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Democratic Art: The New Deal's Influence on American Culture

Democratic Art: The New Deal's Influence on American Culture

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Democratic Art: The New Deal's Influence on American Culture

485 pages
6 heures
May 4, 2015


Throughout the Great Recession American artists and public art endowments have had to fight for government support to keep themselves afloat. It wasn’t always this way. At its height in 1935, the New Deal devoted $27 million—roughly $461 million today—to supporting tens of thousands of needy artists, who used that support to create more than 100,000 works. Why did the government become so involved with these artists, and why weren’t these projects considered a frivolous waste of funds, as surely many would be today?

In Democratic Art, Sharon Musher explores these questions and uses them as a springboard for an examination of the role art can and should play in contemporary society. Drawing on close readings of government-funded architecture, murals, plays, writing, and photographs, Democratic Art examines the New Deal’s diverse cultural initiatives and outlines five perspectives on art that were prominent at the time: art as grandeur, enrichment, weapon, experience, and subversion. Musher argues that those engaged in New Deal art were part of an explicitly cultural agenda that sought not just to create art but to democratize and Americanize it as well. By tracing a range of aesthetic visions that flourished during the 1930s, this highly original book outlines the successes, shortcomings, and lessons of the golden age of government funding for the arts.
May 4, 2015

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Democratic Art - Sharon Ann Musher

Democratic Art

Democratic Art

The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture


The University of Chicago Press

Chicago and London

SHARON ANN MUSHER is associate professor of history at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2015 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. Published 2015.

Printed in the United States of America

24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-24718-2 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-24721-2 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226247212.001.0001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Musher, Sharon Ann, 1972– author.

Democratic art : the New Deal’s influence on American culture / Sharon Ann Musher.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-226-24718-2 (cloth : alkaline paper)—ISBN 978-0-226-24721-2 (e-book) 1. Federal aid to the arts—United States—History—20th century. 2. New Deal, 1933–1939. 3. United States. Work Projects Administration. 4. Art and state. I. Title.

NX735.M87 2015



♾ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

For Mom


List of Illustrations


Introduction: Art as a Function of Government

1 May the Artist Live?

2 Art as Grandeur

3 Art as Enrichment

4 Art as a Weapon

5 Art as Experience

6 Art as Subversion

Conclusion: A New Deal for the Arts?






I.1 Jack Delano’s photograph of a painting class at the South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois, 1942

1.1 Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads of Life (mural in progress), May 1933

2.1 Aerial view looking down Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C., ca. 1930

2.2 Aerial view of Capitol and Federal Triangle, 1936

2.3 Esther Bubley’s photograph of Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1943

3.1 Life Planned with Justice of Tomorrow, a detail of George Biddle’s mural, Society Freed through Justice, 1936

3.2 Sweatshop, a detail of Biddle’s mural, Society Freed through Justice, 1936

3.3 Tenement, a detail of Biddle’s mural, Society Freed through Justice, 1936

3.4 Sweatshop, initial sketch of a detail of Biddle’s mural, Society Freed through Justice, 1935–1936

3.5 Victor Arnautoff, City Life (detail of right side of mural), 1934

3.6 Arnautoff, City Life (detail of left side of mural), 1934

3.7 Bernard Zakheim, The Library, 1934

3.8 John Langley Howard, California Industrial Scenes (detail of left side of mural), 1934

3.9 Howard, California Industrial Scenes (detail of right side of mural), 1934

3.10 Wendell Jones, First Pulpit in Granville, 1938

4.1 Irving Spellens’s poster design for the Federal Theatre Project’s performance of One-Third of a Nation, New York City, ca. 1937–1939

4.2 Arthur Rothstein’s photograph of the First International Photographic Exhibit, New York City, 1938

4.3 Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA, 1936

4.4 Marion Post Wolcott’s photograph of a Negro woman dipping snuff, Orange County, NC, 1939

4.5 Wolcott’s untitled photograph, taken in Ashland, MT, ca. 1935–1942

4.6 Esther Bubley’s photograph of a girl in the doorway of her room at a boardinghouse, Washington, D.C., 1939

5.1 Federal Art Project photograph of black boy with hammer, New York

5.2 Federal Art Project photograph of the Community Art Center in Oklahoma City

C.1 The Waterfront, a detail of Anton Refregier’s mural, The History of San Francisco, 1948


1 Expenditures for Art by Select Countries


Introduction: Art as a Function of Government

In 1933, at the height of the worst economic crisis in US history, advocates of state-funded art lobbied for the creation of a New Deal for artists. Rather than viewing such expenditures as an indulgence in a time of duress, these supporters argued that the government needed to intervene directly in the arts or the nation would atrophy culturally. No less than Eleanor Roosevelt took up the cause. The people as a whole. . . , she wrote, must realize that they have to shoulder greater responsibilities, if we are not going to lose many of the things which have been of great value to us in the past. Everyone will have to give something for the development of science, for the development of art in its branches.¹

In the context of our current Great Recession and the relatively mild efforts to provide government assistance to needy artists and intellectuals, the New Deal investment in the arts appears robust. In 1935, at the height of Federal One, the collective name for a group of art projects under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the federal government devoted $27 million (roughly $461 million in 2014 dollars) to sustaining the arts.² To put that figure into perspective, it represented 0.75 percent of the US gross domestic product that year. Between May 1935 and October 1937, the federal government drew on roughly 2.5 percent of the WPA’s funds for unemployed relief workers—a key component of the New Deal version of a stimulus package—to support nearly forty thousand out-of-work writers, dancers, actors, musicians, and visual artists. Paying an average of $23 per week, the WPA maintained artists who demonstrated that they held minimal credentials in their field and were financially destitute. Such government employees created hundreds of thousands of works of art—books, murals, plays, and concerts—that they performed for and showed to millions of Americans.³

In 2008, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New Deal, combined with the housing and credit crises, stimulated revived interest in the New Deal and a call for a new one.⁴ In terms of the arts, such advocates contended that government funding could enhance education and increase tourism, financial growth, and development in cities and local communities alike.⁵ But, within the context of sequestering, financial cliffs, debt ceilings, and gridlock over deficit spending and taxes, the prospect of Congress raising government funding for the arts remains remote.

Why, then, was the New Deal different? Why did many working- and middle-class people during the 1930s temporarily embrace a strong, centralized government, with broad-based public support for the arts? Why were the advocates of New Deal art able to prevail briefly over those politicians, artists, intellectuals, and critics who saw government spending on the arts as a frivolous waste of resources? In short, how did art advocates temporarily secure a New Deal for the arts, and what lessons does the past offer about government funding of the arts today?

The New Deal cultural projects marked an important juncture in America’s ambivalent stance toward the role that the state should play in cultural life. While the arts projects put a number of unemployed artists and intellectuals to work, it raised concerns about whom the government should support, what type of art it should subsidize, and whether a creative experience was a good in and of itself that warranted ongoing funding or a commodity that needed to pay for itself, if not immediately, then in the near future. By tracing the range of aesthetic visions that flourished during the 1930s and what New Deal art meant for its creators, administrators, and audiences, this work seeks to understand both the temporary flowering of government funding of the arts at the time and why its success was so fleeting.

In many respects, New Deal art projects made a huge difference in people’s lives. They provided creative young people, some of whom were destined for greatness—such as the painters Ben Shahn and Alice Neel and the novelist Richard Wright—with an artistic community, a job, teaching experience, opportunities for aesthetic exchange, and, most critically, a paycheck. Although not all artists and intellectuals embraced the New Deal art projects, many of them gratefully recalled the federal government’s patronage. When in the 1970s the renowned modernist painter Joseph Solman surveyed his former colleagues from the easel division of the Federal Art Project (FAP), he found that there was practically a unanimous verdict on the important opportunity the job gave to them.We adored the Project, all of us, recalled the writer Saul Bellow, who subsisted on WPA funds as a young man. We had never expected anyone to have any use whatsoever for us.⁷ The established sculptor and medal artist Robert Cronbach concurred. For the creative artist, he wrote, the WPA/FAP . . . was an unequaled opportunity for a serious artist to work as steadily and intensely as possible to advance the quality of his art.

These projects had dramatic consequences, too, for the public that encountered them. They fostered creative opportunities for many people who had never before experienced original works of art, plays, and concerts. More than half of the one million people who saw Federal Theater Project (FTP) plays each month had never before attended live theater. The FTP director, Hallie Flanagan, recalled a barefoot old man helping children out of an oxcart in Ohumpka, Florida, to see a government-sponsored performance of Twelfth Night. They must be pretty young to understand it, he had explained, but I want they should all be able to say [t]hey’ve seen Shakespeare—I did once, when I was a kid.

The New Deal art projects furthermore influenced the nation’s cultural development in the second half of the twentieth century. Relying heavily on social-realist iconography, the arts projects celebrated common people. But artists were not forced to conform to this style. Indeed, New Deal art fostered new techniques, styles, and ideas. The creative expressions and experimentation thus encouraged played critical roles in the development of silk-screening, color graphics, color photography, and musicals.¹⁰ When few other institutions or individuals would support abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Stuart Davis, the FAP hired them as relief workers and provided them with venues to exhibit their work.¹¹ And the arts projects also collected raw materials, such as folk music, designs, and stories, for later imaginative works. The young novelist Ralph Ellison was one of a number of writers who studied local dialects while recording the street games, rhymes, and experiences of the working class for the folklore division of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in New York. Ellison even integrated a line from an interview he conducted for the FWP into his renowned novel Invisible Man (1952): I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me.¹²

The New Deal further endeavored to democratize the arts. It created a great body of distinguished work and fostered a national aesthetic that viewers who were unaccustomed to attending museums, the theater, and concert halls found meaningful and empowering. Because New Deal art catered to lay people’s interests, it was sometimes kitsch and mediocre. It also was inherently political. Its portraits of heroic, working-class people promoted the New Deal agenda by challenging the traditional role assigned to the working class and creating images that helped working people realize their own dignity, power, and potential.¹³ Other works, such as those focused on African Americans, sought to emancipate and incorporate black Americans culturally, although decentralization and racist ideologies limited their opportunities within the art projects—as well as other relief projects.¹⁴

Fig. I.1 Painting class at the South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois, April 1942. Photograph by Jack Delano. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8d03180, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/owi2001002991/PP.

Despite all the creative works the arts projects made, collected, and allowed diverse publics to fashion and experience, they neither forged a renaissance in American art nor facilitated ongoing large-scale public patronage of the arts. Indeed, many of the works created under the auspices of the New Deal virtually disappeared after the projects’ demise. Only some of those creations have been revived in the last twenty or so years. Support for federal patronage in the aftermath of the New Deal was weak. Many artists resented projects that had grown increasingly restrictive politically and creatively. Meanwhile, lay participants who felt sufficiently committed to the arts projects to want them to continue after New Deal dollars dried up concentrated their energy and resources on fund-raising within local communities rather than lobbying government officials to maintain national funding.

The cultural pivot the arts projects facilitated in the art world was tenuous and never represented a full turning point. Like the pin of an oscillating hinge, the projects briefly opened a door, revealing a new role that the state could play in cultural life and a range of different ways that government-funded art could serve society. But the door swung closed with the demise of the art projects in the early 1940s. Of course, this closure was neither automatic nor complete. The fact that American publics did not besiege Congress with letters demanding that arts funding be restored immediately does not mean that the American public opposed it. Instead, the arts projects declined because of anxiety surrounding the politics and racial/ethnic backgrounds of those producing the art as well as the supposed concern over the form and content of the work itself. In addition, their emphasis on laypeople participating in the creative process above concerns over the marketability of government-subsidized work challenged assumptions regarding what constituted American art.

Throughout this cultural moment, five fluid and overlapping approaches toward the relationship between art and the state coalesced. New Dealers, artists, and intellectuals used government-funded art to inspire (art as grandeur), enrich (art as enrichment), promote social and political ideas (art as a weapon), and encourage healthy and productive activities (art as experience). From the earliest days of the New Deal cultural efforts, critics of government funding of the arts accused the art projects of boondoggling, promoting radical ideology, and encouraging mediocrity (art as subversion). Each of these divergent visions of publicly funded art—as well as the political contestations over them—illustrates the complex forces shaping publicly funded art in the United States even in its golden age.

