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During a Crisis, Is Art Just a Luxury?

What the New Deal Has to Teach Us About the Importance of Supporting the Arts

Article by Jody Patternson for ARTnews

April 20, 2020

Georgette Seabrooke working On Her WPA Federal Art Project mural, Recreation In Harlem, for the Nurses' Recreation Room in Harlem Hospital.


Jody Patterson is the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Chair of Art History at the Ohio State University and author of Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics, and Public Murals in 1930s New York.

What role, if any, do art and artists play during times of crisis? For many, the question itself might seem malapropos. Americans, like their counterparts around the world, are focusing their energies and directing resources toward surviving a global pandemic. As the death tolls continue to climb, financial markets plummet, and unemployment figures soar, it’s clear that considerable personal and political sacrifice are now required. In such calamitous circumstances, then, some might argue that art is a dispensable luxury. Rather than debate this topic rhetorically, it is instructive to look back at one clear case study: the tumultuous decade of the Great Depression, a historical moment when the United States and its institutions were sorely tested by adversity, uncertainty, and fear.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933 when the Depression was at its peak and its effects at their most severe. Since the stock market crash in 1929, unemployment had increased from 4 percent to 25 percent and real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita fell by approximately 30 percent. Rejecting the laissez-faire approach of his predecessor Herbert Hoover, FDR and his New Deal administration immediately set about enacting a series of regulatory and relief measures to alleviate the plight of Americans, in particular those who were ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished, about a third of the country’s population.

A key facet of the president’s efforts to restore faith in the government’s fundamental role to provide economic opportunity, employment, and decent living conditions was art. For Roosevelt, it was not superfluous to the country’s most exigent needs. And in a move that remained decidedly controversial with his conservative congressional adversaries, he made the radical decision to enlarge and augment cultural provisions across the country.

In December 1933 the New Deal administration inaugurated the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of its federally funded cultural programs. The PWAP was short-lived, lasting only a few months through the spring of 1934, but was followed in 1935 by the better-known Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP). The FAP, focusing on the visual arts, was the largest of five projects under the umbrella of Federal One, which included programs for music, theater, and writing, as well as the Historical Records Survey.

Unlike other New Deal cultural initiatives—namely the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture and the Treasury Relief Art Project where commissions were awarded for the embellishment of federal buildings through competitions seeking “quality” designs by a skilled cadre of artists such as Ben Shahn—the FAP was a means-tested relief program, providing paid work for as many as 10,000 artists regardless of perceived talent or stature in the arts. Those employed on its payrolls engaged a diversity of media, including painting, sculpture, and graphic design.

Artists hired by the FAP were encouraged to take some aspect of the contemporary American scene as their subject. Only nudes or overt political propaganda were prohibited, and the Artists’ Union, established in 1934, worked tirelessly—though not always successfully—to preserve the right to freedom of expression. While the majority of artworks were created in realist styles, the project also employed artists who experimented with Cubism, Surrealism, and variants of abstraction, including modernists Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and Lee Krasner. The finished artworks were then placed in government-approved locations such as schools, libraries, and hospitals in as far-reaching places as Portland, Maine; Statesboro, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Washakie, Wyoming.

Under the national direction of Holger Cahill, a progressive curator and arts administrator, the FAP also oversaw a mural division. Like the nearly 100 community art centers established around the country, public murals delivered art from the exclusivity of the private market and the elitism of the art museum by bringing art to a broader public in spaces that were more easily accessible. Cahill adopted the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey to enfranchise and empower ordinary Americans by making culture a shared community asset, especially in historically underserved areas such as Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, where the establishment of art centers enabled African Americans to participate in a New Deal cultural renaissance.

Millions of poverty-stricken African Americans benefitted from the relief measures of the WPA and for the first time in history black voters put their support behind the Democratic Party. Although the President did not count wide-ranging civil rights legislation among his achievements as he was forced to compromise with Southern Democrats in order to pursue his reform agenda, the FAP provided unprecedented opportunities for African Americans to cultivate a vibrant and collective cultural resource. The activities of the Harlem Community Art Center alone saw tens of thousands of people enjoy free art exhibitions, while instruction in drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and design was available in classes led by such widely respected artists as Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, and Jacob Lawrence.

If the commercialization of art was accompanied by its dislocation in galleries, museums, and private homes, resulting in what Cahill saw as “aesthetic fragments torn from their social background,” then the FAP sought a more inclusive understanding and appreciation of culture by endeavoring to integrate art with everyday experience. Many Americans encountered their first original artworks, received their first art instruction, listened to their first concerts, and attended their first theater performances under the auspices of government-sponsored cultural projects.

And even as the mounting menace of fascism abroad, combined with the rising fear of domestic communism, posed a formidable challenge to democracy by 1939, Roosevelt doubled down on his commitment to public culture as central to life in the United States. In a radio address delivered that May—months before the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and Hitler’s invasion of Poland—Roosevelt insisted that support for democracy and for the arts are one and the same. By encouraging the creation and enjoyment of artistic culture, democracy itself was strengthened.

Like other ambitious New Deal programs, the arts projects, however, were not immune from funding cuts, layoffs, and the threat of closure. The FAP hired artists possessing widely differing levels of experience onto its rolls, leaving the project especially vulnerable to patrician criticisms over aesthetic merit—or, more pointedly, lack thereof—and it was regularly denounced as a particularly wasteful instance of New Deal “boondoggling.”

Though artists continued to lobby for a permanent program of federal support for the arts well into the 1940s, the FAP was repurposed to serve the needs of the state after the U.S.’s entry into World War II. The activities of the project concluded in 1943, by which time some 2,566 murals, 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 paintings, and 240,000 prints had been created in a remarkable catholicity of styles and techniques befitting a democracy. Notwithstanding the project’s remarkable achievements, the FAP was always an ad-hoc initiative whose full promise and potential remained unrealized.

Historical assessments of the New Deal began to emerge during the Cold War era, when the social credentials of art were widely associated with a wholly discredited Soviet (read: Stalinist) culture. As the United States assumed the mantle of global hegemony across political, economic, and military fronts, many establishment ideologues responded to the McCarthyist furor by recoiling from the now-repugnant pinkish collectivism of the New Deal era, opting instead to celebrate the virtues of exceptionalism and the triumph of individualism.

The art market, too, recovered, and the renewed emphasis on art as a private commodity produced by and for a select few was retrenched. Today, many still believe that to be the case. But nearly a century after FDR included culture as a hallmark of democracy, that aim of radical inclusivity and accessibility—in which art benefits more people, rather than fewer—should not be the distant vision of a past generation. Instead, it should provide inspiration for how we might adapt the arts once the new challenge of the coronavirus pandemic is overcome. Those ideals can still be attainable in our own time.

Article by Jody Patterson for ARTnews


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