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David and Art - Culture Wars: Then and Now

Trying to make political points by turning other people against certain artists is a regular feature of American politics.

In case you hadn’t heard, toward the end of last year Taylor Swift ran afoul of some people of a certain political outlook, apparently in large part for being a successful artist with a huge following. It hardly needs pointing out that the “culture wars” are alive and well in our current political environment. But, as is usually the case, a little historical perspective helps. In 1949, a couple of philanthropists in New York City put together an art exhibit at the St. Alban’s Naval Hospital on Long Island. It was done for the benefit of those receiving medical care at the hospital, including many bed-ridden veterans. It featured the work of 19 different painters, seven of whom went out to the hospital and talked to the patients and answered questions about their work. Overall, it was a big hit and many of the patients asked for such a thing to become a regularly scheduled event.

But this was the era of McCarthyism and the Red Scare and Communists hiding under every chair, bed, and apparently every easel.

Congressman George Dondero was a Republican from Michigan who saw pernicious motives in the art that went out to the hospital. Some of it was modernist, non-representational, and that was, according to him, a harbinger of something far worse. The artists at the Naval Hospital, he said, “had a great opportunity not only to spread propaganda, but to engage in espionage.”

In June of that year, he spoke with journalist and art critic Emily Genauer. Listen to what he said and see if it sounds familiar. Modern art “is communistic because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, and our great material progress. Art which does not portray our beautiful country in plain simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore opposed to our government, and those who create and promote it are our enemies.”

Not only did he call modern artists themselves “international art thugs,” “human termites,” and “germ carrying vermin,” he also attacked museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard’s Fogg Museum, and the Corcoran Museum in DC for staging exhibits of art that didn’t meet his definition of the word.

This was not Dondero’s first rodeo, as they say. Three years earlier, he attacked an art exhibit featuring works by, among others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Phil Guston, and Stuart Davis, that had been organized by the State Department to carry examples of contemporary American art abroad.

What’s behind all this, both then and now? Is it something more than just drab and cheap politics? Let’s talk more about that.