When the topic of artistic censorship is raised, odds are that works cited include Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or just about anything by Robert Mapplethorpe.
The United States government, however, in that golden era of anti-Commie paranoia, arguably did the best job of it by the disbanding and dismantling of its own Advancing American Art exhibition, assembled by the U.S. State Department in 1946.
Mark White, chief curator of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, has righted this wrong by helping piece together all the original artwork they could gather for Art Interrupted, now on display.
“[The original exhibition] was intended to be a showcase of modern American art, and modern art has always been somewhat controversial,” White said. “But that wasn’t the real problem. The exhibition ran afoul of Congress primarily because the State Department had used funds from a prior year to purchase the work. They realized that it would be cheaper in this exhibition to purchase, as opposed to renting, the work. So they purchased it and Congress didn’t like that.”
Misappropriation of funds aside, an even deeper, darker reason for the government to quell this artistic endeavor existed: Congress felt the exhibition didn’t promote a favorable impression of America to nations abroad, “primarily because these modern artists were not painting propaganda as to how great life was in the United States,” White said.
“It also didn’t help that many of the artists were leftists. Several had backgrounds that had been affiliated with communist organizations,” he said. “But ironically, the exhibit was intended to promote the freedom of expression available under American democracy. For them to cancel the show, it really undermined that essential premise.”
Although White believes Oklahoma audiences are progressive enough to enjoy these once-controversial works of art, however belated, he said Art Interrupted should serve as a reminder to never take our creative freedoms for granted.
“I think the idea of freedom of expression is an important idea and we need to return to it,” he said. “The freedom of expression is one of the unique characteristics of democracy in the United States and, certainly, any time we can talk about it as an important and fundamental aspect of this country, then we always need to do so. Hopefully, I want Art Interrupted to inspire that discussion.”