The actions of political leaders and rank-and-file artists within the economic, political, and cultural milieu of the Great Depression influenced the emergence of the New Deal cultural projects. Economically, a new emphasis on how to restore the nation to financial viability, preserve capitalism and democracy, and maintain the skills of laborers enabled the federal government briefly to play a substantially more significant role in the arts than it had before and than it would again. Culturally, new ideas emerged regarding taxpayers’ responsibility to support the arts, to keep the United States culturally competitive, to foster meaningful creative opportunities for US citizens, and to avert both radicalism and fascism. Contemporaries also contended that government funding of the arts could aid in the creation of a (or, as the case may be, multiple) national aesthetics.

Art as grandeur, the aesthetic vision dominated by classically trained artists, architects, and urban planners such as Charles Moore and John Russell Pope, monopolized public art from the late eighteenth century into the early 1930s. Such cultural enthusiasts imagined public art as inspiring citizens through the creation of grand and monumental art and architecture by a small cadre of classically trained artists. The Great Depression and New Deal, however, shifted both public and professional sentiment away from this approach and, instead, toward art as enrichment. According to this vision, a more diverse and larger pool of state-funded artists, including Edward Bruce and George Biddle, sought to enlighten and educate the populace from the bottom up with homespun themes. Art as a weapon focuses on a more explicitly political group of artists and art administrators, including Hallie Flanagan and Roy Stryker, who aimed to use their art as a lever for social change. Perhaps most revolutionary was the band of art enthusiasts, such as Holger Cahill and Constance Rourke, who advocated, to use John Dewey’s term, art as experience. This cohort hoped to make art part of everyday life by advocating community-based art that democratized creative pursuits.

Publicly funded art attracted a diverse array of opponents, including those who considered art subversive. Anti–New Dealers, such as Texas senator Martin Dies and Virginia representative Clifton Woodrum, attacked the art projects for wasting government funds, sheltering modernists, leftists, and foreign-born artists, and supporting leftist ideology and racially integrationist politics. Opposition also emerged from the Left, including anti-Stalinist New York intellectuals such as Clement Greenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Schapiro. By 1939, attacks on federally funded art—as well as the economy’s recovery and the nation’s turn toward World War II—shifted the creative locus from the public arena to universities, museums, and other organizations. Such privatization helped obscure the legacy of New Deal art for the next three decades.

This work builds on a vast existing literature on the arts projects and on a body of artwork whose assessment has fluctuated over time. During the 1930s, New Deal art met with wide-scale support by artists and audiences, including the educator John Dewey, the poet Archibald MacLeish, and the writer Lewis Mumford.¹⁵ But it did not find enough lay support to keep the projects afloat as World War II eclipsed the New Deal. By the time the war ended, the country’s priorities had shifted, and attacks against the politics of New Deal artists and their work in the context of the Cold War left support for them heavily attenuated. Many art historians and critics at the time emphasized the negative aspects of government funding of the arts, including its tendency to promote middlebrow work. As the art historian Jonathan Harris explained, contemporaries saw federal patronage as curtail[ing] freedoms, distort[ing] the normative relation of the modern artists to society and ma[king] individual expression and formal experimentation all but impossible.¹⁶

From the 1960s through the 1980s, and again at the beginning of the twenty-first century, scholars have worked to recover the institutional histories of individual art projects, the stories behind the artists employed by them, and the actual works of art they created. The impetus for the art projects’ initial recovery was the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities and a desire to collect the works New Deal artists created and document their experiences before both their stories and their creations disappeared.¹⁷ More recent celebrations of New Deal art, which have grown out of parallels between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, tend to reflect somewhat nostalgically on the decade’s creative endeavors, to emphasize the uniqueness of the moment, and to use the art projects to encourage increased government investment in the arts today.¹⁸ Cultural historians such as Karal Ann Marling, Lawrence Levine, and Morris Dickstein argued that 1930s mass or popular culture promoted a sense of hope, providing viewers with tools to cope with everyday life and maintain faith in their country’s ability to restore itself and the American Dream.¹⁹

