U.S. cultural diplomacy took on a new urgency following World War II. Here is a look at the bumpy beginnings of that change.
BY MATTHEW ALGEO
When the fires of World War II had finally been extinguished and the Cold War dawned, America seemed superior on every front: the only nation in the world with nuclear weapons, a homeland that had escaped the war practically unscathed, and an economy strong enough to finance the rebuilding of Europe under the Marshall Plan. In one area, however, the U.S. was clearly deficient: culture.
The rest of the world still regarded America as a cultural backwater where profits were prized more than paintings, pennies more precious than poetry. The Soviet Union exploited this advantage even while the rubble was still smoldering in Berlin. The Russians organized orchestral performances in the ruined shells of German opera houses to advertise their cultural superiority. “Cultural diplomacy” became a catchphrase.
U.S. diplomats felt an urgent need to demonstrate American accomplishments in the arts and culture. One in particular, LeRoy Davidson, hit upon an idea: to organize an exhibition of America’s best modern art. The exhibition he would organize, called “Advancing American Art,” would, like a nuclear bomb, set off a chain of events that triggered a new kind of war: a culture war at home.
Joseph LeRoy Davidson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in March 1908. He studied art history at Harvard and New York University, and in 1936 he and his wife, Martha, moved to Minneapolis, where he became the curator at the Walker Art Center. In 1940, at age 32, Davidson registered for the draft. In 1943 he was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he worked in the graphic arts department preparing propaganda materials. After the war, the couple stayed in Washington, D.C., and Davidson went to work for the State Department. State had inherited several cultural programs from wartime bureaucracies like the Office of War Information, combining them into a new cultural affairs bureau where he was put in charge of the international art program.
For years, State had sponsored exhibitions of American art abroad, but these were conservative affairs, and the planning was usually farmed out to the National Gallery. A typical show might include works by old stalwarts like Gilbert Stuart and Frederic Remington—lots of American Revolution and Wild West stuff—and even Old Masters from the collections of wealthy Americans, works that, as one critic put it, the “broadest segment of the American public would find accessible and unobjectionable.” This left foreigners with the impression that America was an aesthetic wasteland, a nation obsessed with money and technology but indifferent to the arts.
Davidson was determined to change that perception. In an article in the December 1946 edition of The American Foreign Service Journal, he explained that he wanted to put on a traveling show of “creative and experimental work produced in America” to show the world “the United States is a country which produces gifted artists as well as brilliant scientists and technicians.” The exhibition would also draw a sharp contrast with the Soviet Union, where the only art tolerated was socialist realism (think stylized paintings glorifying factory workers and farmers and, of course, Stalin himself). And it would promote core American values: individualism, freedom of expression, tolerance of dissent.
From the outset, the exhibition was unusual for two reasons: First, Davidson himself would select the paintings, in consultation with other experts in modern art (including his wife, Martha, who was now a freelance writer for the magazine Art News). Davidson feared a jury or committee would automatically default to the safest works—and he did not intend for this show to be safe. Second, rather than borrowing the paintings from galleries, the State Department would purchase them outright. “When material is the property of the Government it may be used indefinitely,” Davidson explained in the AFSJ. And packing and shipping costs can be reduced to a minimum and flexibility in scheduling raised to the maximum, he added.
Given a budget of about $50,000 ($750,000 today), Davidson began scouring galleries in New York. In all, he purchased 117 oil paintings and watercolors by 47 artists. The artists, many of whom were either immigrants or first-generation Americans, represented a broad swath of American modernists at the time: Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn. All but one (Hartley) were still living.
The plan was to divide the collection into two parts: one to tour Europe, the other Latin America. A preview at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the autumn of 1946 received almost unanimous praise from critics. Art News proclaimed it “the most significant modern exhibition” of 1946 in the United States. But some critics anticipated that it would raise hackles. “The pictures make a beautiful show, vital, imaginative, representative of the most progressive trends in American art today,” Emily Genauer wrote in the Ladies’ Home Journal. “But I’ve a notion some of the stuffier gentlemen in Congress, the ones who haven’t been to an art exhibition since their school days and consequently know all about art, won’t like it. They’ll fill the air with their lamentations for the poor taxpayer and his money.”
While the preview was ongoing at the Met, an event took place that would have grave implications for the “Advancing American Art” exhibition. On Nov. 5, the first national election since the end of the war took place, and Republicans won control of the House and Senate for the first time since FDR’s first election victory in 1932. After 14 long years in the political wilderness, the Republicans were eager to wield their power ferociously, something that President Harry S Truman, eyeing his own reelection in two years, was acutely aware of.
The day after the election, the American Artists Professional League (AAPL), a conservative art group, sent a letter to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes complaining that the exhibition was “strongly marked with the radicalism of the new trends of European art,” which “is not indigenous to our soil.” The AAPL also encouraged its members to write to their representatives in Congress to protest the exhibition.
In February 1947, Look magazine published a two-page spread about the exhibition, titled “Your Money Bought These Paintings.” The article was accompanied by large color reproductions of some of the most provocative paintings in the exhibition, including Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s “Circus Girl Resting,” the picture that would come to symbolize the exhibition. The painting depicts a young woman with short dark hair seated on a chair next to a bowl containing bananas and grapes. What made it unconventional was the woman’s skimpy attire, as well as her size; this circus girl did not conform to the prevailing standards of feminine beauty. The Chicago Tribune said Kuniyoshi’s painting “portrays a beefy female in a state of undress, seated on a chair, leering at whoever stops to look at the painting.”
Kuniyoshi, the artist at the center of this storm, was born in Okayama, Japan, in 1889. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1906 and worked odd jobs in Spokane and Seattle before moving to Los Angeles, where he enrolled in a public school. A teacher encouraged him to go to art school, so he took classes at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design. By 1910 he had moved to New York.
Kuniyoshi painted “Circus Girl Resting” in 1925. The picture had languished in obscurity until Davidson purchased it for $700. Then it became, briefly, the most famous painting in America. “No wonder foreigners think Americans are crazy,” said Representative Karl Stefan (R-Neb.) when he saw “Circus Girl Resting” in Look. Stefan’s opinion was not unimportant; he was the new chairman of a House subcommittee that funded the State Department.
The Republican chair of the House Appropriations Committee, John Taber, called the paintings in the exhibition “a travesty” in a letter to George C. Marshall, who replaced James Byrnes as Secretary of State in January 1947. “They were evidently gotten up by people whose object was apparently to (1) make the United States appear ridiculous in the eyes of foreign countries, and to (2) establish ill-will towards the United States.” The loyalty of the artists was also called into question. It turned out that the names of 18 of the 47 artists in the exhibition appeared in the records of the House Un-American Activities Committee; three were reported to have been members of the Communist Party.
Shortly after the Look article came out, President Truman unveiled a painting recently purchased for the White House: “The Peacemakers” by George Peter Alexander Healy. A picture very much of the academic, realistic variety, it depicts President Abraham Lincoln, Generals William Sherman and Ulysses Grant, and Admiral David D. Porter on the Union steamer River Queen. This was Truman’s kind of art. In his widely syndicated newspaper column, the Washington Merry-Go-Round, Drew Pearson explained what happened next.
“While in his office, newsmen were shown some of the art the chief executive despises most. He produced a spread of modern paintings from a magazine, which apparently he had been saving for just such an occasion,” wrote Pearson. “‘This is what I mean by ham-and-eggs art,’ [Truman] told the reporters, pointing to a painting of a fat semi-nude circus performer. ‘I’ve been to a million circuses, and I’ve never seen a performer who looked like her.’”
Truman’s comments were blithely dismissive of the entire “Advancing American Art” exhibition. Clearly, this was not a fight the president was willing to pick with the new Republican Congress.
After another well-received preview in Paris, the European edition of the exhibition officially opened in Prague on March 6, 1947. It was to be the first stop on what was expected to be a five-year tour. The three-week show was a resounding success, with more than 8,000 people attending. The exhibition then moved on to two more cities in Czechoslovakia—Brno and Bratislava—where it also proved popular.
“Advancing American Art” was equally well received in the Western Hemisphere. In Port-au-Prince, it was well attended, and one Cuban art critic said the show proved the United States “is able to contribute to the spiritual riches of man in general in the same way in which its machinery, its railroads, its refrigerators, and its radios have contributed to enrich and to make more comfortable the life of the common man.”
Back home, however, the political attacks against it were growing fiercer. Republicans were threatening to withhold the $31 million the Truman administration had requested for State Department information programs, including Voice of America, as punishment for sending American modern art abroad. On April 2, 1947, Truman, clearly tiring of the controversy, fired off a letter to Davidson’s boss, Assistant Secretary of State William Benton. “I don’t pretend to be an artist or a judge of art, but I am of the opinion that so-called modern art is merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people,” Truman wrote. “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.”
Secretary Marshall could take a hint, and in early May, he pulled the plug on “Advancing American Art.” Appearing before a House committee, he told lawmakers the pictures would be recalled to Washington and auctioned off. The State Department was getting out of the modern art business. Davidson would be dismissed, his position abolished. There would be no more government-funded exhibitions of modern art.
The Republican Congress still ended up slashing the State Department’s budget for information programs to $10.8 million, less than half the amount the administration requested. Soon after he was fired, LeRoy Davidson and his wife, Martha, left Washington. Davidson went back to college, earned a Ph.D. in art history from Yale in 1951, and later became head of the art department at UCLA. He specialized in Chinese and Indian art. His 1954 book, The Lotus Sutra in Chinese Art: A Study in Buddhist Art to the Year 1000, is still considered an important work in the field. Martha continued to work as an art critic and co-edited Arts of the United States, a pictorial history of American art published in 1960. He died in 1980, she in 1993.
The works in the “Advancing American Art” exhibition were auctioned off in 1948. Considered government surplus, the pictures were sold at a steep discount. The collection was appraised at $80,000, but due to the bidding rules, the government took in just $5,544 for the works. A Georgia O’Keeffe piece fetched just $50. Republicans, of course, made much of this fact, saying it proved the pictures were worthless, while ignoring the fact that their appraised value had increased 60 percent since the State Department purchased them. The bulk of the pictures went to Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) and the University of Oklahoma. “Circus Girl Resting” went to Auburn for $100, and there she resides today.
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