During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were concerned with showcasing the art of their respective states to the world. Both feared that artist communities had sided with government rivals, and thus explored ways to repress artistic expression with state power. The story of how American artists, philanthropists, activists, and policymakers overcame Cold War fears to create programs like Arts In The Embassies and other early organs of U.S. cultural diplomacy is an understated but vital component of the success of American arts around the world.
As the Cold War began, the United States was in the unusual situation of being a world leader in the arts while having no major state-owned art collection to tour abroad or to furnish public buildings. Yet American art movements were flourishing, and when the U.S. State Department began to plan an art show that would demonstrate the strengths of American culture over Soviet culture in 1946, they focused on the works of modern American painters. Their show, Advancing American Art, was the most ambitious effort of cultural diplomacy that the State Department ever made, having planned for a five-year tour in Latin American and Eastern European countries that had been determined to be particularly vulnerable to communism. The show’s experimental content was impressive to audiences abroad but poorly understood by most Americans at the time, and many of the featured artists used their work for social commentary that did not present an idealized view of the United States. This made Advancing American Art an easy target for disdain among some American commentators as well as the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee. At the time, a former Secretary of State said, “the paintings are a travesty upon all art” while a Congressman declared that “all modern art is communistic”. Mistrust of modern art’s content and intentions cut the show’s circulation short, and the State Department would never again directly purchase or exhibit American art for a cultural diplomacy endeavor of its magnitude.
A similar backlash against modern art had taken place in the Soviet Union as well. During the Russian Revolution and in its immediate aftermath, a number of avant-garde artists, writers, and playwrights emerged and received international praise for the powerful and evocative art movements that they founded. These works were often radically abstract, intellectually robust, and were thought of highly by modern artists and critics in the West. But as was the case with modern “degenerate” art in Nazi Germany, and as would come to pass during China’s Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, the internationalist and forward-thinking work of the Soviet Union’s modern artists aroused the suspicion of authoritarian government bodies. Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, the avant-garde style was sidelined in favor of “socialist realism”: a realistic but idealized style that presented an unambiguously positive depiction of Soviet life – one that reflected the vision of Soviet leadership. This was deemed more politically safe and propaganda-ready by the communist party, and modernist artists and art institutes were routinely defunded and banned from showing challenging work for the rest of the Soviet Union’s existence.
After the first setbacks experienced by cultural diplomacy in the 1940s, the U.S. Congress was poised to defund and delegitimize the work of American modern artists. However, sympathetic State Department officials, interested philanthropists from the Rockefeller family, and patriotic artists in the orbit of the Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, worked to keep interest in cultural diplomacy alive during the days of increased hostility against artists by the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s. During this time art institutions like the MoMA and Smithsonian were the de facto representatives of the United States at international art shows like the famous Venice Biennial that had become too politically charged for official government organizations to engage. Interest and pressure quietly persisted for the U.S. to resume its commitment to cultural diplomacy until 1963, when President John F. Kennedy incorporated a popular MoMA initiative into the State Department as their Arts In The Embassies program. This program invited American artists to set up gallery-style art shows in American embassies and consulates abroad, some of which, like an exhibition of Rothko paintings in New Delhi, were so popular that embassies had to set up regular visiting hours for the first time. For less than 1% of the State Department’s budget, the U.S. was able to provide venues of exposure to the best of American art and culture all over the world, which remain open to this day.
Even as early at 1955, President Eisenhower said at a MoMA event, “As long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art”. This point of view will always be at odds with a familiar and unfortunate sentiment that American arts have been seized by one side of the American political spectrum or another, and that U.S. public art programs ought to eschew challenging subjects and political intensity or be defunded. But it is exactly that intensity and the freedom to present challenging work that makes American art uniquely equipped to negate the efforts of adversaries that portray American culture as sclerotic and weak while presenting themselves as somehow more free, as the Soviets attempted to do during the Cold War and as today’s authoritarian powers seek to do now. The debate over the role of government in promoting the arts remains, and the forces of censorship have occasionally triumphed against groups like the National Endowment for the Arts. However, the sentiments of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy set the foundation for cultural diplomacy efforts that illuminate the vibrancy of American arts and why it’s worth sharing with the rest of the world.
Written by Jack Jensen, Intern with the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy