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Memo: President Nixon was no fan of Modern art

January 12, 2010 | 10:44 am

Nixon 2 On Jan. 26, 1970, days after delivering the State of the Union address and just weeks before announcing the incursion of U.S. troops into Cambodia that led to nationwide student strikes, President Richard M. Nixon sent a memo to H.R. "Bob" Haldeman on the subject of Modern art.

"Decadent" was the operative adjective he used, and he wanted something done about it.

On Monday, the National Archives and the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda released 280,000 pages of previously unseen documents, together with 12 hours of sound recordings and 7,000 images from the personal collection of White House photographer Oliver F. Atkins. The Modern art memo consists of six paragraphs that show how Nixon wanted the federal government to discourage cultural activities that he believed his political supporters had no interest in.

"As you, of course, know," Nixon said to Haldeman in the memo, " those who are on the modern art and music kick are 95 percent against us anyway. I refer to the recent addicts of Leonard Bernstein and the whole New York crowd."

The memo begins with a reference to several unnamed people in Philadelphia who had expressed concern that the National Endowment for the Arts meant "to support those activities in the cultural field which were 'novel' and broke new ground rather than to put any significant emphasis on the more traditional activities. This is completely contrary to my views."

Nixon went on to describe Modern art as something "the Kennedy-Shriver crowd believed in." By contrast, he had no intention of having "40 million dollars scattered all over the country in projects of this type."

The president also ordered the "cleaning out" of U.S. embassies around the world that displayed Modern paintings. The embassies, Nixon said, "were loaned some of these little uglies from the Museum of Modern Art in New York."

Nixon insisted that the changes be made quietly, so that stories would not "hit the newspapers and stir up all the troops." He got his wish for just shy of 40 years.

Read the entire document here.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: The Nixon family enjoying theater at home. Credit: Associated Press / National Archives / Oliver Atkins

Comments () | Archives (6)

Interesting he cared enough about art to hate it. Can't imagine Bush even bothering.

Look at that photo. Nixon was a puppet master, pulling all the strings and putting on his show.

yeah the puppet looks like his wife ... It worked!

I guess that rules out postmodern as well.

Adolf Hitler hated Modern Art as well.

Nixon used the word "decadent" in his memo to place Modern art in the worst possible light. He saw it as appealing to those who are self-indulgent and prone to excess.

The irony here is that Nixon did not realize there is a secondary, lesser known definition of the word “decadent.” According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, when used as a noun rather than as an adjective, a “decadent” is “1: one of a group of late 19th century French and English writers tending toward artificial and unconventional subjects and subtilized style OR 2: one that is decadent.”

Several months ago, I described good criticism as decadent thought. If I understood the second definition correctly, my description of criticism was correct. Modern artists (like the Modern writers described above) use a decadent or “subtilized style,” which tends toward abstraction and subtlety rather than realism in the expression of their ideas. There is nothing self-indulgent or rotten about being “decadent” under this definition of the term, because it means to think (or write) in a subtle, sagatious and discerning way.

Good criticism teaches people to think with a keen or sharp sense of perception, and it opens up discussion and debate among people who want to learn more about art, its history, and its cultural significance. It may even inspire a person to look @art and @life in a way she had not previously considered.

Mr. Nixon’s memo indicates that he and his writing were obtuse, while Mr. Knight’s criticism here is on the art of the abstract. This question may be abstruse, but isn’t all writing a form of abstract expressionism?


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