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Harry Truman on Modern Art: ‘Vaporings of Half-Baked Lazy People’

March 24, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It was early 1947 and temperatures were frigid in the Cold War but rising on Capitol Hill over an unusual State Department project. The president also had a few things to say on the subject: an exhibition of modern American art.

″I don’t pretend to be an artist or a judge of art, but I am of the opinion that so-called modern art is merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people,″ Harry Truman wrote in a letter dated April 2, 1947.

″An artistic production is one which shows infinite ability for taking pains and if any of these so-called modern paintings show any such infinite ability I am very much mistaken,″ the president added.

The letter to William Benton, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, is one of more than two dozen documents recently made public at the National Archives on an ill-fated State Department project to use exhibitions of contemporary American art as a cultural propaganda tool.

Known as ″Advancing American Art,″ exhibitions appeared in France, Czechoslovakia, Cuba and Haiti before the program died - a victim of intense criticism from members of Congress, the press and, in general, the conservative political climate of the time.

The previously confidential documents at the Archives include memorandums of State Department officials as well as letters to and from Truman.

In all, they reveal a behind-the-scenes effort by the State Department - mainly Benton, who was in charge of the arts project - to squelch a controversy that threatened money for the agency’s other cultural and information programs. But the materials also offer insight into Truman and provide fresh examples of his well-known outspokenness.

Storm clouds gathered over the arts program late in 1946, as press accounts ridiculed the paintings purchased with taxpayer money, and the criticism spread to Capitol Hill with increasing intensity early the next year.

Truman’s April 2 letter triggered a flurry of exchanges within the State Department on how Benton should respond to the president. One official, in an April 11 memo, recommended no reply: ″The dog is dead, and now smells. Why exhume him?″

But Benton persisted, and sent Truman a book with reproductions of contemporary American paintings from a corporate art collection that he had helped develop before coming to the State Department.

On April 19, Truman wrote to Benton thanking him for the book.

″It is an interesting document, although I notice that there are a great many daubs in it of the ‘ham and egg’ class to which I referred in my letter to you,″ said Truman.

″All of us seem to have cultivated an idea of getting as much pay as possible for as little work as possible. It seems to have affected the painters, as well as everybody else. Until we get back to the idea that the job and its accomplishment is more important than the pay, we will continue to have half baked artists and half efficient people in every other line of work.″

Benton replied on April 29: ″Perhaps we only disagree on this: I am more conscious than you are that there are many people who do like pictures which you describe as one of the ‘ham and eggs’ class, but which they prefer to describe as ‘abstractions 3/8’ And you’ll be interested to know that the Russians were sufficiently disturbed by the effect of our showing in Prague that, not to be out-done, they are planning a big art show of their own.″

Such lobbying was not enough to save the program, however. The exhibitions were canceled, the State Department ousted the official who had selected the paintings, and Benton resigned in September 1947. He later said the art exhibit was ″the single worst mistake″ of his tenure.

The State Department’s art collection of 79 oil paintings and a number of watercolors, which included works of Georgia O’Keeffe, was sold as government surplus by the War Assets Administration. Auburn University and the University of Oklahoma acquired many of the paintings.

In all, the government received $5,544 for the collection, which was appraised at more than $85,000, according to Margaret Lynne Ausfeld of the Montgomery, Ala., Museum of Fine Arts, who has written a history of the exhibition.

Much of the criticism of the works, she has said, stemmed from the political climate of the late 1940s and the ″perceived leftist radicalism of the artists who painted them.″

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