PRINT October 1973

The Suppression of Art in the McCarthy Decade

IN RECENT YEARS THERE has been a serious reevaluation by art historians of the significant American contributions in the 1940s and 1950s to 20th-century art. The grim facts remain that an almost pathological fear of communist infiltration in the first decade after World War II resulted in one of this country’s most shameful endeavors to deny artists their basic freedom of expression.

The late Senator Joseph McCarthy never centered his attacks on either art or artists. But his colleagues in Congress often equated all seemingly radical activities—especially artistic ones—with political extremism. Nowhere is this view more evident than in the bitter attacks of George A. Dondero, the Republican representative from Michigan. Trained as a lawyer, with no background in art or art criticism, Dondero launched a one-man campaign to purge American art of what seemed to him to be a second communist front. His assaults were principally political, though he claimed on esthetic grounds all modern art was communist inspired because of the “depraved” and “destructive” nature of its forms. In a congressional speech on August 16, 1949, he explained the use of the major 20th-century styles as vehicles for destruction:

Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder.
Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth . . .
Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule.
Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane.
Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms . . .
Surrealism aims to destroy by the denial of reason
. . . .

Dondero asserted that these styles or “isms” were un-American since they originated in Europe. That some American artists utilized these styles seemed ample proof to him that American advanced art was rapidly becoming a communist-inspired menace. In an interview with Emily Genauer, then a critic for the New York World Telegram but subsequently released by the newspaper because of Dondero’s vague charges of her sympathies with left-wing organizations, Dondero summed up his views:

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 material progress. Art which does not glorify 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.

Dondero severely criticized American artists who refused to acknowledge the above principle. In various speeches, he described them as “human termites,” “germ-carrying vermin,” and “international art thugs.” He also concluded that modern artists who advocatefreedom to experiment in a nontraditionalist style were charlatans because 1) they really could not draw; 2) they were insane; 3) they were involved in a plot to make the bourgeoisie nervous; and 4) they were committed to degrade their art for the purpose of communist propaganda. As examples of European artists who had imposed their anti-American ideas on American artists, he named, among many others, Picasso, who had publicly acknowledged his communist leanings, Braque, Léger, Duchamp, Ernst, Matta, Miró, Dali, Chagall—all of whom, he claimed, were active weapons of the Kremlin.

Art museums and professional art associations also became favorite targets for Dondero’s assaults. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Fogg Museum, the Corcoran Museum, and the Virginia Museum were bitterly denounced for supporting exhibitions of modern art. The Artists’ Equity Association and the American Federation of Arts, both artistically liberal organizations, were accused of communist leanings. Of the former, Dondero claimed to have discovered that “of the 77 officers, directors, and governors . . . have left-wing connections—and more significant, 42 members [of the Communist Party].”

It was apparent that Dondero had no concept of artistic activity under any form of dictatorial government. In Genauer’s interview with Dondero, it was pointed out to him how coincidental his speeches were to those of Lenin and Stalin. Similarly, Alfred Barr, Jr., himself the target of right-wing attacks, devoted a long article to proving that modern art and communism or fascism were in direct opposition. Dondero’s charges furthermore disregarded a United States Court ruling of 1946 (Hannegan v. Esquire, 327 U.S. 46) that “A requirement that literature or art should conform to a norm smacks of an ideology foreign to our system.”

In Congress, Dondero’s fellow representatives rarely rebuked his charges openly; indeed only a small handful of congressional individuals privately admitted their disagreement. Of the few whose opposition is a matter of public record, the criticism of Senator Jacob Javits is particularly noteworthy:

Criticism of the record of individuals as citizens or residents of the United States and discussion of their political backgrounds and present beliefs is one thing, but an effort to discredit all modern art forms is quite another and one of which note should be taken and which should be deprecated, for my colleague’s personal opinion of modern art is his privilege, but my colleague’s suggestion that it should all be lumped together and discredited—perhaps suppressed—because he believes it is being used by some—even many—artists to infiltrate Communist ideas is a very dangerous use of the word “communism.” The very point which distinguishes our form of free expression from communism is the fact that modern art can live and flourish here without state authority or censorship and be accepted by Americans who think well of it.