Between the two revival periods in the 1960s/1970s and the early years of the twenty-first century, scholars were more ambivalent about the arts projects. Researchers associated with the New Left argued that, like New Deal policies more generally, New Deal art naturalized bourgeois values and managerial capitalism by promoting hegemonic thinking. The historian James Curtis’s argument about the government photographer Dorothea Lange’s renowned Migrant Mother illustrates this argument. Curtis contended that in framing the subjects of Migrant Mother to resemble a Madonna and child—plus two other young children on the side—Lange purposely ignored Florence Owens’s (later Thompson’s) four other children. The inclusion of her teenage daughter would, he felt, have highlighted the young age at which Owens became a mother. The incorporation of so many children would have further distanced her from white, middle-class norms. Thus, Curtis argues, Lange intentionally framed an image that would conform to national, middle-class, racial assumptions.²⁰ Endemic to critiques such as Curtis’s is a broader assessment of the shortcomings of the New Deal. They suggest that Social Security and work-relief programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the WPA shut down radical discourse and preserved hierarchical distinctions, particularly those based on gender and race.

A second body of literature, led by Michael Denning, held that, rather than subverting leftist expression, New Deal culture provided a vehicle for the flowering and dissemination of industrial unionism. Denning argued that cultural developments in music, theater, writing, film, and cartoons challenged the traditional role assigned to the working class in the age of the CIO. Instead, New Deal art made visible previously forgotten publics, created positive representations of laborers working cooperatively, and helped a newly unionized working class realize its grace, strength, and possibility.²¹

This work broadens our conception of New Deal art beyond celebratory recovery work and debates over its contributions to the Left and multiculturalism. Artists on the Left certainly did play an important role in demanding the creation of government-sponsored art projects, yet they were far from the only contributors to the New Deal cultural efforts. Like the economic policies of the New Deal, its cultural works were experimental and, at times, chaotic. No single ideology drove them forward. Instead, they incorporated an eclectic group of artists and intellectuals—including ones who vehemently disagreed with (and even, at times, detested) one another—and encouraged them to pursue diverse initiatives without a single principle uniting them. Despite their divergences, the New Deal cultural efforts can be grouped into overarching approaches. Thus, overtly political art (art as a weapon) juxtaposed art aimed to inspire (art as grandeur), enrich (art as enrichment), and encourage healthy and productive activities (art as experience). If an explicitly political group sought to use its art as a lever for social change, New Deal art also incorporated classically trained, elite artists who aspired to glorify the nation and a broader range of state-funded artists who drew on regional themes to connect viewers with their local history. In addition, a band of art enthusiasts hoped to make art part of everyday life through encouraging the democratization of creative pursuits and building community art centers across the nation.

While such approaches and those advocating them often differed broadly from one another, they were part of an explicitly cultural effort to bring art into the public consciousness and use it to shape ideas about, among other things, citizenship, politics, gender, class, and race. For a brief period, the New Deal art projects applied to cultural life the liberal creed: the idea that the government should play a central role in the nation’s development. Thus, cultural advocates sought to use the state to democratize and Americanize art, although they disagreed about what that meant and how best that might happen. Despite such disparities, they collectively sought to do something beyond restoring the economy by putting needy artists to work; they were also part of an explicitly cultural endeavor. Meanwhile, those who considered art to be subversion sought to undermine such efforts by associating public funding of the arts with waste and political radicalism.

Earlier research on New Deal art tends to concentrate on specific projects, particular locations, or genres. In contrast, this work examines not only the best-known New Deal art projects, the WPA’s means-tested Federal One, which included the FAP, the FTP, the FWP, and the Federal Music Project, but also merit-based New Deal art projects such as the mural and sculpture units associated with the Treasury Department and the photographic division connected with the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Such programs are divided into concepts on the basis of the aesthetic visions of the art administrators who ran the various projects, the cultural traditions of the artists who worked under them, and the various demands of the audiences that engaged in their efforts.

