NORMAN — A controversial exhibition of modern American art that was shut down by the U.S. government in the late 1940s has been reassembled for a new, two-year national tour. “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy” opens Saturday at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
In 1946, the U.S. State Department spent $49,000 on an exhibition of modernist paintings created by contemporary American artists.
The intent was to show the world America's artistic coming of age, highlighting the freedom of expression enjoyed by artists in the United States.
Titled “Advancing American Art,” the exhibition was designed to be used as a tool for cultural diplomacy, but, ultimately, was deemed un-American by members of Congress and President Harry S. Truman.
Before being sent to France, Czechoslovakia, Cuba and Haiti, “Advancing American Art” opened in October 1946 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its U.S. premiere was met with positive press but criticism followed soon thereafter.
“Modern art is always controversial in its time and a number of these paintings were pretty abstract for the 1940s,” said Mark White, chief curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. “There were images of poverty, racial injustice, class disparity and social critique.
“A Look magazine article prompted an outcry with a headline that read, ‘Your money bought these paintings.' Eventually there was a congressional hearing and representatives learned that some of the artists were leftists and others had possible links to communism.
“People then began to question whether these types of images should be sent abroad. The exhibit was intended to demonstrate freedom of expression under American democracy but Congress was really showing the opposite of that. The exhibit was ultimately recalled.”
Because of the ongoing controversy, William Benton, then-assistant secretary of state for cultural affairs, decided the collection should be liquidated. Reclassified as war assets, the works were put up for auction. The University of Oklahoma, Alabama Polytechnic Institute (known today as Auburn University) and the University of Georgia each purchased a portion of the 79 paintings and 38 watercolors.
The newly reassembled version of this exhibition, titled “Art Interrupted,” features works from the permanent collections of 10 museums, private collectors and other public institutions.
Of the 117 works in the “Advancing American Art” exhibit, 107 are included in this exhibit.
The exhibit features works by such noted artists as Georgia O'Keeffe, Romare Bearden, Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and other important figures in the development of American modernism.
“This collection represents a cross section of great American modern art and it remains very timely because it anticipates the culture wars in the 1980s and '90s,” White said. “The freedom of expression that was central to this exhibition remains a major tenet of American democracy. There's a lot to glean from this exhibit because it's still a very important story.”
The exhibition's opening will be preceded by a symposium 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday. Speakers will address both the domestic controversy and the international implications of “Advancing American Art.”
The exhibition will provide a platform for discussing a variety of related issues of political, social and cultural significance. “Advancing American Art” will be the subject of the morning session, and the importance of international cultural diplomacy will be addressed in the afternoon.
Guest presenters include Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions; Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Landon Storrs, associate professor of history, University of Iowa; Mark A. White, chief curator, FJJMA; Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service; and Richard T. Arndt, Advisory Council co-chair of Americans for UNESCO, and chair of the U.S. Steering Committee, Fulbright Association.
A full symposium program is available on the museum's website at www.ou.edu/fjjma.