During the early 1930’s the United States was amidst the abyss of the Great Depression and right on into the early stages of World War II, unprecedented support from the Federal government was allocated to the world of the arts. For eleven years, between 1933 and 1943, artists, actors, writers, musicians, dancers and photographers were employed through federal tax dollars. Never before in the history of our great nation had the United States government been such an advocate and a sponsor of the arts. The recently inaugurated president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was at the head of this great undertaking and it was obvious that during his first one-hundred days of the New Deal he felt the urgency to put Americans back to work.
By the end of 1932, almost thirteen million Americans were out of work and the soup lines and homelessness were a direct result. Artists from al fields were not immune to the effects the Great Depression had placed upon society. The inability to procure the necessary material with which to work would immediately force the painter, the writer, the musician, and the actor into a world of joblessness. Through the New Deal Roosevelt had put into action, arts projects provided work for these unemployed artists. The scope of this New Deal for the arts would go even farther concentrating itself somewhat on the promotion of American art and culture. Through this President Roosevelt hoped to give more Americans access to what he described as “an abundant life.” For many Americans the projects enabled them to see an original painting for the first time, attend their first professional theater, or take their first music or drawing class.
As with all plans or projects one must expect that along with the positive aspects there will surface some negative. From the beginning there did exist some controversy concerning the arts projects. Believing them to be wasteful propaganda some politicians wanted them ended while others wanted them expanded. This controversy, along with issues associated with the United States’ entry in World War II would eventually end the projects. But much of what was accomplished during those eleven years still exists for our learning experience and enjoyment.
Embedded within much New Deal art was the aspect of Artistic Nationalism. Many forms in which things American existed had an interest taken in them. State and Regional histories were produced by writers, daily life during the Depression was documented by photographers, American heroes came out of the woodwork as playwrights created play upon play, and scenes representing local history were painted by muralists. Celebrating the country’s past and its character promoted a sense of national identity during difficult times and produced art that people could easily understand and appreciate. At the same time New Deal art could go further than just entertainment. It could also touch upon some deeper issues of the American character and identity.
Within the realm of the visual arts it is brought to the attention that the federal arts projects came about around the same time as a movement known as the “American Scene”. This movement was interested in producing pieces that reflected regional and small-town life producing views of local color and such important ideals such as community, democracy, and hard work. It can be observed that the American Scene soon became the, so to speak, unofficial style of the projects. This was especially interesting considering that the arts projects did not force any artist to work in one style.
Most American Scene paintings were idealized portrayals of small town life, but some depicted urban scenes. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) discouraged art that was abstract, controversial, or swayed by foreign influences. Edward Rowan, who was an Assistant Director of the project, argued that while government artists should be given “the utmost freedom of expression,” the PWAP should “check up very carefully on the subject matter of each project. Many Native American artists gained employment through the WPA Arts Project. Several post office murals were done by Native American artists or used Native American themes. To aid in this cause the Interior Department created the Indian Arts and Crafts Board in 1935, which did promote the further development of markets for Native American arts and crafts through the advent of craft cooperatives and even set standards for the art that would be sold among them.
A very important department within the WPA was the FSA(Farms Security Administration) which enabled New Deal photographers to skillfully record the American scene in great detail. Not only were poverty and the hard times of the Great Depression captured on film, but the day to day occurrences which would shape American life during this period of what some consider to be a dark part of United States history. These photographers would help future generations to delve into the complex changes that di occur during the thirties and forties.
In a time of change and adversity, Americans looked to their history for examples of individuals who had triumphed over hardship or who had promoted social reform against great odds. Their stories became the subject of several federal theater and dance productions as well as paintings and murals. Battle Hymn, a drama set in the years before the Civil War, described John Brown’s transformation from Christian pacifist to “violent zealot and abolitionist martyr.” The play depicts Brown as a man forced to choose violence in order to make necessary changes in society. Authors Michael Gold and Michael Blankfort believed that in this historical work they had discovered a native revolutionary tradition that would provide contemporary parallels for those looking for change in 1930’s America.
In looking at yet another painting WPA artist Mitchell Siporin chose to memorialize a more contemporary heroine, humanitarian and social reformer Jane Addams. Shown among the poor women and children, Addams support of labor is depicted by a worker and farmer shaking hands. To symbolize Addams as head of the Women’s Peace Party a soldier breaks a sword also noting her accomplishments as the first American female Nobel Peace Prize winner. The artists were really beginning to portray the Depression as it was and to whom people were looking to for support and consolation.
The lives and struggles of ordinary folk are what Americans focused on during the economic crisis of the 1930’s. It then seem logical that much of the art produced during the Depression would reflect the preoccupation with the people. A recurring theme was the strength and dignity of common men and women, even as they faced difficult circumstances. Oral interviewing by folklorists and writers to write work histories was used to integrate into broader state and local histories. Depictions of daily routines was the subject matter for many painters, printmakers, sculptors, and even photographers.
