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Controversial 1940s art exhibit to visit Norman museum

“Art Interrupted,” an exhibit of controversial mid-20th century modern art, is on view through June 9 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
BY RICK ROGERS Published: February 24, 2013

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.

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