Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 12, No. 5, 1990, pp. 11, 13
Advancing American Art by Taylor D. Littleton and Maltby Sykes. Introduction by Leon Litwack. (University of Alabama Press, 1989. 159 pages.).
A Romare Bearden for $6.25 anyone? How about a Jacob Lawrence for $13.93? Or a destined to be famous Ben Shahn for $60? A Georgia O’Keefe for $50?
Professor Littleton and Emeritus Professor Sykes of Auburn University recount how their campus obtained a collection of paintings, notable ones by artists of interest, for prices such as those. The story, a generally forgotten one, is fascinating and also an exemplary one, in these days of zealotry over the National Endowment for the Arts and what to do about alleged “obscene” art. The book is so unintentionally topical that I am puzzled by its neglect in the national press.
The short facts were these. In 1946 the State Department, in the enthusiasm of those post-War days for spreading American influence and values, decided to send art exhibits abroad. At a cost of $49,000 it selected 79 oils. Some were to go to Europe, some to Latin America. Perhaps unwisely they were first shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October 1946. Criticism commenced at once. It was to increase, in the press-New York Journal-American, Look Magazine, others-radio-Fulton Lewis Jr.-and most impellingly, Congress. As the selection was mostly “modern” (but not inclusive of then emerging “abstract expressionism”), more conservative artists also were disparaging. The ruckus in Congress proved too embarrassing to an administration with larger concerns. President Truman called the paintings “merely the vaporings of halfbaked lazy people”; his opinion had, however, not been publicized before the time when Secretary of State George Marshall recalled all the paintings in June 1947 (they were then being shown in Prague and Port-au-Prince); a short time later he had them declared “surplus property” and transferred to the old War Assets Administration. The 79, plus 38 watercolors separately purchased, were auctioned to tax-supported institutions. Auburn got 36 of them (for $1,072). The University of Oklahoma got another 36. (The University of Georgia bought ten, and the remainder went to Texas A&M, Rutgers, and the University of Washington.) The total purchase price, for oils and watercolors, was $5,544.
Should public money–tax payer’s money–be used for art? The complaint in 1946-47 was less that it had been than that it had been for this art, which is the same as the complaint trumpeted and neighed by North Carolina’s Jesse Helms and allies, Republicans and Democrats, in 1990. There is a difference between then and now, an interesting one though I am not sure what it portends. The criticism in the 1940s was that the selected paintings somehow demeaned the United States, put it in a poor light, and were done by politically suspect (i.e. leftist) artists; in 1990, obscenity is the enemy. Like a lot of civic
life, the direction is toward below the belt.
Yesterday’s liberals were much like today’s. They retreated; those who held office in government scampering away fast. The brouhaha was soon forgotten. Likely as not, so will be the one now led by Mr. Helms, when the 1990 Congressional races are over and done with. These political campaigners against art, then as now, knew, however, what they were about, which was–as now–providing red meat for the American electorate.
Liberals tend not so well to know what they are about. Littleton and Sykes report little evidence that liberals of the 1940s defended these pictures. They ought to have, I think, because some of them as reproduced in this book are stunningly beautiful. I don’t think the same can be said for the works which have uncorked the current uproar, but then what is it that has not deteriorated culturally in our, present decade? Liberals even as they bring charges of censorship are inclined today to leave the quality debate alone, as they concentrate on process. It is a losing tactic: substance wins every argument with process. The public, which is the final arbiter, wants art it can respect.
What though. of process? Is a democratic government required, by any political theory, to support art? Probably not. But if it decides to do so, may it fittingly choose among artists and their works?
It is an age-old issue. Plato wrote at length about it. Art he thought to be fundamental to a good political order, but he would have firmly controlled its forms and shaped their style. The modern democratic tradition is otherwise, both in public respect for art-which is reduced to an anarchy of taste-and government’s right and even duty to direct it. Respect art or not, American governments-federal, state, local-inevitably involve themselves in artistic decisions. The design of public buildings, the illustrations in children’s school books, the taxation of art collections, the awarding of scholarships-these and like matters all pave the way for more direct challenge, such as what art-the statues, the murals, the anthems- governments may commission and what artists’ careers it may financially aid. Who will decide what is to be favored?
One may well not like (I don’t) his or her tax dollars being spent on some of the forms of expression we have lately seen publicized. One may think (I do) our art community and art critics irresponsible in their aesthetic judgments. But if we are to have federal support of art at all, the worst conceivable judge of what is good and worthy is Congress.
This incapacity of Congress is true not only for art. I am not sure that the Constitution requires that there be publicly supported education. Certainly it does not require federal support. But the truth we have had to learn, sometimes painfully, is that though legislative bodies are indispensable for deciding whether to do or not to do, they are when they intrude in areas such as education and art bumbling at best and malign at worst, and the worst is frequent. Advancing American Art tells well what havoc Congressmen caused in 1946-47. We may see a repeat today. Littleton and Sykes let us see too how the uproar over these paintings was an overture for the Red scare which would seize the country and corrupt our law, morals, and political values during the ensuing decade.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Congress has become a destructive institution. By its own complicity in the wastage of national treasure on arms and military might, neither it nor Presidents can seldom do anything-can move-against problems that matter to people’s welfare. All they can readily do, as long as foreign governments will lend or give us the money, is saber-rattling or saber-unsheathing abroad and-here at home-the flailing at “social issues”: art censorship flag burning, “family values,” and-yes–drug criminalizing. We tear ourselves apart over such issues, and it is Congress and Presidents who impel us to do so. It is self-willed destruction of the capacity for self-government. Issues-if one may call them that-like these are for this generation of Congressmen and other politicians the functional equivalent of “rigger” politics, of “waving the bloody shirt,” of antiCommunism for their predecessors. They are the kind of “issues” that allow Congress to turn away from the nation’s real problems, or to mask the roles they themselves play in service to financial interests.
Littleton and Sykes have done a great service in reminding us of an earlier bout of this democratic disease. They and Professor Litwack (whose Introduction really should have been an Afterword, inasmuch as it picks up the history where the book stops) place the 1946-47 episode within the context of the harsh nativism that is always present in American democracy and the anti-Communism that was emerging and which in the soon-to-be years of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover would form an evil era of American history.
It did, however, have at least two good outcomes. “All of the furore seemed hardly to have affected the careers of the exhibit’s artists unless they were enhanced by it.” That was one. A second was and is that Auburn University obtained a collection of fine paintings, worth one’s making a trip to Auburn.