I'd like to talk today about the many different varieties of American art produced during the Great Depression of the 1930s and early 1940s, focusing in particular on the extraordinary body of work—art work—produced under the New Deal. I use the term "work" rather deliberately here, because the art projects and art programs sponsored by the federal government, and enacted at various state and local levels, were first and foremost intended as "work relief" measures: as projects aimed at employing, and keeping busy, Americans who might otherwise take to the streets to challenge established economic and political norms. By extension, New Deal art projects aimed at engendering national unity and restoring national confidence in American patterns of capitalism and democracy, both sorely tested by the exigencies of the Great Depression.
And yet the results were neither as straight-forward, nor as propagandistic, as these political/cultural mandates might suggest: the art of the New Deal, and I want to focus today especially on the New Deal's visual art, was remarkably pluralistic, surprisingly innovative, and often at odds with mainstream understandings of culture and taste. New Deal art is complicated, in other words: complications that stemmed from broad, if anxious, efforts to rethink and revitalize American national identity during the Great Depression, and to reckon with the persistent tensions of class, race, gender, and labor.
The Great Depression was a devastating economic collapse that began with the 1929 stock market crash and continued until the early 1940s. In terms of work, the Great Depression was catastrophic: unemployment rose to 25% by 1933, and wages dropped by sixty percent. By late 1930, for example, the city of Chicago was on the verge of bankruptcy; in 1931, when Tony Cermak was elected mayor, only 51 of the city's 228 banks remained open, and 40% of the city's skilled industrial labor force was jobless. In Illinois, close to 50% of non-agricultural workers were unemployed in 1932.
On cultural terms, the collapse of the stock market helped collapse the art market: private patronage vanished; art sales plummeted; museums drastically cut their exhibition schedules; book sales fell by 50%; more than 70% of musicians found themselves unemployed. Following the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who became president in 1933, the federal government became the major patron of American art, supplying nationwide emergency labor relief for the country's artists through a variety of so-called "alphabet agencies" including the WPA (Works Progress Administration), FSA (Farm Security Administration), and FAP (Federal Arts Project). Under these New Deal programs, thousands of American artists (including painters, sculptors, printmakers, architects, musicians, actors, dancers, and poets) found jobs, honed their creative skills, and helped foster public interests in American art and culture.All sorts of government branches got involved: the FSA/RA, for example, was a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Section of Painting and Sculpture was established by the Treasury Department in 1934. On the one hand, the lack of specific department ownership of the arts freed these programs from the political demands of any government branch. But it also made them vulnerable when problems of political controversy and financial sustenance arose. The 1937 lefist-labor musical The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles and sponsored by the WPA's Federal Theater Project, is a prime example. Tim Robbins' 1999 movie Cradle Will Rock, which features Rubén Blades as Diego Rivera and in a strange bit of casting, John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller, focuses on how politically controversial New Deal arts projects were subject to censorship and budget cuts, especially when left unprotected by any government department.
The largest of the New Deal arts programs was the WPA: a work relief project that housed a huge number of art, music, theater, and literature programs including the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project (which produced the "American Guide" series for most of the states in the nation), the Federal Music Project, and the Historical Records Survey. The WPA operated from 1935 to 1943, with a few projects lingering until the end of World War II. It sponsored art instruction and art classes for children and adults, and helped develop over 100 community arts centers all over the country. The Walker Art Gallery, the foundation of what is today's Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, was one of these centers: we see here photos of live model sculpture classes and mother/daughter sculptors. So was the South Side Community Art Center here in Chicago, which still offers classes in the building that the Federal Art Project converted for use in 1940, and which Eleanor Roosevelt helped to open in 1941. Public support was tremendous: more than 4000 people showed up for the opening of the Walker Art Gallery in January 1940, in minus ten degree weather.
