainly akin, however, to this communion of permanence is the final reason we might well fix firmly in our memory this beleaguered exhibit of our art. Indeed, its brief career tells again one of the oldest stories in our democracy, how authentic beginnings can be initiated only through an integration of past and future, linking together what will be encountered or discovered with that familiarity accepted and understood.

It is to this sense of wholeness necessary for a sustaining existence that the symbolically named narrator of All The King’s Men, Jack Burden, speaks in the closing pages of the novel. Both he and his companion Anne Stanton have been marked by the taint and promise of Willie’s flawed career and must now somehow reconcile that dislocation if they are to create a new history for themselves:

I tried to tell her how if you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other, and how if you could accept. the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make the future. I tried to tell her that.

The very freshness and modernity of Advancing American Art initiated a “new” history not by rejecting the past — as its angry critics asserted — but by revisiting that past and abstracting it into forms of expression consonant with a social and scientific paradigm unthinkable before the war. In a sense the exhibit commemorated the dislocation of the war by affirming that it was indeed an ending; and if the beginning of what the war had produced was not a brave new world, it was certainly a new one. The extraordinary rage that the exhibit engendered was a sign of what seemed to be its threatening challenge to what Arthur Miller would call at the end of the decade “our chosen image of ourselves.” He was writing, of course, about another Willy — this one a salesman — and, like Warren’s brilliant pragmatic demagogue, also an incomplete man, unable in the polyform of time and the post-war world to secure a coherent linkage between memory and that which lay ahead.

In 1996, as we look back at the exhibit and at its cluster of associations, it should appear to us as a legitimate metaphor for its time, especially to those Americans who lived through the Depression, the war, and came to maturity during the very years when, as Miller observed further, the apprehension of being separated from “our chosen image of what and who we are in this world” is now “perhaps stronger than it ever was.” Conserving our cultural moments, sending us messages about the inner life of our past: this indeed is a special province of the arts. And a further range of that province, no less in the forties than in the nineties, is to take the risk of assessing and challenging our self-image, our “mainstream values,” our potential complacency of imprisoning ourselves in the past. Thus this now obscure collection of our national art in its strange, eventful history may be a proper metaphor for our own time as well. It was given a name whose relevance not even the wisdom of he State Department could have foreseen in that it re-enacts that story of endings and beginnings which Jack Burden described and which is indeed the story of our creativity and scholarship, the story we hope our students will re-enact as they take what we have offered them in our classrooms and laboratories into the world beyond.

For, in its own small way, Advancing American Art helped to keep the culture moving, placing in our perspective that story we always hope to achieve: to affirm the rights of memory by un-fixing ourselves from their imprisonment, abstracting from the past both its sacred and its profane dislocations into a vision of continuous action, thus beginning anew the experience of reorientation and of freedom itself. In our democracy this process, however familiar, has always been a risky business. But, too, it has always been the very life of our design.

Taylor D. Littleton is Mosley Professor Emeritus of Sciences and Humanities at Auburn University. He is coauthor (with W.S. Bailey) of Athletics and Academe (Macmillan, 1992).

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Spring 1996

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