The categories examined are neither entirely new nor discrete. They have precursors in the late nineteenth-century City Beautiful movement as well as the early twentieth-century transatlantic Progressive reformers, modernists, and cultural nationalists.²² They also can overlap. For example, Flanagan and her Federal Theater appear in chapter 4, Art as a Weapon, but the plays she produced ranged from pageants to Shakespearean classics to Living Newspapers. Such works expressed aesthetics that were also consistent with the ideas of art as grandeur, art as enrichment, and art as experience. In retrospect, other groupings also could have been added to the typology, particularly art as labor, which might have placed artists on the left rather than art administrators at the center and then examined how they identified with, and attempted to organize themselves alongside, manual laborers. Nevertheless, such categories are useful as analytic tools that help map the contours of government-funded art during the 1930s. They also illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to public art from the 1930s to today.

This work frequently analyzes the creation and reception of a particular government-funded work of art, such as a building, a mural, a play, or a community art center. Some of the examples are representative of the aesthetic approach described; others were chosen because of the extensive documentation around them describing, for example, artists’ intentions, their conflicts with a range of administrators, and audiences’ perceptions of the work. In analyzing such works, certain media, such as murals or photographs, were assigned to particular categories on the basis of the aesthetic visions articulated by the art administrators who ran the various New Deal art divisions.

It can be difficult to uncover how audiences responded to specific works of art. At times, this work uses journalists’ interpretations to stand in for lay responses. When alternative sources were available, however, other measures, such as letters to the editor, exhibit response cards, and correspondence to the art administrators, were employed.

Some of the ways that art administrators, their artistic staffs/relief workers, lay people, and politicians imagined public art functioning were more contentious than others. Sometimes, artists felt that lay leaders interfered with their creative efforts. At other times, community members found government-sponsored art insulting. Such tensions—even under Roosevelt’s liberal regime—warn us that the relationship between the artistic community and taxpayers is inherently troubled. They also illustrate how a lack of consensus over who owns public art and what artists’ responsibilities to the nation are has impeded and continues to hinder government support for the arts. Although New Deal art exposes some of the key shortcomings of government funding, it also illustrates its potential. By uncovering the wide range of roles that New Dealers imagined art playing in society, this work aims to broaden how we think about the relationship between art and the state—not only in the past but also today.


May the Artist Live?

In October 1933, just seven months after FDR’s initial inauguration, Audrey McMahon, the director of the College Art Association, entitled an article she published in the association’s journal May the Artist Live?¹ McMahon had spent considerable time mulling over this question. Beginning with the stock crash in 1929, the association she directed had become the first stomping ground for indigent artists.² On the basis of her experiences, she attested that New York housed about eight thousand needy artists, and she estimated that, nationally, two or three times as many were destitute. Using McMahon’s figures and the 1930 federal census as a yardstick, somewhere between one-third and almost one-half of the country’s artists found themselves without work or a means to support themselves in the early 1930s (and this figure does not include those who might have been reluctant to identify themselves to census workers as artists).³ Although unemployment was worse in certain areas than others and such figures routinely underestimate the underemployed and underpaid, roughly one-quarter of the national population was without work. Thus, the rate of unemployment among artists was, unsurprisingly, markedly higher than in the general population. Clearly, artists were particularly hard-pressed.

McMahon’s article represented a plea to continue support for the government-subsidized experimental art project she oversaw in New York City from December 1932 until its funds ran out in August 1933. The project employed one hundred artists to decorate public buildings with murals and teach underprivileged children in settlement houses in exchange for a modest weekly stipend of $15. For a very small expenditure, she wrote,

it is possible to put the artist to work. Throughout the land are vast public buildings with glaring, hideous walls—these can be decorated and art brought to people of every community. . . . Or shall our walls remain blank, and blank the minds of our people to art, and blank of hope the lives of our artists? Shall our children, who could be taught so much, to wield a brush, to enjoy a line or love a color, learn nothing while those who could teach them starve? Shall this age be known to posterity as a dark era during which we turned all our thoughts to material fears and closed our minds to the hope and relief offered by beauty? It need not be so.

Calls by McMahon, her colleagues, and unemployed artists themselves for government investment in the arts might have fallen on deaf ears had they not developed in the context of new economic and political thinking about the role of the state in the nation’s economic and cultural development.