The WPA got its own pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. And it produced tens of thousands of easel paintings, posters, movies, photographs, murals, and sculptures, as well as some 22,000 plates for the Index of American Design: a multi-volume encyclopedia project aimed at collecting and categorizing American material culture. We see here just a few of the meticulous watercolors that were produced for the Index, most of which are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
As both Karal Ann Marling and Barbara Melosh detail in their accounts of the visual arts of the 1930s New Deal, thousands of murals for post offices, courthouses, public schools, and hospitals were painted during the Great Depression. Hundreds of post offices were built during the New Deal and post office mural artists had some choice in terms of art style, although they still had to follow specific guidelines regarding art subjects. Suitable subjects for public art post office murals were: "the Post; Local History, Past or Present; Local Industries; Local Flora and Fauna; Local Pursuits, Hunting, Fishing, Recreational Activities; themes of agriculture of pure landscape." This may seem like quite a list of options, but artists often ran into conflict with their interpretations. Jenne Magafan ran into problems with the inclusion of the whiskey jug at lower right in this mural for a post office in Anson, Texas. And Victor Arnautoff's choice of certain details in a section of his mural City Life—painted in 1934 for Coit Memorial Tower in San Francisco, which was then in the midst of a prolonged longshoreman's strike—including a scene of an armed robbery and the inclusion of the leftwing publications The Masses and The Daily Worker on a newsstand, and the noticeable absence of the San Francisco Chronicle anywhere else in the mural (because that newspaper was vehemently anti-labor and anti-strike), generated a fierce battle over public arts censorship. More recently, one of the panels of a New Deal mural that Fletcher Martin painted for the Ada County Courthouse in Boise, Idaho has come back into public focus and public controversy: after being covered up for several decades for its depiction of the lynching of a Native American.
New Deal artists who made prints and posters had more leeway in terms of both style and subject. As art historian Helen Langa explains, printmaking emerged as one of the Great Depression's "most vital and exciting art forms," largely due to the efforts of the WPA's Graphic Arts Division, established in 1936. The WPA generously promoted graphic arts and new standards in printmaking, including innovative techniques in color printing and silkscreen. The Graphic Arts Division created sixteen different print workshops that produced some 250,000 prints (out of 11,000 original designs) during the 1930s, while simultaneously serving, at least in its poster arts division, to illustrate the importance of New Deal reforms such as the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission and rural electrification. In 1935, less than 1/10th of America’s 6.8 million farms had electricity, which translated into backbreaking drudgery, isolation, and a tremendous loss of worker productivity. The Rural Electrification Administration helped form non-profit cooperatives to bring power—literally and figuratively—to the millions who lived and worked on America's farms. Posters like this one by former commercial artist Lester Beall, with its streamlined design and blatant red-white-and-blue color scheme, helped sell the benefits of the REA to the American public.
The WPA also produced the iconic documentary images of the 1930s that we all know today: photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Gordon Parks, among other American artists, and documentary films such as The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz. As James Curtis, Sally Stein, and Paula Rabinowitz have written, New Deal photography and film was driven by a certain "documentary impulse." Lange and other American photographers were hired by the WPA's Farm Security Administration/Resettlement Administration to document the hard realities of the Great Depression on particularly instrumentalized terms. As photographer Arthur Rothstein remarked later, "It was our job to document the problems of the Depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them." This was tricky: the photographer was given the task of evoking empathy, but also establishing the capacity of impoverished Americans to rise out of dire circumstances, if given just a little bit of help, of federal assistance. These FSA photographs were widely distributed: to Congress, of course, to directly plea for federal funding, but also in the burgeoning mass media of the day; indeed, the New Deal took full advantage of the techniques and technologies of modern public relations. Schools and museums easily ordered New Deal photographs from the Library of Congress, at nominal costs, and then displayed them in hallways and galleries. Here are some of the 80 FSA photographs that were exhibited in New York's Grand Central Station in 1938 in a show titled "How American People Live." More than 500 "audience comment cards" were collected from viewers, including one from a man in the Bronx who wrote: "These pictures are the most human, forceful and interesting pictures I have seen of the South. Money spent on these pictures is well worth while. Let the Public see what is happening away from their front yard."[i]
Dorothea Lange came upon this scene of migrant pea pickers in Nipomo, California in March 1936, and quickly shot an entire roll of film. The image that we see here, the photo of the "New Deal Madonna" that quickly became the national icon of the Great Depression and perhaps, says Stein, "the most widely reproduced photograph in the entire history of photographic image-making," is of a 32-year old woman named Florence Thompson, seated inside a makeshift tent with three of her seven children. The paradox of this New Deal photo's iconicity, Stein observes in a recent article, is that the trope of motherhood overwhelms that of ethnicity. Born in Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1903, Florence Thompson was Cherokee: an omission of fact in the photo's original function as a "mainstream Anglo icon" of Depression era poverty and need.[ii] Like all icons, Lange's New Deal photo has been the subject of numerous deconstructions—here we see a comparison of the 1936 photo and a picture of Thompson and her children in 1979—and reconstructions: here we see images that appropriate and update Lange's iconic image of the Great Depression on contemporary terms: one featuring a wireless bill; the other advertising wrinkle-creams.
