Your money bought these paintings


Pleasure of Failure: The Saga of the 'Advancing American Art' Exhibition
Dr. Serge Guilbaut
Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory
University of British Columbia

Friday, March 22, 2013 at 7:00pm
York Amphiteatre, EV 1.615 

1946 was a key year. Confronted with a completely transformed world, Paris and New York attempted to reframe their artistic international relations. Paris, by sending an exhibition of French art to New York, was trying to reclaim her pre-war hegemony, and New York, by sending an important survey of modern art across Europe, was making the point that the world now had to count the US in the remapping of the international cultural scene. Both exhibitions were resounding failures. The French one failed because of the ineptitude of the administration, which did not understand that the traditional look of the School of Paris could not represent the ambient anxiety and despair now present in the world. Their idea of supporting artists mixing Matissian color with Picasso's structure became the proverbial kiss of death. The European tour of American painting organized by the State Department, on the other hand, was an interesting attempt at showing the latest modern US production to the world. However, the tour was stopped in its tracks by the US Congress, for misguided political reasons. Modern art was seen by a large part of the US political establishment as too incomprehensible for the majority of the public or tainted by old fellow traveler practitioners. The irony was that both governments were unable, despite their efforts, and for diametrically opposite reasons, to have an impact on the international scene. The Bikini atomic explosion, which symbolized the new and dangerous international world, became a crucial marker of the post-war period, replacing earlier nightmares.

Thanks to the discussion and presentation of popular and avant-garde films as well as of jazz music and fashion, I will set out to delimit and to analyze the vast cultural field of battle onto which modern artists had been hurled. It is rather striking to see how much France, like the United States, interiorized stereotypes of their respective cultures. On this account, America was brutal and violent but free, and France, the land of culture, was suave to the point of decadence as well as bursting with internal contradictions. One was rough and unfinished, the other smooth and refined. The positive characteristics of the one became for the other negative qualities. These fights around cultural differences continued to be at the center of debates well into the 1960s.

Image: "Your Money Bought These Paintings," Look magazine, February 18, 1947, 80-81.