Similarly, many enlightened art editors and museum directors published objection to Dondero’s attacks. Alfred Frankfurter of Art News summed up these counter protests with a typical rationale:

Only a great, generous, muddling democracy like ours could afford the simultaneous paradox of a congressman who tries to attack Communism by demanding the very rules which Communists enforce wherever they are in power, and a handful of artists who enroll idealistically in movements sympathetic to Soviet Russia while they go on painting pictures that would land them in jail under a Communist government.

Many artists attacked by Dondero were vocal in their opposition. Perhaps Ben Shahn’s comments were the most eloquent. He pointed out that what right-wing congressmen were trying to suppress, namely freedom of thought, was in essence the heart of artistic creation; to deny the artist the right to paint or sculpt whatever themes and in whatever style he chooses was to deny his entire freedom.

Dondero’s influence was greatest in two spheres of artistic activity between 1946 and 1956: first, in the condemnation and suppression of art exhibitions which displayed modern art or art by suspected communists; second, the censorship and attempted destruction of large-scale mural decoration in prominent buildings. The targets were particularly government-sponsored work.

The first major show ridiculed by Dondero’s direct instigation was a State Department-sponsored exhibition, organized in 1946 as a goodwill gesture to the governments of Europe and Latin America. This exhibition, called “Advancing American Art,” fully accorded with the standard practice of exhibiting American art abroad, a program originated under State Department auspices in 1938 as part of the Cultural Cooperation Program. The general purpose of this kind of sponsorship was defined by former Secretary of State William Benton before hearings of an appropriations subcommittee in 1948:

[It is to demonstrate that Americans who] are accused throughout the world of being a materialistic, money-mad race, without interest in art and without appreciation of artists and music . . . have a side in our own personality as a race other than materialism and other than science and technology.

For “Advancing American Art,” the State Department allotted about $49,000, and instructed Leroy Davidson to purchase paintings he considered outstanding and of lasting value. Within this narrow budget, Davidson purchased 79 works by 45 well-known artists of the period. Included in the purchase were works by John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Philip Guston, Milton Avery, Loren Maclver, William Gropper, Abraham Rattner, Hugo Weber, Reginald Marsh, Stuart Davis, Jack Levine, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Adolph Gottlieb, Shahn, and others. From this collection, “Advancing American Art” was divided into two traveling exhibits, 40 paintings for Europe, the remainder for Latin America, each exhibition to tour for a five-year period.

Soon after the announcement of Davidson’s purchases, various groups protested the selection. The Baltimore American, a right-wing newspaper, was probably the first to print a formal protest in an editorial in October, 1946, on the basis that

The State Department, which officially is refusing to compromise with international Communism, is currently sponsoring an art exhibition which features the work of left-wing painters who are members of Red fascist organizations.

Thereafter the influential American Artists Professional League (mostly illustrators and commercial artists) sent a letter of complaint to the Art Digest. Dated November 6, 1946, the letter claimed that the show was overwhelmingly one-sided toward modern art, thus precluding a fair representation of the contemporary art scene. Albert Reid, the national vice-president of the organization, also protested Davidson’s choices because they did not in any sense represent styles “indigenous to our soil.” This protest was the beginning of what has been described as “the cold war in the art world.”

Other organizations began to publicly voice their antagonism to the show. Disapprovals were published by such professional societies as the Society of Illustrators, Allied Artists, and the Salmagundi (Watercolor) Club—all of which were composed primarily of commercial artists. The basis of protest was that the selection of modern examples of art seemed to reflect communist leanings, and that many of the painters involved were themselves associated with communist efforts.

Groups not directly associated with the art world also bitterly attacked the exhibition. Particularly vehement and abusive rebukes came from newspapers and magazines owned by William Randolph Hearst. Like Dondero, Hearst equated any form of artist radicalism with communism, and assumed that all of the work produced in a nontraditionalist manner was a disguised means of communist propaganda. His newspapers continually illustrated examples of the show, particularly those by Davis, Marin, and Shahn, often using vilifying captions to distort their content and value—an action not unlike that taken by the Nazi government for their exhibition of “degenerate” art in 1937.

Prominent members of the federal government joined in the controversy. In March, 1947, President Truman denounced a painting of a circus scene by Kuniyoshi, which, in Truman’s opinion, represented “a fat, semi-nude circus girl.” Truman added that “the artist must have stood off from the canvas and thrown paint at it . . . if that’s art, I’m a Hottentot.” Less than a month later, Time magazine reported that Secretary of State George C. Marshall (the target of a McCarthy attack later in 1951), was incensed by the show’s radicalism. Marshall, under whose aegis the show was originally organized, finally ordered “no more taxpayers’ money for modern art.”

