Reconstructing Cold War Cultural Diplomacy Exhibitions

The Case of Advancing American Art

Jennifer McComas

As museum and exhibition histories have become significant subjects of art historical investigation in recent decades, museums themselves have subjected some of the most groundbreaking and controversial exhibitions of the twentieth century to reevaluation through elaborate reconstructions. These restaged exhibitions can shed new light on the shifting boundaries of the canon, question long-accepted art historical interpretations, and provide insight into the intersection of art and politics. Restaged exhibitions, however, are not simply exercises in historical research, but often serve as commentary on contemporary issues. A relevant example is the 1991–1992 exhibition ‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, a reconstruction of the 1937 Nazi propaganda exhibition Degenerate Art.[1] Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the restaged exhibition introduced late-twentieth-century American audiences to the cultural censorship practiced by the Third Reich at a time when the withholding of federal funding for controversial art was being hotly debated in the United States.[2] It also helped to revive interest in the issue of Nazi art looting, which is now a major subject of research within European and North American museums. Reconstructed exhibitions also focus attention on how and why certain art forms have become canonical. This was the case with the New-York Historical Society’s 2013 exhibition The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution, a partial reconstruction of the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art.[3] Better known as the Armory Show, this exhibition, held in New York City in February and March 1913, is lauded for introducing European avant-garde art to American audiences and setting the stage for its eventual entry into the canon in the United States. The majority of critics in 1913, however, condemned the Armory Show, perceiving the fauvist and cubist works on display as anarchic, ugly, and even immoral. Revisiting the exhibition a century later allowed for reflection on our changing artistic preferences as new forms of art transition from shock-inducing to canonical. As Ken Johnson of the New York Times noted in his exhibition review of October 10, 2013, “now that the Cubists and the Fauves are museum-certified old masters, it takes some imagination to comprehend what made the Armory Show such a controversial sensation.”

At the same time that the Armory Show was undergoing reassessment in New York, a reconstruction of a less familiar modern art exhibition—though one that inspired a controversy at least as intense—was on view at the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington, Indiana; a university town about 230 miles (370 kilometers) south of Chicago. Titled Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, this exhibition was an almost full-scale reconstruction of Advancing American Art, an exhibition designed for purposes of cultural diplomacy in 1946.[4] Between autumn 2012 and spring 2014, Art Interrupted traveled to four university art museums in the United States. Because it was shown at smaller museums outside of major urban areas, Art Interrupted attracted less notice than the restaged versions of Degenerate Art or the Armory Show. Although it received little coverage in the national art press, the exhibition, which featured American art of the 1940s, deserves serious attention for its reassessment of an understudied—and often misunderstood—chapter in the history of American art. Although American art achieved international recognition in the 1940s, we often forget that the decade not only witnessed the rise of abstract expressionism, but was in fact characterized by a stylistic plurality that was celebrated at the time by many in the art world. Reflecting this artistic diversity, Art Interrupted also contributed to the ongoing revision of the myth that abstract expressionism dominated cultural diplomacy exhibitions, a view advanced by a number of scholars since the early 1970s.[5] I focus here on the presentation of Art Interrupted at the Indiana University Art Museum in autumn 2013, and conclude by considering the broader benefits to art history gained through the reconstruction of Cold War cultural diplomacy exhibitions.

Advancing American Art, 1946–1947

During the Cold War, and particularly in the 1950s, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other European nations used ballet performances, symphony concerts, and art exhibitions as tools of cultural diplomacy. In addition to disseminating political agendas, these cultural events were intended to spread positive messages about a nation’s intellectual and artistic accomplishments. In the case of American cultural diplomacy, such events stemmed in part from perceptions that Europeans considered the United States an artistic backwater. Yet such endeavors were also fraught with controversy over the government’s role in art patronage. A latecomer to the field of cultural diplomacy, the United States began employing it only on the eve of World War II, when the State Department, the federal agency responsible for international relations, began circulating externally curated exhibitions to Latin America. In 1945, the creation of the Office of Information and Cultural Affairs (OIC) within the State Department signaled an increasing interest in, and engagement with, cultural diplomacy. Yet, despite the important role that cultural diplomacy would assume within American foreign policy in the coming years, the marriage of art and politics was a controversial undertaking, and never more so than in the case of Advancing American Art.

