Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy
In 1946, amid a “Cold War” conflict that emerged between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II, the Department of State embarked on an innovative program of cultural diplomacy. At the heart of this initiative was a project known as Advancing American Art. The program called for the acquisition of modernist paintings by contemporary American artists with the intention of traveling the art through the Latin American republics, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Its objective was to exemplify the freedom of expression enjoyed by artists in a democracy while demonstrating America’s artistic coming of age.
Within months after Advancing American Art began its exhibition tours, controversy over the program erupted in the American media, government forums, and public discourse. Many observers lambasted the paintings selected for the project, and the artists themselves, as un-American and subversive. Several of the artists had left-leaning political views and the collection, by design, largely avoided representational styles. Facing intense disapproval by Congress with the prospect of losing all funding for its cultural programs abroad, the State Department chose to recall the exhibitions and the paintings were soon sold at auction.
Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy examines the development and swift demise of this ambitious but ill-fated instrument of foreign policy. The story of Advancing American Art offers important clues to a better understanding of the unsettled period in American history immediately following World War II. The public debate the project engendered—on the value of modern art, government’s role in art patronage, and what constitutes a truly American art form—addressed issues that are still worthy of discussion today. The curtailed tour in 1947 prevented a full consideration of what the paintings had to say about the artists and the period in which they were created. Nearly seventy years after the paintings were first assembled, the organizers of the present exhibition—the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia—have worked together to give the artists and the original State Department organizers their due acknowledgement. From a checklist of 117 oils and watercolors sold as war surplus in 1948, Art Interrupted reunites all but ten paintings, for which there are no known locations, in an exhibition that demonstrates again the great worth in freedom and diversity.