Shortly thereafter the State Department, caught in the middle of a politically embarrassing situation,ordered a halt to “Advancing American Art.” This unprecedented action unfortunately established a precedent for dealing with exhibitions in which accused painters and sculptors were involved. It demonstrated the power and influence of Dondero’s views.

The termination of the show while it was still in Europe and Latin America aroused an enormous number of protests from intellectual circles. All were shocked that the State Department, who created and financially supported the exhibit in the first place, would go to such extremes to appease a small group politically on the right. Various art journals protested the cancellation, and in June and July respectively, the American Federation of Arts and many American museum directors voiced their opinions lamenting the State Department decision.

In 1948 the State Department decided rather than keep the paintings it would sell them at a public auction. Preference in the bidding went to educational institutions and to World War II veterans. The results of the auction yielded a 95% loss on the original $49,000 investment. The final irony, it seems, came when the Hearst organization, whom the Art Digest blamed for exerting the most pressure on the federal agency, bought five of the auctioned pictures for the Los Angeles County Museum, a museum heavily endowed by Hearst’s publications.

In 1951 and 1952 the condemnation of exhibitions dealing with modern art became intense. Two major shows were under intense pressure to be canceled or, at the very least, to withdraw works by artists suspected of associating with left-wing causes.

The Los Angeles City Council sponsored a major exhibit in Griffith Park of the current trends in American art. By its very intention, the undertaking was at that time a courageous act. Almost immediately, protests were lodged by some commercial artists and illustrators, hardly represented in the show, claiming that the political background of some of the participants was questionable. As a result, a committee within the City Council was appointed to investigate these charges. After considerable debate, three members of the Building and Safety Committee headed by Harold Harby introduced a resolution stating that it was the official opinion of the committee that “ultramodern artists are unconsciously used as tools of the Kremlin . . . ” and that in some cases, abstract paintings were actually secret maps of strategic United States fortifications. As evidence of the claim of communist infiltration, Harby singled out two works in the show. Rex Brandt, a local artist, was severely criticized for incorporating “propaganda” in his second-prize painting First Lift of the Sea because he had included what appeared to be a hammer and sickle in the sail of a ship. Brandt, who for many years had been a boating enthusiast and the head designer for a major boating firm, explained that the section in question was nothing more than a traditional craft insignia used to designate the Island Clipper. Nevertheless, Harby pressured Brandt into eliminating the objectionable symbol. Significant criticism was also directed against a sculpture by Bernard Rosenthal, Crucifixion. The Harby committee selected this work to demonstrate how communist-inspired art distorts traditional themes and subjects them to sacrilegious mockery. Harby described the work as a “travesty on religion because it made Jesus look like a frog,” and lamented that he could not buy it to insure its destruction.

Liberal factions of the art world protested these actions vigorously. Eastern museum officials jointly sent an official protest to the Los Angeles City Council pointing out again that the same type of repression, under the guise of patriotic duty, was common in Nazi Germany, and, indeed, a reality in present-day Soviet Russia.

However, the issue of whether modern art was communist-inspired and whether avant-garde artists were hired by the Soviet government to propagandize American secrets raged intensely in Los Angeles until January, 1952. Amid hearings, arguments, demonstrations, protests, and counter-protests, the City Council ruled by an 11–3 vote that there was no substantial evidence in support of a vast communist plot within the framework of modern art.

While these questions were being debated, a similar situation occurred in New York in connection with “American Sculpture 1951,” a large retrospective of recent sculpture organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show was attacked by some unauthorized members of the conservative National Sculpture Society, who claimed, as before, that modern art was definitely linked to totalitarianism, and that it “endanger(s) the fundamental freedom of our work and national life.” Furthermore, Don de Lue, the head of the society, firmly asserted that because the Metropolitan was guilty of supporting “aesthetic leftism,” it was, therefore, advocating political leftism. Lloyd Goodrich, for a long time an outspoken foe of these charges, answered these accusations:

In a day when freedom of thought and expression are threatened by reactionary elements more than ever in our recent history, this injection of false political issues into artistic controversy and broadcasting them to an uninformed public is a despicable act.