As Joan Saab argues, the New Deal's federally funded art projects viewed the American artist as a producer—a "producing worker" akin to a farmer or a bricklayer—and American art itself as a key tool in the forging of a democratic culture: an "art for the millions," rather than a culture made for and by elites. In total, the WPA was remarkably successful on both fronts. Thousands of public art projects were generated across the country: including over 2,500 murals; 18,000 sculptures; 100,000 easel paintings; 2 million posters; 500,000 photographs, and those 22,000 hand-colored plates for the Index of American Design. The WPA paid artists an average of $25 a week. It supported artists who not only painted murals and posters but also painted their own, personal canvases—and easel artists were expected to produce one to two canvases a month. The pay was low but being on "the projects" not only kept 1930s American artists alive but it kept them working, and gave them the time to really develop their own uniquely personal styles of art—whether Regionalist or Surrealist or Social Realist or abstract. As one artist later remarked, the evolution of post-World War II styles of art would have been "unthinkable without the encouragement to survive and experiment that was given these artists by the WPA." Indeed, highly successful postwar painters including Jackson Pollock, Stuart Davis, Philip Guston, Willem deKooning, Alice Neel, and Louise Nevelson, all worked for various New Deal art projects. So did the avant-garde composer John Cage. And so did American writers like Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Studs Terkel. "We adored the Project, all of us," said Bellow, who worked for the WPA as a young man. And as sculptor Robert Cronbach concurred: "For the creative artist, the WPA was an unequaled opportunity to work as steadily and intensely as possible to advance to quality of his art."[iii]
New Deal art projects were also very inclusive projects, opening up the aesthetic playing field to a broader range of American art styles and American artists. A survey from 1935, for example, showed that forty-one percent of WPA artists were female. Among the women artists represented in the show here at the Weisman are Gertrude Abercrombie, who struck a pose as a "Magic Realist" or American surrealist, and produced eerie, unsettling paintings like White Cat and White Horse (on view here). Mabel Dwight took up lithography at the age of 52 (in 1926), and by the mid-1930s was producing highly politicized social realist prints like Merchants of Death. As Dwight wrote about this print: “The Profiteers of Death are hardy, long-lived... their only interest is self-interest and their only god is profit. As munitions manufacturers they have no country. As politicians their interest is in a strong ruling class and the concentration of privilege.... But they seldom realize that death is their leader. He loves them for he knows that sooner or later they will fill his coffers. He knows that they are breeders of wars and revolutions.... Their tenacity and immemorial stupidity pass all understanding; they are creatures vastly sharp-sighted, but incurably shortsighted. In this country they hate the ideal of Democracy, but they are glad of its loose rein, which has given them plenty of rope.” Again, I think it is remarkable to credit the federal government with this sort of artwork and alternative political expression: can we imagine this today?