Advancing American Art, intended to tour internationally for five years, would be the State Department’s most ambitious exhibition project to date, and was fated to be the only cultural diplomacy exhibition in which the Department itself exerted direct curatorial control.[6] As the story of the exhibition’s genesis and demise has been told elsewhere,[7] a brief overview will suffice here. Advancing American Art was curated by the art historian J. LeRoy Davidson (1908–1980), who joined the State Department in 1945 to direct the OIC’s international art program. With a budget of just under $50,000, Davidson purchased 79 modernist paintings by 47 artists; his selections include now-canonical artists such as Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O’Keeffe, but also many artists, such as Everett Spruce and Nahum Tschacbasov, who are nearly forgotten today. In the 1940s, however, all the artists selected for Advancing American Art enjoyed successful careers. In October 1946, before the exhibition began its foreign tour, the State Department arranged for Advancing American Art to be shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Recognizing the significance of this diplomatic experiment, the journal Art News devoted most of its October issue to the exhibition, featuring twenty-two reproductions and commentary by the critic Alfred Frankfurter.[8] After the New York exhibition, the paintings were separated into two groups and dispatched to world regions considered vulnerable to communism; forty-nine works were selected for display in Eastern Europe, and the remaining thirty were sent to Latin America.[9] In addition to serving as an advertisement for American artistic achievements, the exhibition was intended to showcase the creative and intellectual freedom that American artists enjoyed in a democratic society. Ironically, this message of American freedom would be silenced by an unprecedented act of censorship by the United States government.

Reviewing the exhibition on October 3, 1946, while it was on view at the Metropolitan Museum, New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell commented that Davidson had made “no attempt to present a rounded report on contemporary painting in America.” Yet Davidson’s selections aligned with requests from abroad for an exhibition featuring the most “advanced” forms of American art, and in fact encompassed a plurality of modernist styles. He included paintings categorized as expressionist, abstract (geometric and biomorphic), and social realist, a mode of painting characterized by its social commentary and critique. For twenty-first-century audiences viewing the reconstructed exhibition, the absence of abstract expressionism—with the exception of one canvas each by William Baziotes and Adolph Gottlieb (both included in the European tour)—seems the most surprising omission, yet abstract expressionism was only beginning to attract critical attention in the mid-1940s. Although a champion of progressive modernism, Davidson’s choices could in fact be considered “safe,” as he favored artists who had established their reputations in the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, what troubled critics such as Jewell, as well as more conservative critics, was the wholesale exclusion of regionalist painting from Advancing American Art. Regionalist artists—notably Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry—produced idealized images of rural and agricultural landscapes in a heightened or magic realist style. As America as rapidly urbanizing at the time, their work has a strongly nostalgic sensibility (fig. 1).

McComas-Figure 1

Fig 1. John Steuart Curry (American, 1897‒1946), Wisconsin Landscape, 1938‒39, oil on canvas, 106.7 x 213.4 cm, George A. Hearn Fund, 1942 (42.154). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY. Artist copyright © John Steuart Curry, courtesy of Kiechel Fine Art, Lincoln, NE.

Regionalism dominated American art during the 1930s, and was still popular well into the 1940s. The style had, however, fallen into disfavor with American art critics and curators, who considered it retrograde and also perceived an unsavory affinity between American regionalism and the nationalist art produced in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.[10] Moreover, Advancing American Art was not geared toward the unsophisticated taste of a mass audience, who might have preferred the regionalist canvases. A State Department memorandum of 1946 clearly states that the exhibition emphasized “advanced” styles over regionalism because it was “aimed at the artistically literate groups who constitute the opinion-forming public in many foreign countries since their approval is diffused and creates a favorable attitude abroad toward American art.”[11] This elitist goal, however, was undermined by the derisive coverage the exhibition’s modernist bias received in American newspapers and popular periodicals. As the two tours of Advancing American Art opened in Prague and Havana to enthusiastic audiences in early 1947, opponents of the exhibition in the United States exploited mass opinion to launch a political attack on the project.[12]

On February 18, 1947, Look, a popular magazine with a national circulation, ran a story about Advancing American Art with the provocative headline, “Your Money Bought These Paintings.” Seven paintings, most featuring imagery of socially marginal figures or of drab urban scenes, were reproduced in color across a two-page spread in the magazine. Conservative newspapers had previously criticized the government for funding purchases of modernist art,[13] but the images reproduced in Look gave the impression that the government was actually disseminating a negative portrayal of the American nation. Traditionalist artists led the initial campaign against Advancing American Art, and were soon joined by conservative politicians who argued against the exhibition on the grounds that it was funded by tax money and by its inclusion of artists known for leftist political affiliations. They also contended that modernist art—especially the works reproduced in Look—did not represent true American culture. In this context, it is worth noting that the most vocal critics of the exhibition (Republican congressional representatives John Taber of New York State, Karl Stefan of Nebraska, and Fred Busbey of Illinois) hailed from rural or otherwise provincial backgrounds, raising the question of whether their quarrel was really with modern art’s association with urban culture, as well as the immigrant backgrounds of many of the artists.

In the spring of 1947, Busbey asked the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate the backgrounds of the artists participating in the exhibition.[14] Twenty-four were found to have been associated with communism or left-wing political activities at some point, a finding that branded the exhibition as a nefarious communist plot in the eyes of many on the political right. Advancing American Art’s fate was sealed during a press conference in March 1947 when President Truman allegedly dismissed Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s painting Circus Girl Resting (fig. 2) with the remark, “if that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.”[15]

Fig 2. Installation view, Art Interrupted, Indiana University Art Museum, 2013. At left: Yasuo Kuniyoshi (American, born Japan, 1893‒1953), Circus Girl Resting, ca. 1925, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 73 cm, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Advancing American Art Collection 1948.1.22. Photograph by Kevin Montague.

Fig 2. Installation view, Art Interrupted, Indiana University Art Museum, 2013. At left: Yasuo Kuniyoshi (American, born Japan, 1893‒1953), Circus Girl Resting, ca. 1925, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 73 cm, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Advancing American Art Collection 1948.1.22. Photograph by Kevin Montague.

Despite the exhibition’s positive reception abroad, the tour was halted in early April 1947. By the end of the month, Congress had effectively censored the exhibition by canceling its tour, defunding the State Department’s art program, and abolishing LeRoy Davidson’s position. To no avail, artists, art historians, and museum personnel protested that Congress was behaving in the manner of the Nazi and Soviet authorities who suppressed modernist and socially critical art. In June 1948, the seventy-nine paintings purchased for Advancing American Art were offered for sale through a sealed bid auction, along with thirty-eight watercolors purchased for a never-realized exhibition in China. The terms of this government sale favored buyers such as war veterans, federal agencies, and non-profit institutions, including public universities. Of the 117 works in the auction, eighty-one were acquired by three southern universities, all located in small towns far from art world centers: the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Georgia. As curator Dennis Harper writes, the fact that most of the exhibition’s contents “ended up at locations not normally associated with progressive, avant-garde inclination is a question not easily tackled.”[16] It is indeed an ironic twist of fate that the censorship of Advancing American Art on the grounds that it was too “communist” in fact brought audiences in a socially and politically conservative part of the country face to face with modernism.

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, 2012–2014

Advancing American Art has captured the attention of many scholars thanks to its sensationalist story. Unsurprisingly, the earliest scholarship in the 1970s focused on the censorship to which the exhibition was subjected.[17] Debates in the early 1980s over the withdrawal of federal arts funding from exhibitions containing sexual or politically provocative content again revived interest in Advancing American Art because of its suppression—through defunding—by the government. A partial reconstruction of Advancing American Art, focusing on the works now housed at Auburn University, opened in 1984 at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama, and subsequently traveled to The William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut, the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) in Washington, DC, and the Terra Museum of American Art near Chicago.[18] Alluding to the culture wars of the 1980s, Vivien Raynor’s review of April 15, 1984, in the New York Times noted that “the political considerations generated by the exhibition are still very much alive.”

