Anticommunism and Modern Art

Following are notes taken from the George Dondero Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute. Dondero was a Republican Congressman from Michigan.

Charles Plant writes on 6/25/56 to anticommunist Congressman George A. Dondero, already famous for his attacks on modern art as a communist plot to undermine the principle of eternal beauty. Plant writes to complain President Eisenhower "last fall" went to the Museum of Modern Art on their 25th anniversary and "gave them a slap on the back and told them they should paint anything that they felt like and that nobody should interfere with them."

Dondero's reply to Plant, dated 6/29/56, includes this: "Frankly, I do not understand some of the statements made by the President regarding to Museum of Modern Art. Modern art is a term that is nauseating to me. We are in complete accord in our thinking regarding this subject and its connection with communism. No one is attempting to stifle self expression, but we are attempting to protect and preserve legitimate art as we have always known it in the United States."

The International Fine Arts Council (IFAC) writes Congressman Dondero on 10/8/56 to inform Dondero that he would receive their Gold Medal of Honor for "dedicated service to American Art." The goals of the organization were "concern [for] the amelioration of art conditions and the basic renewal of standards, of professionalism, of integrity and of master- craftsmanship. Our progress has been slow, but annually, we continue to bring out in promulgation those artists of different countries who are in fact masters of their craft; in no other field is it possible for the absolute amateur to take over and control a field, and the deplorable indifference now prevalent where the public is concerned, makes our continued work more important than ever." The letter was written by Hellene Bassell, IFAC's public relations person.

The letterhead Bassell used to write Dondero contained these names on the masthead--as members of IFAC's board of directors:

John Davis Hatch, Dr. Mus of Arts & Sciences, Norfolk
Ludd Spivey, Pres of Fla.  Southern College in Lakeland FL
Seymour Fogel, Dept of Art, U Tex
Varian Fry, writer
Andre Heymann, producer Paris
Uta Hagen, actress and member of the "Legitimate Theatre"
On 10/11/56, in Dondero's reply to the above, to Hellene Bassell, he refers to the fact that "most of this research and the gathering of information used in my addresses on communism in art before the House of Representatives was the work of fine artists who gave unselfishly of their time and money in doing the research.

11/8/56: Harry Cohen, then Pres of IFAC apparently was shocked by information about subversive activities of some members of the IFAC board that Dondero had sent Cohen. So he writes Dondero to say so, and to say that he finds it hard to gather information on the political activities of the artists whom his organization wants to recruit. "We have this year been very careful about the selection of artists for nomination and for the final award [the Gold Medal] ... [W]ould the Un-American Activities files make such information available to us, if we had a person recommended for active participation? [But] we are not 'conscious' of politics, communistic leanings, or the mild left-wingers--for, being so purely art minded as to concentrate principally on art to the exclusion of all else in determ[in]ing quality and craftsmanship, we have nevertheless been rather rudely awakened to a great deal of this subversive stuff. Even as we prepare now to draw up the conclusion for the nominations ... we are filled with all kinds of apprehension as to 'who' might be 'what."'

Dondero had pointed out to Cohen that one member of IFAC, indeed someone on their masthead, Uta Hagen, was a red. "A letter has already gone out," Harry Cohen writes, "to Miss Hagen advising her of the necessity, in the light of certain revelations regarding her political affiliations, of dropping her name from our letterhead and of inclusion in any part of our program. You may be interested to know that I have never met Miss Hagen, and that although she was a mild acquaintance of Mr. Oliphant who knew her culturally through her colleague Stella Adler (Mr. Oliphant did a good deal of theatrical law in his practice) she has never in the two and a half years of my association with the IFAC been present at any meeting, nor does she know any of the persons on this letterhead, with the exception of Mr. Oliphant who did himself bring her into the group, and primarily, I was told today when I telephone him concerning this matter, because in wanting as he did, the admixture of heterogeneous intellectuals outside the art profession for the many-wise cross-section he considered her on the basis of her Shakespearean theater quality, her St. Joan performance, and her high-level type of legitimate theater activities. He too was absolutely nonplused today when I read parts of this lengthy statement."

On this letter, and in subsequent letters from Cohen to Dondero, Hagen's name as a member of the IFAC Board is crossed out.

On 11/9/56 Cohen, very timid now, writes Dondero to run a name by him-- that of Fannie Hurst. We assume that Miss Hurst enjoys an impeccable reputation political-wise, although we have never been alert to suspicion as we are now. May we have your immediate assurance on this matter?"

  • For more on anticommunist antimodernism, see this.


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    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:36 EDT