How American Artists Conquered the Global Art Market—with a Boost from the State Department
The 69th Armory Show in New York. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
American art’s seven-decade-long primacy, which began in the post-war era, has continued to the present day. The American art market is still the largest in the world, accounting for 40% of global sales in 2016, according to UBS and Art Basel’s The Art Market 2017.
The American era was fueled by the explosive energy of mid-20th century abstract artists whose expressive, intuitive work was seen as a manifestation of the liberal, individualistic ideology at the heart of American foreign policy.
What is less well-known is the role that foreign policy played in helping establish this avant-garde movement’s supremacy, a story recounted in “The Economics of American Art,” published in August by Oxford University Press.
“One of the great sources of contemporary art was politics, pure and simple,” says Auburn University economist Robert Ekelund, Jr. He is the co-author, along with John Jackson, also an economist at Auburn, and the late Robert Tollison of Clemson University, of the book. “Innovation and intuitive art were born from that initial impact but now have a life of their own.”
This excerpt, adapted from their new book, traces the impact of politics on American art movements in the mid-20th century.
World War II brought émigré artists to the United States, but something more fundamental changed the face of American art in the postwar era, leading it to steal the mantle of “modernism” from Europe in general and France in particular. Although Marcel Duchamp and many other artists had enlivened a type of modernism in American art as far back as the Armory Show, a group of Americans, many of whom were socialists and communists who had participated in the government-funded New Deal-era Federal Art Project, broke away completely from traditions then prevalent in American art.
According to Serge Guilbaut, the authority on this period, “Avant-garde art succeeded because the work and the ideology that supported it, articulated in the painters’ writings as well as conveyed in images, coincided fairly closely with the ideology that came to dominate American political life after the 1948 presidential elections. This was the “new liberalism”…an ideology that, unlike the ideologies of the conservative right and the Communist left, not only made room for avant-garde dissidence but accorded to such dissidence a position of paramount importance.”
While many “modern” American artists of the period continued to paint in their received styles, some artists in particular—Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and others—broke all tradition by creating a kind of abstraction called, unsurprisingly, abstract expressionism. These artists eschewed “propaganda” and illustration—an art typified in the 1930s and early 1940s by a realist style, some containing a “socialist” element.
The end of New Deal subsidies led to a new wave of competition between artists, and the abstract-expressionist style expanded. The market for this new art was energized by a number of factors: the postwar period of inflation and the pent-up demand and incomes from the war led to a new cascade of collectors. Additionally, French art was no longer imported after 1944, and the European art market had been devastated by the war.
The market for American art entered a boom period that continues to this day, with a boost from U.S. diplomats. This interface between politics and art played, albeit indirectly, an important role in establishing the avant-garde in the latter half of the twentieth century, leading to the multiplicity of innovative genres of art, many of which we continue to enjoy.
In 1946, in the realization that an American century in culture lay ahead, the U.S. State Department and government, eager to advertise American supremacy in the arts, organized a collection of then-contemporary American paintings, sometimes called “Advancing American Art.” These works—oils and works on paper chosen by Joseph LeRoy Davidson, arts specialist at the State Department—were to tour Europe, Latin America, and Asia. (The competition was clearly a ploy to compete with the Soviets in the emerging Cold War.)
Seventy-nine oils and seventy-three watercolors were purchased to tour Eastern Europe, Latin America, China, and the Far East. Some of the abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, had major exhibitions as early as 1943, but were excluded from these “Advancing American Art” tours. However, many of the most renowned contemporary artists, including Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley, were not excluded, according to Auburn University curator Dennis Harper’s “Advancing American Art: Leroy Davidson’s ‘Blind Date with Destiny,’” which appeared in the 2012 volume “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy.” Representational (realist) and traditional artists were represented as well—Edward Hopper and Walt Kuhn, for example—but were a small portion of the total.
The pre-abstract expressionist avant-garde of experimental and innovative American artists were the bulk of the shows, which included a melting pot of artists with international heritage (Japanese, German, Italian) painting in a variety of styles—expressionist, cubist, surrealist, and representative works. The paintings were shown in Prague and parts of Latin America in 1948 before the program was abolished. Naturally, artists who were left out complained. These included a number of realist regional artists who, perhaps, resented the successes of “foreigners” and “homosexuals” who worked mainly in New York City.
But many of the artists represented had participated in the New Deal program and were proponents of “American scene” art. Some of these artists depicted social concerns relating to poverty in the United States, fascism, and an actual or perceived repression by U.S. conservatives who branded their work “socialist.” Such work unleashed an avalanche of conservative critics, led by the likes of William Randolph Hearst.
The art was called “lunatics delight” and the paintings dismissed as “left-wing propaganda.” Republicans took back Congress in 1946, and the watchword of the day was “anti-communism.” Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, including the House Un-American Activities Committee, which pre-dated McCarthyism, was in full swing by 1948–1949, and focusing on art and culture. Blacklisting and liberal purges were the order of the day, and the State Department’s art tours were under the microscope.
Pressure was put on Secretary of State George C. Marshall to end the program, and President Harry S. Truman even joined in the chorus against what was increasingly perceived as a New Deal communist plot. About Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Circus Girl Resting in the traveling collection, Truman was said to have remarked that “if this is art, I am a Hottentot.” The solution became clear as politics dominated modern art: Davidson’s job at the State Department was eliminated, and by mid-1948 the art had been recalled and put up for sale as government surplus by the War Assets Administration.
Politics, at least for the moment, had triumphed over free artistic expression. Unfortunately, the “Advancing American Art” episode of that triumph would not be the last. Despite the anti-communist purges of free expression in the United States, or perhaps because of it, by 1948 or so, abstract expressionism had won the battle of becoming the avant-garde style of world art.
Although the particular style of Pollock (“drip painting”) and some others was largely passé by the mid-to-late 1950s, it was the impetus for artists to become individualists, exemplifying a storied “alienation from society”—symbols of innovation, detached from the world and, often, representations of it. Pure abstraction became largely “apolitical,” insulating it from the kind of dire criticisms exemplified by McCarthy and right-wing conservatives.
A variety of styles were spawned by “action painting,” another phrase describing abstract expressionism. The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s saw the development of color-field painting, minimalism, hard-edge painting, and pop art (as exemplified in Andy Warhol’s many works). These streams of artistic endeavor and their offshoots have become what is termed “contemporary” or “modern” painting from the twentieth into the twenty-first century in the United States and around the world.
Such contemporary painting appears to be dominant, but that does not mean that realism, forms of modernism, folk art, representational abstract art, or other styles are dead or were eliminated by non-representational abstraction. These traditions continued throughout the second half of the twentieth century and persist in the twenty-first. Visits to a series of art galleries in major U.S. cities or perusal of any recent catalogue of American art from Sotheby’s or Christie’s would support the notion that practically all previous styles still coexist in the work of American artists. But the seismic shift in the direction of American art to abstraction and innovation, spurred in no small part by the political currents of the day, forever altered the behavior of the art market.
—Robert Ekelund, Jr., John Jackson, and Robert Tollison