The 2012–2014 reconstruction, Art Interrupted, was organized jointly by the three university museums that now house the majority of works shown in Advancing American Art. According to Marilyn Laufer, director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University, Art Interrupted aimed not only to build upon the existing literature, which emphasized the exhibition’s diplomatic goals and its ultimate censorship, but also “to assess these works of art as key examples of modern American art, reflective and expressive of all the diverse styles and influences that defined that movement in [the] mid-20th century.”[19] Most of the works featured in the exhibition were produced after the heyday of the realist styles prevalent in the 1930s, but before the ascendancy of abstract expressionism in the late 1940s. This transitional period in American art history has received relatively little attention. By reassessing an undervalued and understudied chapter of art history, the restaged exhibition offered a new perspective on the canon of modernist American art, drawing attention to who and what has been excluded from it; in this case, the artists of the 1940s who fell out of fashion after the rise of abstract expressionism. Unlike the 1984 reconstruction, Art Interrupted offered a complete picture of Advancing American Art. It featured all works from the original exhibition that could be located, totaling seventy-two paintings in oil, tempera, gouache, and encaustic. In addition, the group of watercolors and gouaches purchased by the State Department and intended for a similar exhibition in China was included in Art Interrupted; thirty-five of the original thirty-eight watercolors were on view in the show.

In an article for The Art Newspaper in March 2013, Lauren Ross praised Art Interrupted for its “thorough examination of a moment in American history when politics and culture—as well as professional expertise and populist taste—clashed.”[20] She also discusses an important point, argued in the catalog, that Advancing American Art’s “intention was less about asserting American supremacy or imperialism than advancing postwar global aspirations and an anti-isolationist philosophy.” The argument that Advancing American Art aimed primarily to promote international cultural exchange—and not to assert cultural hegemony—brings to mind historian Michael Krenn’s argument that Cold War cultural diplomacy served multiple goals. He notes that the ambitions of the curators and artists involved in cultural diplomacy were often at odds with the priorities of the government agencies that oversaw and funded such enterprises. The art world sought opportunities for cultural exchange and collaboration, and also ascribed nuanced symbolic meaning to the works they chose for exhibitions. Government agencies, on the other hand, frequently perceived art as little more than a tool for disseminating a political message.[21] In their interpretation of Advancing American Art, the curators for Art Interrupted acknowledged and analyzed the multifaceted nature and conflicting agendas of cultural diplomacy. Where the exhibition and its catalog fell short, perhaps, was in neglecting to fully situate Advancing American Art within the broader cultural diplomatic enterprise of the immediate post-World War II period. Although Mark White’s catalog essay places the exhibition within the context of American global aspirations,[22] none of the essays speculate on what, for example, sending Advancing American Art to recently Nazi-occupied Eastern European nations meant at a time when the United States was concurrently facilitating modern art exhibitions as a means of cultural reconstruction and denazification in occupied Germany.

As curator for the Indiana University Art Museum venue Art Interrupted, I faced the challenge of balancing the presentation of Advancing American Art’s story and context with an installation that would be meaningful to a contemporary audience. As Advancing American Art is now best known for the political controversy it generated, I chose to emphasize this aspect of its legacy through specific installation decisions. I placed Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Circus Girl Resting, the painting maligned by President Truman, adjacent to the exhibition’s title wall (fig. 2).

McComas_Figure 3

Fig 3. Installation view, Art Interrupted, Indiana University Art Museum, 2013. At right: After Ben Shahn (American, born Lithuania, 1898‒1969), Poster: We Want Peace, Register, Vote, ca. 1946, offset lithograph, 105.4 x 69.6 cm, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; museum purchase 2010.31. At left, O. Louis Guglielmi (American, born Egypt, 1906‒1956), Tenements, 1939, oil on canvas, 92.1 x 71.4 cm, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; University purchase GMOA 1948.19, and Ralston Crawford (American, born Canada, 1906‒1978), Plane Production, ca. 1946, oil on canvas, 71.4 x 92.1 cm, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Advancing American Art Collection 1948.1.08. Photograph by Kevin Montague.

