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Friday, January 18, 2013

Un-American Art

Harlem, 1942-43, Jacob Lawrence
The development of the fabled New York School before and during WW II, and its eventual dominance of the international art world after the war, is now the stuff of 20th century art history. It's taken for granted. We understand why and how Modern Art happened here, and its impact on our art world today. Even though today, the center of gravity in international art has dispersed significantly to London, Amsterdam, Paris, Tokyo, and a few other powerful economic regions, the US continues to lead, if not dominate, in all things artistic. Yet we don't often realize that Modern Art in this country did not attain its vaunted status by default. It did not rise unopposed. The United States may have welcomed the fleeing intelligentsia of Europe with open arms just before and during the war, but it did not welcome their art so enthusiastically.

Marshall Plan poster contest art
In 1946, the famous Marshall Plan was at work in Europe, helping those war-torn countries to recover their infrastructure, their social institutions, and their dignity. An effort was also made by the US State Department, then under Secretary of State George Marshall, to implement a similar demonstration of American art, to, in effect, showcase, nail down, and promote the growing dominance of this country in what was left of the international art community. For more than twenty years before, American artists had lived with something of an inferiority complex as they labored under the WPA's various "art welfare" programs. In reaction to this, the State Department organized a travelling exhibit of 117 works by American artists titled "Advancing American Art." This show was intent upon erasing that stigma. It contained works by such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Ben Shahn, Romare Bearden, William Groper, Jacob Lawrence, and several other rising young stars on the American art scene. Most works were from the 1930s and 40s and illustrated the influence of a number of European styles including Cubism, German Expressionism, and varying degrees of abstraction. One might even liken the show to a sort of cultural Marshall Plan.

Fishermen on a Wharf, Sol Wilson, from the 1947 Advancing American Art Exhibition
The show toured the Caribbean, most of Europe, and was receiving high praise in Prague, Czechoslovakia when suddenly, in early 1947, it was recalled. The exhibition had become a victim of the rising political uncertainties of the time as the so-called "iron curtain" descended around Eastern Europe. And just as profound as the growing dominance of Communism in Europe was the fear of Communism in this country. The show was seen here by those marking the rising tide of conservative paranoia as dangerously "left leaning." Moreover, there was gradually coming to the realization of the American people, perhaps for the very first time, the growing rift between their type of American art and that recognized as being "American" by the post-war New York art world.

Circus Girl Resting, 1931, Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Across the land, William Randolph Hearst and the army of writers were especially vocal, characterizing the show as that of a "lunatic fringe." Photos of paintings in the show contrasted sharply with the idealized realism familiar to most of the American public. The Hearst papers were especially indignant that American taxpayers' money was being used to promote such "Un-American" art. Sound familiar? Congressmen jumped into the fray, citing 20 of the 45 artists as espousing various shades of Communism. Some artists in the show were criticized for having supplied illustrations for various communist and socialist newspapers and magazines. An article in Look magazine prompted an outpouring of letters to the State Department, culminating in a remark by President Harry Truman on one particular work by Japanese artist, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, called Circus Girl Resting (above). The president light-heartedly called it the product of the "ham and eggs school of art." In a further comment, reminiscent of London critic John Ruskin half a century earlier (in reference to Whistler), Truman said it looked as if the Kuniyoshi had "stood off from the canvas and thrown paint at it." The whole fiasco was a disturbing little preview of the "red-under-every-bed" McCarthy era just two years later.

Marshall himself ordered the show disbanded, the works sold at auction as army surplus. Most were sold to private collectors. The leftovers went on sale at various army PXs. The University of Oklahoma had the foresight to purchase 36 of the paintings. Auburn University purchased a like number for a mere $5,000. One of the Auburn paintings, Harlem (top) by Jacob Lawrence, seen today as one of the most important works in the show, they bought for just $6.50. Today, the Auburn collection alone has been valued at more than $10 million and now has a permanent home in Auburn's 40,000-square-foot, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Art. Meanwhile, little has changed. The rift between "conservative" American art and "liberal" (left-leaning?) American art is as wide (or wider) today as it ever was.



Marshall's decision to recall the
Advancing American Art Exhibit
came not without protests.

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