When art fought the Cold War: A touring exhibition recreates the CIA’s 1946 secret weapon that scandalised conservatives

The ill-fated collection finally comes together

In the 1990s, a long held suspicion was confirmed: the US Central Intelligence Agency secretly sent Abstract Expressionism and other forms of American art and music abroad in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a propaganda campaign to assert American cultural dominance in the Cold War era. The first chief of the CIA division spearheading that campaign stated why the operation had to be clandestine: “It was very difficult to get Congress to go along with some of the things we wanted to do—send art abroad… In order to encourage openness we had to be secret.”

Their certainty of government disapproval was based on experience. In 1946, the US State Department assembled an art collection with the intention of touring it internationally to demonstrate the freedoms America allowed its artists. One that would determine that, in the proud words of the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, “only in a democracy where the full development of the individual is not only permitted but fostered could such an exhibition be assembled”. But the project was ill-fated; a media-fuelled outcry by the public and elected officials over the use of taxpayers’ money to fund the programme led to political backpedalling. Hastily, the art was recalled from overseas and the organising curator fired.

The most thorough recreation to date of that doomed project can be seen in “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy”, a travelling exhibition jointly organised by three university museums: Auburn University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia (Indiana University is also participating as a venue for the tour, but is not one of the organisers). The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue offer a thorough examination of a moment in American history when politics and culture—as well as professional expertise and populist taste—clashed, a phenomenon that feels all-too-familiar.

Small pockets, big discounts

The government project was spearheaded by a man with a unique set of qualifications: Joseph LeRoy Davidson, a State Department member of staff and a former curator at the Walker Art Center with an advanced degree in art history. The idea to tour American art abroad was not new, but previous iterations featured conservative selections. Foreign attachés were requesting more avant-garde samplings of changing artistic modes. Davidson conceived of “Advancing American Art”, a gathering of paintings by artists who were “leading exponents of modern trends”.

Davidson made his selections after soliciting the input of a panel of distinguished art world figures including the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and curators from the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. He combined well-established artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Max Weber with up-and-coming names like Philip Guston and Ben-Zion, all of whom were showing actively in respected ­museums and galleries. While previous travelling shows relied on loans, Davidson elected to buy the works for the State Department. Artists and their galleries accommodated him with deep discounts, and with a budget of less than $50,000, he bought 117 works (79 paintings and 38 works on paper) by 69 artists.

“Advancing American Art” was not to be a single exhibition. Instead, the collection was divided into three separate shows to tour various regions around the globe for a period of five years. A little more than half of the paintings were sent to the “eastern hemisphere”, meaning Eastern Europe. After a stop in Paris, these works went on to Prague, Brno and Bratislava, and were intended to continue to Budapest and a city in Poland to be determined. The rest of the paintings were designated for the “other American republics”, in the Caribbean and Latin America. That group travelled to Havana and Port-au-Prince, and was slated to go on to South America. The works on paper comprised a third grouping intended for China and the Far East, but never left New York due to the controversy that soon boiled over.

Before launching on its global tour, some of the work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October 1946, where it garnered favourable reviews from art critics, including Clement Greenberg, who deemed it “the best group show of this nature to be held in New York for years”. The mainstream media was less kind. The popular Look magazine ran a double-page spread in February 1947, reproducing seven works from the show. The accompanying text (author not credited) was generally ­neutral, but overshadowed by the headline: “Your Money Bought These Paintings.”

The politically conservative paper New York Journal-American, owned by William Randolph Hearst, ran a series of scathing articles mocking individual works. The highly conservative radio host Fulton Lewis Jr derided the art as “so far advanced that it’s completely out of sight and no one in his sane mind is ever going to try and catch up to it”. Upset citizens wrote letters to their elected representatives, deriding the use of taxpayers’ money for the project. Those politicians in turn spoke out in the press and on Capitol Hill.

The objections to the works took various forms. Complaints were made against the darkness of the works, both in palette and content, by those who felt that they failed to portray the nation as a thriving war victor. The “foreign-sounding” names of many of the artists, many of whom were in fact immigrants, was also an issue.

Perhaps most troubling for some protestors was the political orientation of many of the artists. A Ben Shahn painting entitled Hunger, 1946, struck a nerve and became a particular target. Depicting a young boy with dark, hollowed eyes holding an outstretched hand in a gesture of want, the painting upset many who read it as a portrayal of a European child impoverished by the war. In fact, it was probably based on a photo the artist took of a boy in West Virginia. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that Shahn reproduced the painting on a poster in service of voter registration while active with a left-wing labour organisation. Consequent to the congressional inquiries, Shahn was one of several artists in the collection whose names were added to the House Un-American Activities Committee watch list. Lastly, the unfamiliar style, and hence artistic merit, of the work was called into question. Perhaps the most damning derision in this area came from none other than President Harry Truman, who in a letter to a State Department official leaked to the press, dismissed the art as “merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people”.