It was the first work that visitors encountered upon entering the exhibition. Near this painting, I installed one of the documentary items that accompanied the exhibition, a voter registration poster from 1946 that reproduces Ben Shahn’s painting, Hunger; Shahn’s original painting was included in the exhibition’s Latin American tour (fig. 3). This poster, which was aimed at politically leftist labor union members, had done nothing to allay fears in 1946–1947 about the potentially subversive nature of the works in Advancing American Art. When visitors entered the main part of the gallery, they were confronted with two paintings featuring styles and subjects that had provoked the exhibition’s critics (fig. 3). O. Louis Guglielmi’s Tenements of 1939, a social realist commentary on poverty in America during the Great Depression, hung alongside Ralston Crawford’s Plane Production, a geometric abstract work painted around 1946. Above these paintings, I placed quotations that highlighted the widely divergent attitudes towards modernist art in the late 1940s. Above Crawford’s painting, a statement from William Benton, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, praised the exhibition’s stylistic diversity by situating it within the context of democracy: “Only in a democracy where the full development of the individual is not only permitted but fostered could such an exhibition be assembled.” Above the Guglielmi painting, a comment by Illinois Representative Fred Busbey reveals a very different sentiment—one that seems provoked by this very picture: “This is what the communists and other extremists want to portray… that the American people are despondent, broken down or of hideous shape—thoroughly dissatisfied with their lot and eager for a change in government.”

McComas_Figure 4

Fig 4. Installation view, Art Interrupted, Indiana University Art Museum, 2013. At right: abstract paintings by Werner Drewes and Arthur Dove, from Latin American tour; center: vitrine displaying copies of Art News and Look; in the background: paintings addressing World War II by Ben-Zion, Julio de Diego, Philip Evergood, and Paul Burlin, from Eastern Europe tour. Photograph by Kevin Montague.

Although photographs of the original exhibition do not exist, I hung the remaining paintings in a manner that suggested how audiences in 1946 and 1947 might have viewed them. The works from the Eastern European and Latin American tours were installed in different sections of the gallery, and the watercolors, not technically part of Advancing American Art, but sold alongside them in 1948, hung in a third area. The European and Latin American checklists included works that ranged stylistically from figurative expressionism and social realism to biomorphic and geometric abstraction. Such diversity, while fundamental to the exhibition’s message of artistic freedom, proved challenging to organize in a coherent manner, and each venue of Art Interrupted approached this challenge differently. The Georgia Museum of Art chose to examine Davidson’s larger curatorial choices without distinguishing between geographic divisions, and the University of Oklahoma featured the paintings reproduced in Look Magazine in a separate gallery to highlight the article’s damning effect on the exhibition’s fate.[23] My solution, as well as Auburn University’s, was to group stylistically or conceptually related works together within each geographic section (fig. 4). This organization revealed that the Eastern Europe section alone contained a group of paintings that overtly addressed the recent world war and the horrors of fascism. One example, Philip Evergood’s Fascist Leader of 1946, featured a composition that alludes to the human degradation perpetrated in the Nazi concentration camps (fig. 5). It seems a deliberate choice that only European audiences viewed these paintings. Perhaps they were included in this section to convey a sense of American solidarity with the populations that had so recently suffered under Nazi occupation, and now faced the specter of Soviet expansionism. As the curators of Art Interrupted pointed out, the expression of unity with other cultures was one of Advancing American Art’s messages. In a catalog printed for the Prague venue, cultural attaché Hugo Weisgall emphasized that modern American artists “tend toward an internationalism…. They realize that their homes are part of a continuum that includes the civilizations of Europe and Asia as well as the primitive peoples.”[24]

McComas_Figure 5

Fig 5. Philip Evergood (American, 1901‒1973), Fascist Leader, 1946, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 63.5 cm, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Advancing American Art Collection 1948.1.14.