The federal government itself contributed to some extent to the strong antimodern-art feelings. Although it did not actively support any private group’s views, the U.S. Government sympathized with the idea of communist influence in the art world, and indeed maintained an official policy of censorship. In 1953, at the height of McCarthy’s power, A.H. Berding, then a chief spokesman for the United States Information Agency, delivered a speech before the American Federation of Arts stating that “our government should not sponsor examples of our creative energy which are non-representational.” This statement was followed by an explanation of the types of works which the USIA officially banned from circulating shows; examples included

works of avowed Communists, persons convicted of crimes involving a threat to the security of the United States or persons who publicly refuse to answer questions of Congressional committees regarding connection with the Communist movement.

Despite these feelings, the USIA felt secure enough to lend support to an exhibition in connection with the Olympic Games of 1956. The exhibit, entitled “Sport in Art,” was organized by the American Federation of Arts with partial funding from Sports Illustrated magazine. The plans for the show called for an extensive tour of major American cities, including Washington, D.C., Louisville, Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, before the final showing in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, the host city for the Olympics. The heavily publicized tour was well attended and met virtually no resistance to the inclusion of examples of modern art until the show reached Dallas.

Up to that time, Dallas citizen groups had had a long history of attempting to suppress the showing of advanced art in local museums. The traditional reason behind these acts was the supposed connection of modernism in the arts with communism, though in one case the reason was blatant anti-Semitism. Earlier examples of protests in Dallas included the “In Memoriam” show, where it was charged that six of the 12 artists represented in the exhibit, had communist affiliations. Also severely criticized was “Sculpture in Silver,” another American Federation of Arts exhibit, because of the inclusion of a small work by William Zorach, believed to be a communist.

A good deal of protest was also directed toward the Dallas Museum, where “Sport in Art” was to be housed. On March 15, 1955, just a few months before the installation of the show, The Public Affairs Luncheon Club, a group of 400 women headed by Mrs. Florence Rodgers, a former member of the Dallas Art Association, drafted a resolution declaring that the museum was placing too much emphasis on “all phases of futuristic, modernistic and non-objective” work, while neglecting many traditionalists “whose patriotism . . . has never been questioned.” Specifically, the group demanded the removal of works by Hirsch, Gross, Davidson, Grosz, Picasso, Rivera, and Weber. In a release, the members of the club explained that the underlying principle behind these demands was that modern artists were used by the Kremlin as “instruments of destruction.” As proof of this assumption the club quoted verbatim from Dondero’s 1949 speech (though not acknowledged) of how modern art “aims to destroy.” In April, the trustees of the Dallas Museum issued a reply:

that it was not Museum policy to knowingly acquire or exhibit work of a person known by them to be a Communist or of Communist-front affiliations; that they had obtained the Attorney-General’s list (of known Communists) and would be glad to be guided by it; . . . that they were reluctant to destroy work by artists accused of subversion.

By the time “Sport in Art” was scheduled to open, the Dallas patriotic groups were at fever pitch to stop the public showing of suspected artists. The main group to declare its opposition to the exhibit was the Dallas County Patriotic Council, an organization composed of the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and several other conservative groups. Under the directorship of Colonel Owsley, the Council demanded the removal of works by Zorach, Kuniyoshi, Kroll, and Shahn, as well as a public declaration by the Dallas Museum of a firm policy not to exhibit works by avowed communist supporters. A spokesman for the Council clarified these demands:

We are not interested in esthetics or in traditional versus modern art. We are not interested in the excellence of the art or the story the art portrays. We are not even interested in the nationality, morals, education, religion, or good looks of the artist. We are interested only in seeing that the Dallas Art Association refrains from showing works by Communist or Communist-front artists whose records of Communist-front affiliations are public information obtained by Congressional committees.