Routine events that took place during the course of the day such as waiting for a train or watching workers from a city window were what the artists began to immortalize on canvas, in print, in clay, and in photographs. Although simple and maybe boring it was their belief that such things were the true essence of American life in the twentieth century. It was the working artist’s belief that it was their calling to capture these images preserving them in infamy. To obtain a clearer view of this we can observe two works by a couple of Depression time artists.
First, The Riveter, work of Ben Shahn, gives us some insight about the skills of a variety of industrial and agricultural workers. The theme which Shahn wished to portray was that human beings and their talents were as important to preserve as natural resources such as soil and water. Second, the “El” shortened for elevated railway was a common means of intrurban transportation. Many prints, paintings, or photographs contained “El stations” as a setting used by New Deal artists. In Jack Markow’s lithograph one can see and almost feel of the quitness on a Sunday morning at a rail station along some portion of the “El”.
At this same time, the number of workers employed by the Writers’ and Music Projects allowed folklorists and students of folk music to undertake large and comprehensive projects. Writers’ Project workers interviewed members of ethnic groups and working people about their lives and work. They talked with former slaves and collected work and life histories of Jewish garment workers, Connecticut clock makers, Chicago steelworkers, and Arizona copper miners. They preserved Native American legends, Spanish American games, and the “tall tales” of Montana’s copper camps. Likewise, Music Project and Resettlement Administration field workers drove across the country with their portable equipment, recording and transcribing work songs, folk ballads, spirituals, and other music from diverse ethnic traditions. Project workers hoped these interviews and recordings would eventually lead to publications, but most remain unpublished. This raw material, however, has provided a rich resource for a variety of novelists, folklorists, and historians.
The Federal Dance Project frequently looked to folk music for inspiration. The ballet Frankie and Johnny was inspired by the blues song of the same name and told the story of love, betrayal, and murder. American Pattern described the difficult choices faced by a modern woman dissatisfied with her conventional life. Both programs sought to appeal to audiences unfamiliar with classical ballet. A groundbreaking work of oral history, These Are Our Lives included the stories of black and white tenant farmers, sharecroppers, mill workers, vagrants, and peddlers. But these sketches of southerners were not limited to work histories. Interviewees discussed family life, education, politics, religion, medicine, and leisure time as well.
The New Deal’s liberal agenda was widely supported by the New Deal artists in gratitude to Roosevelt for providing them with work. Their art was a direct reflection of the progress made under Roosevelt and promoted the President and his programs. It showed the nation what America had gained through the New Deal by contrasting them with the misery and poverty of earlier years. This was very popular with the politicians and bureaucrats that supported the New Deal achievements, opponents of FDR saw it as propaganda.
New Dealers boasted their policies and programs through a variety of media. They also used exhibits in federal buildings, expositions, and world fairs as public relations tools. Works produced by the arts projects could be an extension of these kinds of public relations techniques. The most obvious example was the WPA logo and name. The red, white, and blue Works Progress Administration logo was one of the most familiar symbols of the New Deal. It appeared on WPA artwork, on Federal Theatre Project playbills, and at music and dance performances. Its initials were sometimes said to stand for “Work Pays America”.
Artists began to focus much of their work on the social benefits of the government programs FDR developed, especially those that assisted the impoverished and unemployed. Under the New Deal, the federal government grew at an unprecedented rate, and political power shifted away from the states to Washington, D.C. New Dealers formed many agencies that reformed everything from the banking system to building dams, to employing millions in public works projects. Now, in addition to the WPA, a list of new agencies would begin to form somewhat of an alphabet soup with the emergence of the AAA, CCC, NLRB, REA, and the NRPB.
Of these many agencies the artists seemed to favor one over the rest, the Civilian Conservation Corps. We get a good example of the CCC theme through the works of Albert Bender, Wilfred J. Mead, and Tom Rost, Jr. Posters for recruitment, drawings to depict life in the camps, and photographs that romanticize service with the CCC. Sometimes , as in the poster by Bender and in the photograph by Mead they praised the benefits of CCC discipline, food, medical care, and education.
Beginning in the 1930’s, parts of the united States experienced a severe drought that brought huge dust storms to parts of the Midwest and southern plains. Many farmers were financially destroyed. To confront the rural poverty that had grown out of the Depression and the dust storms, New Dealers created the Resettlement Administration in 1935. Providing impoverished farmers with equipment, low cost loans, and education about soil conservation the RA proved to be useful to many that suffered losses due to the drought. Artist Ben Shahn contrasts an image of an impoverished pre-New Dealer farmer trapped by years of drought with a listing of the Resettlement Administration’s bold actions.