Public programs at the Indiana University Art Museum sought to interpret Advancing American Art within its larger cultural and political context. Art Interrupted opened in Bloomington with a symposium on “Art and Cultural Diplomacy in the Cold War,” which was intended to address how Advancing American Art related to other cultural diplomacy projects and goals of the era. Featured speakers included political scientist Cora Goldstein and historian Michael Krenn, scholars who have conducted groundbreaking work on Cold War-era exhibitions and visual propaganda.[25] To delve more deeply into the history and practice of American cultural diplomacy, I also convened a panel discussion with Leslie Lenkowsky, an Indiana University professor who worked with the United States Information Agency in the early 1980s, and Gene Coyle, a former field operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They discussed their personal experiences working on cultural diplomacy and other propaganda initiatives during the Cold War.

Because Art Interrupted was shown only in venues not typically covered by the national art press, it unfortunately received little critical feedback. The most extensive commentary to appear in a nationally circulated publication was the article in The Art Newspaper, discussed earlier. Local press coverage was more descriptive than analytical and focused on the exhibition’s censorship. A story that aired on public radio station WFIU in Bloomington, however, offered a perceptive insight into how the exhibition’s diversity belies the abstract expressionist-dominated view we now hold of mid-century American art:

The show is striking in its inconsistency—iconic canvases are interspersed with more banal pictures; nascent abstraction mingles with heavy-handed social realism—but that’s its special gift…. [The] reconstruction provides a valuable view of the directions in art at mid-century, before being tidied up by the master-narrative of art history.[26]

The public’s response in Bloomington was tracked through a visitor comment book. One visitor found the label texts “propagandistic” and suggested that the exhibition presented a one-sided view of the Cold War—perhaps meaning that a critique of cultural diplomacy itself was absent from the labels and related texts. The remaining comments, however, suggested that the exhibition was a success with the public. Some visitors appreciated the opportunity to see works by artists who are underrepresented in American museums today, while others found the political and historical context of the exhibition illuminating. Contemporary American politics were clearly on the minds of some visitors. One expressed astonishment that the American government—not known for its friendliness to the arts—had ever considered art a tool for cultural diplomacy at all, and several drew parallels between Advancing American Art’s clash with conservative politicians and the polarized state of American politics today. One commented how it is “sad that we are still fighting the same culture wars.”[27] While the absence of national commentary makes it difficult to judge the exhibition’s impact more broadly, we do know that Art Interrupted attracted an international audience, as visitors from Spain, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ghana, Korea, and India signed the exhibition’s comment book. Perhaps the most valuable result of Art Interrupted, however, was its introduction—through the lens of art—of Cold War political and cultural controversies to university students. During the three months that the exhibition was on view in Bloomington, faculty from disciplines such as Art History, Philosophy, and Gender Studies used the exhibition as a teaching tool. Leslie Lenkowsky, as a professor in the university’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, visited the exhibition with students from a class called “Civil Society in Comparative Perspective,” which covers the history of cultural diplomacy. Describing the pedagogical value of the reconstructed exhibition, Lenkowsky explained, “I don’t think any [of the students] had realized the role artistic expression played in international political conflicts.”[28]

Restaging Cultural Diplomacy Exhibitions: Lessons for Art History

The interest in restaging historical exhibitions aligns with the growing interest among art historians in exhibition and museum history.[29] However, art historians have paid relatively little attention to the cultural diplomacy exhibitions of the Cold War era, leaving their study to disciplines such as history, political science, and even literature.[30] In the 1970s, several art historians addressed cultural diplomacy as part of a larger critique of modernist formalism, institutional power, and American imperialism.[31] They focused on abstract expressionism as a “weapon of the Cold War,” claiming it was promoted for political ends through the covert activities of the CIA. Although there is some truth to their claims, this literature is flawed by various factual errors and by the authors’ reliance on a highly selective roster of exhibitions to support their arguments.[32] While their critiques have been problematized by Michael Kimmelman, Michael Krenn, and Nancy Jachec,[33] the scholarly literature is still missing a more objective art historical examination of the role of art in cultural diplomacy. Considering the broader history of these exhibitions, including a study of non-American cultural diplomacy initiatives directed towards the United States, would enable a more nuanced evaluation of the intersection of art and politics during the Cold War.[34] Although the answers are beyond the scope of this article, the reconstruction of Advancing American Art raises a number of compelling questions that would make fruitful topics for further investigation, particularly regarding the heyday of cultural diplomacy exhibitions in the 1950s. During that decade, abstract expressionism and social realism were simultaneously employed within cultural diplomacy, but the persistence of anti-modernist attitudes in the United States not only necessitated covert government partnerships with private organizations to accomplish diplomatic goals, but also led to the inclusion of more traditional styles—including regionalism—into several high-profile cultural diplomacy exhibitions.[35] Aside from such politically motivated curatorial decisions, what other patterns and surprises might emerge from a close reading of the exhibitions’ checklists? How did artists react to cultural diplomacy initiatives? Did the priorities of cultural diplomacy influence the canon, or did cultural diplomats rely on already canonical art to promote their messages?

Reexamining cultural diplomacy exhibitions reminds us that artistic meaning evolves and changes in response to specific historical, economic, aesthetic, or political conditions. As the case of Advancing American Art makes clear, artistic meaning has been manipulated not only by the organizers of cultural diplomacy exhibitions, but also by the detractors of such initiatives. A greater recognition of the shifting meanings and functions of art objects as they move through time and space has implications for art history, a field which has traditionally been most concerned with the art object at its moment of production and initial reception. Finally, the study of Cold War cultural diplomacy exhibitions also offers lessons for today’s globalized, yet politically unstable, world. The history of the twentieth century reveals the dangers inherent in employing art for political purposes. Art can be wielded as an instrument of cultural and ideological imperialism, and bringing art into the arena of foreign affairs opens the door to the possibility of cultural censorship. Yet, if approached with care, as current State Department initiatives seem to demonstrate,[36] cultural diplomacy can also be a tool to forge international friendships through the language of art.

Jennifer McComas is the Class of 1949 Curator of Western Art after 1800 at the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington, Indiana (USA). She received her PhD in art history from Indiana University with a dissertation titled “The Politics of Display: Exhibiting Modern German Art in America, 1937‒1957.” She has also written about German cultural diplomacy exhibitions of the 1950s for the Journal of Curatorial Studies. In 2013, she was curator for the Indiana University Art Museum venue for Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, the reconstructed version of the 1947 U.S. State Department show Advancing American Art.

Notes

[1] Stephanie Barron, ed., ‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991).

[2] For an overview of artistic censorship in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, see Robert Atkins, “A Censorship Time Line,” Art Journal 50, no. 3 (Autumn 1991): 33–37.

[3] Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt, eds., The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution, exh. cat. (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2013).

[4] Dennis Harper, Mark Andrew White and Paul Manoguerra, Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, exh. cat. (Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, 2012).

[5] See Max Kozloff, “American Painting During the Cold War,” Artforum 11, no. 9 (May 1973): 43–54; Eva Cockroft, “Abstact Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War,” Artforum 12, no. 10 (June 1974: 39–41; Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); and Frances Stoner Saunders, The Cultural Cold War (New York and London: The New Press, 2000).

[6] Future exhibitions would only be “facilitated” by the Department.

[7] Margaret Lynne Ausfeld and Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Advancing American Art: Politics and Aesthetics in the State Department Exhibition, 1946–1948, exh. cat. (Montgomery: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1984); Taylor D. Littleton and Maltby Sykes, Advancing American Art: Painting, Politics, and Cultural Confrontation at Mid-Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999); Harper, et al., 2012.

[8] Alfred M. Frankfurter, “American Art Abroad: The State Department’s Collection,” Art News 45, no. 8 (October 1945): 19–31, 78.

[9] The Eastern European section (called the Eastern Hemisphere tour) was first shown in Paris in conjunction with UNESCO Month in November 1946. It opened in Prague in February 1947 and was also seen in Brno, with further venues planned in Poland and Hungary. The Latin American section (the Other American Republics tour) was seen in venues in Cuba and Haiti. A Venezuelan venue was also being arranged.

[10] For example, H. W. Janson, “Benton and Wood, Champions of Regionalism,” Magazine of Art 39, no. 5 (May 1946): 184–186, 198–200.

[11] Cited in Michael L. Krenn, Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2005): 28.

[12] The appeal of abstract art primarily to an elite audience even in the mid-1980s is noted in David Craven, Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissent during the McCarthy Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 20.

[13] For example, the conservative newspaper New York-Journal American published a series of highly critical photo-essays about the exhibition in November and December 1946.

[14] HUAC, a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, investigated communist activity in the United States between 1938 and 1975.

[15] Dennis Harper, “Advancing American Art: LeRoy Davidson’s ‘Blind Date with Destiny’,” in Harper, et al., 2012, 23.

[16] Harper, 27.

[17] William Hauptman, “The Suppression of Art in the McCarthy Decade,” Artforum 12, no. 2 (October 1973): 48–52; Jane de Hart Mathews, “Art and Politics in Cold War America,” The American Historical Review 81 (October 1976): 762–787.

[18] Ausfeld and Mecklenburg.

[19] Email from Marilyn Laufer, June 16, 2010.

[20] Lauren Ross, “When Art Fought the Cold War,” Art Newspaper (May 16, 2013), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/When-art-fought-the-Cold-War/29407 (accessed April 6, 2015).

[21] Krenn, 29, 35–36; Nancy Jachec also argues that privately sponsored initiatives were more intellectually oriented. See Nancy Jachec, The Philosophy and Politics of Abstract Expressionism, 1940‒1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 158.

[22] Mark White, “One World: Advancing American Art, Modernism, and International Diplomacy,” in Harper, et al., 2012, 30–45.

[23] E-mail from Dennis Harper, June 9, 2015.

[24] Hugo Weisgall, Advancing American Art, exh. cat. (Prague: United States Information Service, 1947).

[25] Cora S. Goldstein, Capturing the German Eye: American Visual Propaganda in Occupied Germany (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Krenn, 2005.

[26] Yaël Ksander, “Art Interrupted: A Flawed Ambassador for the American Dream,” WFIU, aired November 5, 2013, transcript accessed December 16, 2013, https://indianapublicmedia.org/arts/art-interrupted/.

[27] Visitor comment book, Art Interrupted exhibition file, Indiana University Art Museum.

[28] E-mail from Leslie Lenkowsky, December 4, 2014.

[29] For example, the Journal of Curatorial Studies (founded 2012) publishes articles on exhibition history.

[30] Krenn, 2005; Goldstein, 2009; Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[31] See Kozloff, 1973; Cockroft, 1974; Guilbaut, 1983; Saunders, 2000.

[32] For example, Saunders incorrectly claims that MoMA’s 1953 exhibition Twelve Modern American Painters and Sculptors, which traveled to several European countries and included works by non-Abstract Expressionists Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Ivan Albright and Stuart Davis, was devoted exclusively to Abstract Expressionism (Saunders, 226). A single exhibition, MoMA’s The New American Painting of 1958 is also cited by these authors as evidence of the Abstract Expressionist orientation of cultural diplomacy, although Jachec rightly points out that it was not until this 1958 exhibition that MoMA “privileged the works of [Abstract Expressionists] above all other types of modernist art production in the United States” (Jachec, 159).

[33] Michael Kimmelman, “Revising the Revisionists: The Modern, Its Critics, and the Cold War,” in John Elderfield, ed., The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century: At Home and Abroad (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994); Krenn, 2005; Jachec, 2009.

[34] I examine West German cultural diplomacy exhibitions designed for circulation to the United States in my dissertation, “The Politics of Display: Exhibiting Modern German Art in America, 1937‒1957” (PhD Diss., Indiana University, 2014).

[35] For example, twenty-six pre-World War I paintings were added to the otherwise modernist American National Exhibition, shown in Moscow in 1959. Krenn, 159–166.

[36] Cultural diplomacy programs currently sponsored by the State Department emphasize mutual understanding or employ the arts to address social problems. For a list of programs, see: https://eca.state.gov/programs-initiatives/cultural-diplomacy (accessed June 12, 2015).