The Council had not checked their charges; none of the artists denounced by Owsley was in fact listed as a subversive or a communist by the Subversive Activities Control Board. Zorach, Kuniyoshi, Kroll, and Shahn had been intensely investigated, though each of their files in Un-American Activities Committee records was prefaced by the following official statement: “This report should be construed as representing the results of an investigation by or findings of this Committee. It should be noted that the individual is not necessarily a Communist sympathizer . . . . ”

On February 11, 1956, the Dallas Art Association announced that the Museum would ban no pictures, that it would stand firmly on the belief that there was no evidence to suggest communist infiltration. Despite this proclamation, the USIA felt that the charges against the show were significant. Apparently fearing the fate of the 1946 State Department show, “Sport in Art” was canceled after its Dallas preview. Government officials attempted to hide the fact that the protest by the Council was the sole reason for their decision.

Less than a month later, the USIA found itself in the midst of a similar controversy. Under its direction the American Federation of Arts was again called upon to organize a major retrospective of American art. Entitled “100 American Artists of the Twentieth Century,” and scheduled for a tour abroad, it was claimed that among the artists involved ten were politically “unacceptable” and “pro-Communist.” The 42 trustees of the Federation unanimously voted not to participate in the show if any of the artists were barred from exhibiting. Again yielding to outside pressure, the USIA withdrew its support and canceled the tour—an action officially condemned on the Senate floor.

These controversies, still present despite McCarthy’s censure in Congress two years earlier, resulted in an even tighter and more restrictive control on traveling exhibitions. The USIA announced shortly after the termination of “100 American Artists” that it would ban from such exhibits “American oil paintings dated after 1917”—the year of the Russian Revolution—because the artist might arouse suspicions of communist sympathies. In contrast to this policy, the American Federation of Arts pointed out a speech made by President Eisenhower on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of The Museum of Modern Art in New York:

Freedom of the Arts is a basic freedom, one of the pillars of liberty in our land. . . . As long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art.

Just as attempts were made to condemn art exhibitions, so were there efforts to censor and destroy single works of art, particularly large mural commissions in public buildings, often because it was believed that the artist in question was using the public building as a forum for communist propaganda.1 At the New School for Social Research, four murals had been painted in 1930 by the well-known and much accused Mexican painter, José Clemente Orozco, with the commissioned subject of “social revolutions astir in the world.” The panels depicted the Mexican Revolution, then in full bloom, the nonviolent movement in India, the Chinese Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, and the Russian Revolution, which included large portraits of Lenin and Stalin. In 1951, teachers and students alike began to harass school authorities over the Russian portion of the work, alleging the portraits and theme were offensive. The school responded by placing a plaque below the panel asserting that the view expressed did not reflect that of the school, but by the summer of 1953, protests called for the destruction of the entire work. Dr. Hans Simons, president of the school, compromised these demands by covering the offensive section of the work with a large curtain. This measure was explained as being only temporary while there was a “period of great unease about Russia.” The drape was subsequently altered and removed.

At approximately the same time, a controversy flared up over the work of Orozco’s countryman, Diego Rivera. In 1922 he had been commissioned by Edsel Ford to paint a mural in Detroit called The Age of Steel. In 1952, Eugene I. van Antwerp, the former mayor of the City, argued that the work contained a good deal of blatant communist propaganda, and represented the city’s work force as “ugly and decadent.” The Detroit Art Commission, however, refused to yield to the immense pressure exerted by him and his followers, and permitted the large mural to stand.2

Although these examples of threatened murals were significant instances of the imposition of current political ideology on art, no case was more celebrated or controversial than the commission awarded to Anton Refregier for the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco. This instance serves as an apt and sometimes terrifying summary of the issues and fears so clearly present during the first postwar decade.

Born in Moscow in 1905, Refregier left Russia for Paris in 1920 to further his art studies. By 1923 he immigrated to the United States, and in 1933 became a naturalized citizen. In America he, along with other writers and artists, became associated with left-wing causes, especially during the Depression years. Along with his Russian heritage these alliances caused various groups to label him a communist supporter. Refregier was reputed to be one of the country’s best mural painters. In 1941 he entered a national competition for a mural to depict the history of California in the Rincon Annex Post Office. Sponsored by the Federal Section of Fine Arts, 82 leading artists completed, with the final prize of $26,000 being awarded to Refregier. The commission required that the artist must

relate to the people in contemporary idiom the history of their own experience, not as pageant, but as the growth of the city, a struggle of men against nature, and later on, the development of various inner tensions.