Artists benefited from new ideas regarding who should provide relief and what it should constitute. New Dealers—and artists and intellectuals themselves—viewed those in the art world as art workers.⁵ Although the work they produced was cultural, this cohort envisioned it as legitimately constituting labor like that produced by other workers in Great Depression America. The art projects, thus, fit into a broader government attempt to jump-start the economy and preserve the skills and morale of the unemployed able-bodied (largely, but not wholly, defined as white and male) by putting them to work.

Although the idea of work relief was central to the foundation of the art projects, new ideas about the state’s role in shaping culture were also critical. Cultural enthusiasts both on the Left and within the mainstream feared that the Great Depression put artists, private patronage, and national aesthetics more generally at risk of virtual extinction. To ward off such a fate and keep up with a growing international trend toward government subsidization of the arts and use of culture to promote overtly political ends, they argued that taxpayers needed to support the arts and to forge a democratic culture. Government-funded art had the capacity, they contended, to address the problems of leisure as well as the crisis of faith raised by the specter of mass unemployment. It could help lay audiences to live more meaningful lives, safeguard democracy, and oppose fascism. Of course, there were points of contention among those who developed and participated in the cultural projects of the New Deal about who should create government-sponsored art, the conditions under which it should be created, and how it should look, in terms of both content and style. Despite such concerns, the 1930s marked a critical—albeit short-lived—moment during which a tenuous alliance emerged between artists and the state and new ideas emerged regarding the role that government should and should not play in the arts.

What conditions and ideas drove the New Deal cultural turn? The growing gap in 1933 between the needs of artists and intellectuals and the resources available to them, coupled with key turning points, such as the Nelson Rockefeller–Diego Rivera scandal of 1933 and the formation of the Popular Front, spurred an array of leaders—within the president’s administration, within the established art world, and among rank-and-file artists and intellectuals—to imagine, demand, and create a wide range of approaches to government support of the arts. Objecting to the constraints that private patrons like Nelson Rockefeller placed on the artists they commissioned, this cohort turned, instead, to the government to provide useful and self-sustaining work for artists as it was doing for other unemployed laborers. They hoped that such public commissions would preserve their autonomy and encourage experimentation, even as they feared that it would impede them.

Two vital forces driving the development of the New Deal art projects were the crisis of the Great Depression and its impact on artists and intellectuals. The stock market crash intensified artists’ and intellectuals’ preexisting struggles by wiping out the art market. The downturn hit the pocketbooks of wealthy benefactors and reduced private patronage by individuals and corporations.⁶ Those who continued to buy works of art tended to search for good financial investments and safe, aesthetically pleasing works. The well-being of living artists was not at the forefront of their decisions.⁷ Criticizing the limited efforts of patrons to support present-day art, the artist-activist Chet La More explained: Private patronage had failed in the function it must perform to have validity as an instrument for sustaining a vital development of contemporary art.⁸ Beyond the shortcomings of individual supporters, artists could not find work outside the art world either. The Depression impaired secondary employment for artists and intellectuals, many of whom had previously made their living as teachers, graphic designers, advertisers, or menial laborers.

Within this context, artists and intellectuals found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Regardless of what talents or gifts we were favored with by the gods, complained the influential modernist painter Max Weber, in order to obtain a hearing and a return commensurate with our creative gifts, we must live in slums, lose our reason, cut off our ears and noses, and finally commit suicide if we hope for a considerable audience a half-century after our flight from this planet.⁹ The novelist Sinclair Lewis similarly lamented the absence of institutional support for young writers in his 1930 lecture accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. A true-blue professor of literature in an American university, he explained, considers literature to be something other than that which a plain human being, living today, painfully sits down to produce. No; it is something dead; it is something magically produced by super human beings who must, if they are to be regarded as artists at all, have died at least one hundred years before the diabolical invention of the typewriter.¹⁰

Musicians also suffered. The journalist I. A. Hirschman poignantly described their plight in the face of the Depression and longer-term trends, including the development of radio, records, and talking films. Hundreds of . . . street musicians, he wrote, "stroll . . . about the cities, shivering in winter, playing for pennies as best they

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