An activist, left-wing group organized during the Depression to promote artists' interests and to combat war, repression, and fascism. Founded early in 1936, it quickly found widespread support for its agenda but rapidly expired during the early years of World War II. Because the association took no formal position on aesthetic questions, it attracted an eclectic membership. However, reflecting the 1930s' prevailing interests in social realism and other manifestations of the American Scene movement, representational artists predominated. Nevertheless, the organization's leading light was Stuart Davis, who headed the organization for several years and assiduously promoted its causes. In the spring of 1935, Davis and about twenty other artists initiated a series of planning meetings aimed at forming an artists' congress. That summer the emergence of the Popular Front lent impetus to the effort, as the international Communist Party abandoned its longstanding aim of worldwide revolution in favor of banding together with democratic forces to prevent the spread of German and Japanese militarism. Artists of varied political allegiances could agree on the advisability of unifying to oppose war and fascism. In addition, collective action attracted artists who were then both economically vulnerable and concerned about repression from the right, in the wake of several incidents of censorship.
About four hundred people attended the first congress in February 1936 and adopted bylaws that called for solidarity among artists, permanent government financing for art, support for freedom of expression, and opposition to war. There was widespread agreement within the Congress that the art community should operate as a progressive cultural force by reaching out to the American public. Within a year the organization had chapters in several cities and political clout in Washington, where it campaigned for matters of interest to its constituency. During the later 1930s it sponsored about twenty exhibitions in New York and some elsewhere, organized symposia, defended artists under attack, and published books. By the end of the decade, opponents increasingly accused the Congress of functioning as a Communist front. Additionally, events in Russia between 1936 and 1939 had the effect of undermining the organization. As Stalin purged the party hierarchy in a series of show trials, outlawed modernism in art, signed a nonaggression treaty with Hitler, and invaded Finland, he destroyed the unity of the American left and undercut any political effort that could be accused of ties to Moscow. By 1940, the Congress was in disarray, and in 1942 it sputtered to an end. By then, a group of Congress dissenters, led by Meyer Schapiro, had formed the nonpolitical Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors to support artists' issues.