Refregier began work on the 240-foot mural late in 1941, but was interrupted by the war; the work was not completed until 1949. During this time there were 91 official conferences and inspections by officers of the Public Building Administration, a stipulation of the contract. In final form, the work consisted of 27 panels showing aspects of California history; the titles are as follows: A California Indian Creates; Indians by the Golden Gate; Sir Francis Drake; Conquistadores Discover the Pacific; Monks Building the Missions; Preaching and Farming at Mission Dolores; Fort Ross—Russian Trade Post; Hardships of the Emigrant Trail; An Early Newspaper Office; Raising the Bear Flag; Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill; Miners Panning Gold; Arrival by Ship; Torchlight Parade; Pioneers Receiving Mail; Building the Railroad; Vigilante Days; Civil War Issues; Chinese Riots; San Francisco as a Cultural Center; Earthquake and Fire of 1906; Reconstruction After the Fire; The Mooney Case; The Waterfront—1934; Building the Golden Gate Bridge; Shipyards during the War; War and Peace.

The panels were criticized for a variety of reasons. The last panel showing the birth of the United Nations, for example, included the founding fathers signing the declaration and establishing the peace-keeping organization. When submitted for approval, the government disapproved of the sketch because of the “undignified way” in which Roosevelt had been drawn. Refregier explained that he purposely selected a portrait of Roosevelt after the Yalta meetings, already aged and ill. The government saw this as a slanderous portrait and censored it.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars lodged protests over the section showing the waterfront strike of 1934. Refregier had painted the scene vividly, relying on accounts of the strike as well as on newspaper pictures, in order, he said, to gain greater historical accuracy. The V.F.W. and the Hearst newspapers objected to one figure in the scene who quite obviously wore a hat belonging to the V.F.W. organization. The V.F.W. insisted no member of their organization was involved in the strike, and that the artist’s inclusion of the hat implied that the organization supported the strike. The newspaper pictures Refregier relied upon, when presented to the V.F.W., clearly showed a member of their organization present in at least one photograph. But the federal authorities, under strong pressure, demanded the removal of the hat, which was painted out. Refregier was again forced to alter his designs in the section Torchlight Parade, depicting the winning of the 8-hour workday. In celebration of the event, Refregier included a figure holding up a sign which read “Ship Caulkers Union Won an 8-hour Day in 1865.” The American Legion and the Sailors’ Union protested vigorously, and verbally abused the artist while working on the section. Pickets were organized around this section in an attempt to physically prevent its completion. Refregier was forced to overpaint the sign.

Other arguments developed over the mural. In the panel depicting the establishment of the Spanish missions, protests arose about priests who, it was claimed, were represented as too fat and undignified. Refregier was forced to slenderize these figures. Objections were also raised about the portrayal of Francis Drake in armor. It was alleged that the painting, as a result of this detail, implied that war and aggressiveness played a large part in the history of the state. The inclusion of a child in a newspaper office was interpreted as signifying the use of child labor. Disapproval was voiced over the use of a British flag in the Four Freedoms painting, a hammer and sickle in the United Nations panel, and even the inclusion of a red tie on one of the figures in the same section.

Finally, groups such as the American Legion, the V.F.W., the D.A.R., Associated Farmers, the Young Democrats of San Francisco, the Sailors’ Union, and the Society of Western Artists called for the destruction of the entire work. The American Legion and the V.F.W. declared the work “subversive and definitely designed to spread Communistic propaganda.” Others claimed in addition to the communist associations, that the work depicted California history in a distorted and abhorrent style.

Some prestigious members of Congress joined in the criticism. Richard Nixon, then a representative from California, wrote a letter concerning not only the Refregier murals, but the subject of “questionable” art in general. Dated July 18, 1949, the letter was addressed to C. E. Plant, a past commissioner of an American Legion post in California:

I wish to thank you for your letter as to whether anything can be done about the removal of Communist art in your Federal Building [the Rincon Annex Post Office] . . . I realize that some objectionable art, of a subversive nature, has been allowed to go into federal buildings in many parts of the country ... At such a time as we may have a change in the Administration and in the majority of Congress, I believe a committee should make a thorough investigation of this type of art in government buildings with the view to obtaining removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.3

The most outspoken critic was Representative Hubert Scudder of California, who emphatically supported destruction of the murals. He claimed that the artist was known to be associated with 23 well-known communists, and condemned the mural because it was “artistically offensive and historically inaccurate . . . and cast a derogatory and improper reflection on the character of the pioneers and history of the great state of California.” He also mentioned that the figures were “cadaverous, soulless pioneers,” involved in “sadistic scenes of riots, earthquakes, and strikes.”

