Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rockwell and Socialist Realism Exhibit -- an Update

--Norman Rockwell's "Russian classroom" from

For years I have been working, with an admirable Russian partner and with much (regrettably non-financial) encouragement, from knowledgeable persons interested in Russian-American cultural relations, on trying to organize an exhibit comparing Norman Rockwell to the Socialist Realists. Such an exhibit would illustrate (and of course could be expanded to cover) two wider themes, here presented as questions rather than declarations: (a) how the U.S. and USSR -- on the periphery of the so-called "European world" at the beginning of the previous century -- used images as instruments of persuasion in an effort to assure -- after WWI (when the "European world" fell to pieces) and especially after WWII (when the "European world," which some of its racist extremists defined as "white," committed its final act of self-destruction) -- that these geographical entities (the USA and the Soviet Union) would, in their own, "conflicting" ideological ways, define (to use one of today's an overly fashionable word), the world's "narrative," given the sunset of European empires.

Above US Image from

Above USSR Image from

(b) Even more generally and importantly, a Rockwell/Socialist Realism show would explore the historically tense relationship between art and propaganda, which of course goes back to Plato.

Given my interest in these issues, I found the images (which I posted on my most recent Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review as found on the indispensable Boing Boing) -- Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943, as described by -- fascinating: "These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. The photographs are the property of the Library of Congress and were included in a 2006 exhibit Bound for Glory: America in Color."

The Office of War Information, incidentally, was the US propaganda agency during World War II, responsible for both domestic and international "information." The Voice of America, founded in 1942, was under the OWI "umbrella."

The "captured America" images brought back fond memories of Leah Bendavid Val's superlative, ground-breaking exhibit, Progaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US,

which in a minor way I assisted in bringing, as the American Cultural Affairs Officer at the American Embassy in Moscow, at the beginning of this century as part of the mission's public diplomacy outreach.

The exhibit, thanks to its brilliant curator and the Embassy's Russian partners from the Ministry of Culture (not to speak of Russian employees at the US Moscow Embassy), was an enormous success in the four Russian cities where it was shown -- in part because it "humanized" the Russian-American relationship by showing what Russians and Americans, in their different ways, "went through" during an important historical period.

When I tried to get funding for the show from the State Department "Democracy Commission" budget, my request was turned down by headquarters bureaucrats, because the exhibit had, I was informed, nothing to do with democracy-building.

So I, shamelessly, knocked at the private sector door -- Russian and American -- and got enough money to have the exhibit (Russian business persons could not understand how the "world's richest nation" had to beg for money for an exhibit). The corporate sponsors are too numerous to be mentioned here (Delta Airlines does need special mention: it airlifted the exhibit free of charge). We even had "Propaganda and Dreams" T-shirts, with a Russian photo (with a Cyrillic-alphabet caption) on one side and an American one (with Latin-alphabet caption) on the other.

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