The controversy came to a head in a series of Congressional hearings. While artists and museum officials around the country convened to try and save the programme, their counter protest was to no avail. Threats of State Department funding cuts put their other programmes at risk, which by that time included the popular Voice of America radio broadcasts, the Fulbright Programme and Unesco involvement. The outcomes of the hearings were the recall of the art to home, the dismissal of Davidson and the elimination of his position.

After the works were returned, they were sold as war assets. Due to a tiered silent auction system, the works landed in somewhat unexpected hands. For example, the prioritisation of university museums over private ones meant that heavyweight institutions such as MoMA, the Baltimore Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Albright-Knox, were beaten by smaller university museums that submitted lower bids. In fact, the three university museums that have organised “Art Interrupted” collectively own 82 of the 117 works sold. Additionally, a provision giving such publicly-funded museums discounts up to 95% off of their winning bids meant that the entire collection, which had been purchased substantially below market value, realised a meagre profit of just over $5,000. Today the collection is estimated to be worth around $14m.

Remember whatshisname?

“Art Interrupted” serves as a snapshot of art in the immediate post-war era. While a few pieces date back as far as the 1920s, the majority of works had been recently executed and all but one of the artists were still living. Cubism, Precisionism, Regionalism, Surrealism and Magic Realism are all seen, but Abstract Expressionism has not yet hit its stride (although we see rumblings of it in works by Adolph Gottlieb and William Baziotes). Also, given Davidson’s focus on artists who were getting attention, it is surprising to observe how many have been more or less forgotten since: Cameron Booth, Raymond Breinin, Julio de Diego, Frank Kleinholz, Gregorio Prestopino, Nahum Tschacbasov, Sol Wilson and Karl Zerbe, among others.

In an assembly of works that illustrate a broad swathe of stylistic diversity, it is tempting to meditate on what is missing. In his catalogue essay, Mark White, the chief curator at the Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, observes the absence of the artists who were most quintessentially representative of the American scene, such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. White reads this as a deliberate distancing from the era of FDR’s politically liberal New Deal. It is thought-­provoking to muse that domestic politics trumped international to the degree that the works selected for “Advancing American Art” were made less in opposition to the Social Realism preferred by Hitler and Stalin than in an attempted distancing from the American Regionalism advanced by Roosevelt.

The line between cultural diplomacy and propaganda is thin. The exhibition’s curators acknowledge that it was no accident that the travelling shows were destined for Communist battlegrounds, notably Cuba, Eastern Europe, and China. However, in their essays they argue that the project’s intention was less about asserting American supremacy or imperialism than advancing post-war global aspirations and an anti-isolationist philosophy. Instead, they argue that the project was intended to reflect the new globalism, with the inclusion of so many immigrant artists mirroring melting-pot multiculturalism and the art demonstrating the influence of a diverse array of sources, from American folk art to Russian Constructivism and German Expressionism.

In addition to domestic and global politics surrounding this incident, the seemingly omnipresent issues of race and gender also played a role in the controversy. Like the Shahn painting, another work that struck a chord was Circus Girl Resting, around 1925, by Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Kuniyoshi was born in Japan but had been based in the US since 1906, and was so loyal to his adopted country that he produced anti-Japanese propaganda during the Second World War. If the painting’s native Japanese maker did not spurn hostility among its detractors, its subject and style did. It depicts a seated woman, scantily clad in thigh-high black stockings and a barely-there costume, one side of which has slipped so far down her shoulder, her breast is almost fully exposed. Her large eyes look unabashedly out at the viewer, and with a coy smile, she pulls back a curtain to reveal a small, fecund still-life of fruit in a bowl. The painting was the target of much ire, and elicited President Truman to blurt out at a press conference: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot!”

So many of the issues examined by this tale of American history are familiar, it is nearly impossible to avoid drawing parallels with the years since. As White observes: “This moment was the first salvo in the cultural wars.” In the 65 or so years since, the US has experienced numerous incidents in which conservative politicians and pundits have targeted art as an unworthy recipient of publicly-funded support; it surfaced as one of the issues surrounding the 2012 Presidential campaign, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney announced his intention to cut federal support of the arts if elected. “Art Interrupted” is being presented in four states that Romney carried in that election. With hindsight, won’t most of today’s visitors find the public outcry over the government’s support of the arts in 1946 just a little hysterical and overblown?

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 246 May 2013