On March 5, 1953, Scudder introduced into Congress a joint resolution (JR 211) directing “the Administrator of General Services to remove the mural paintings from the lobby of the Rincon Annex Post Office Building in San Francisco.” As was pointed out to Scudder even before submitting the resolution, the removal of the murals would have insured their destruction.

Support for Scudder’s bill came from a number of local and national conservative groups, as well as right-wing newspapers. Particularly emphatic in their desire to have the works destroyed were editorials in the San Francisco Argonaut, a newspaper Scudder later admitted was influential in his campaign.

An extraordinary number of responses—perhaps the most conclusive and unified of the decade—originated from private groups and societies to defeat the measure. One list of citizens opposing the resolution consisted of over 300 artists, historians, and representatives from museums, universities, and cultural groups. Among professional institutions opposing the resolution were the three major San Francisco museums, The Museum of Modern Art in. New York, the American Federation of Arts, and Artists’ Equity. Foreign art journals and the London Times published protests; one German art journal said that “In a country which on paper—has the best constitution in the world, today it is becoming difficult to live, to think, and to act according to that constitution.” The noted scientist Julian Huxley wrote to the artist:

I am much distressed about the Bill introduced by Congressman Scudder to authorize the removal of your murals in the Rincon Annex Post Office. This seems to me a highly injurious proposal. It is injurious because it would mean the destruction of what, to judge from my recollection of your sketches and from reproductions of the finished murals, is a remarkable work of art, and an outstanding example of the growing tendency in your country to try to exert political control over freedom of thought and expression, and to impair the liberty of the creative artist . . . The lamentable state of biology and philosophy in the U.S.S.R. shows what happens when creative thought and expression is subjected to control on political or ideological grounds. It is most unfortunate that, just when the free world )s protesting against this form of tyranny in the Iron Curtain countries, actions like that of Republican Scudder are trying to introduce a similar tyranny in your great country.

Scudder’s resolution was given to the Committee on Public Works, chaired by Dondero, for hearings. On May 1, 1953, the entire history of the mural was reviewed by Scudder before a subcommittee; each major point of criticism, along with documents and witnesses, was presented. The decision on whether there was enough evidence to warrant the murals’ destruction could not be reached, and the resolution was shelved. The saving of Refregier’s murals represented the most important defeat of the attempt by certain government individuals to control public artistic endeavors.



1. The question of whether the owner of a mural decoration has the right to destroy a completed work is an important one, and was the subject of a famous court case in 1949 (Crimi v. Rutgers Presbyterian Church, 89 N. Y. S. 2d. 813, 194 Misc. 570, 19491. The case developed when Alfred Crimi sued the New York church over an unauthorized alteration of his fresco, painted earlier in 1937. The New York Supreme Court ruled against the artist, and expressed the opinion that any artist relinquishes his rights as soon as the work has been sold. The New York Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions strongly objected to this ruling in a letter published in American Artist (May, 1952, p. 71):

We artists believe that at the completion and after payment for monumental works of art, such works of art become the property of the people and that neither the government nor any private individual has the right to censor or destroy.

However, according to Barnett’s Hollander’s The International Law of Art for Lawyers, Collectors, and Artists (London, 1959, p. 711: "The lass protects the right of the artist to the integrity of his work. No change can be made without his consent, whether by substitution, or addition such as covering nudity.

2. It might be recalled that in 1933, Rivera’s mural in Rockefeller Center. commissioned by john D. Rockefeller, Ir., was destroyed because it had included a large portrait of Lenin.

3. Quoted in G. Sherman, “Dick Nixon: Art Commissar,” Nation, January 10, 1953, p. 21. This seems to be in direct contradiction to Nixon’s opinions when Vice-President. In 1955 Victor Arnautoff (the same artist who had been one of the judges in the commission awarded to Refregier) was forced to remove a lithograph of Nixon called “Dick McSmear” from an Art Festival in San Francisco. Nixon wired the. Art Commission for the city that the artist has “the right to express a contrary opinion” and that “the people should not be denied full opportunity to hear or see his expression of that opinion.” See Art News, October, 1955, p. 7.