Memo: President Nixon was no fan of Modern art


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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