The New Deal's generally non-discriminatory hiring practices extended to many African American artists, including Aaron Douglas, who painted the four-part mural Aspects of Negro Life for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in 1934; we see here the mural's last panel, titled Song of the Towers. Native American artists such as Allan Houser, an Apache who was hired to paint murals for the U.S. Department of the Interior, and Maria Martinez, a Pueblo potter from New Mexico best known for her black-on-black pottery, also found WPA patronage during the Great Depression.
And while the majority of art works produced under the New Deal were overwhelmingly realistic or representational, a visual vocabulary of geometric abstraction and bright, primary colors was pursued by artists like Alexander Corazzo, whose Abstraction No. 10 we see here, and Stuart Davis, whose 1938 mural Swing Landscape was produced for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York. Never installed, Davis's painting of the waterfront of Gloucester, Massachusetts—set in a syncopated tempo comparable to 1930s jazz—has been housed at Indiana University since 1941. Davis also painted a mural for radio station WNYC, in which he intended to demonstrate, as he put it, "a series of formal relations which are identified with musical instruments, radio antenna, ether waves, operators panels, and electrical symbols. These various elements are presented in an imaginative rather than a factual relationship . . . I have taken elements relating to the radio and composed them in a harmonious design of shape, color, and direction."[iv] As these diverse stylistic examples suggest, the WPA imposed relatively few limits on the type of work it financed. When controversy arose, it stemmed from public and political motivations, not from an overarching federal mandate.
The central question underlying this significant government sponsorship of these diverse strains of visual art during the era of the Great Depression is "why?" Why, in a country that has never given much credence to visual culture—one of my favorite expressions of this is from John Adams, the second president of the United States and the subject of a recent HBO bio-pic, who said he "would not give six pence for a picture by Raphael or a statue by Phideas"—did the federal government emerge as the major patron of the arts during the Great Depression? The answer, again, lies in an understanding of the WPA as a "work relief" project. As WPA head honcho Harry Hopkins reminded his staff in 1935: "never forget that the objective of this whole project is . . . taking 3,500,000 [people] off relief and putting them to work. The secondary objective is to put them to work on the best possible projects we can, but we don't want to forget that first objective, and don't let me hear any of you apologizing for it because it's nothing to be ashamed of."[v]
Yet tantamount with notions of "work relief" were those of "cultural relief," and heightened recognition of the power of culture, especially visual and material culture, in the formation and sustenance of American national identity. New Deal arts patronage, in other words, was hardly altruistic, but was motivated by shared, and fairly shrewd, awareness of the symbolic, or instrumental, possibilities inherent in the visual arts and American public culture. This heightened awareness in the 1930s of the affective authority of visual culture is not surprising: we see it in the simple display of hundreds of different magazines at this Omaha newsstand in 1938. Likewise, the era marks the maturation of the visual practices of corporate public relations: including the ambitious billboard campaign mounted by the National Association of Manufacturers, in conjunction with the Outdoor Advertising Association. Billboards included this one featured in Margaret Bourke-White's ironic 1937 photo, originally published in Life magazine, and this one celebrating industry and family.
The 1930s were the golden age of the movies: despite the Depression, in a country with a population of 125 million people, at least 75 million people managed to attend at least one movie a week, and many went to many more. And the 1930s saw the emergence of a communicative mass media specifically fixated on the visual: perhaps the best example of which is Life magazine, the picture-magazine that premiered in November 1936, saw a first-run of nearly a half-million copies, and by the 1940s reached some 23 million readers/viewers, taking in nearly 19% of every magazine advertising dollar in the nation. Every issue of Life contained, on average, around 200 photos, many in color. Of course, the 1930s also saw the first public unveiling of the all-powerful visual medium of television—first displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where NBC began regular broadcasting with a telecast of FDR's opening of the fair—which within a few decades would utterly destroy the dominance of other visual media like the movies and Life magazine.
Although first and foremost a work relief program, the WPA was contextualized by the gaining culture of the visual—the "visual turn"—that came to dominate the twentieth-century. The WPA's visual products were used, then, on multiple levels: as forms of civic beautification, as decorations for public spaces; as the visual evidence of New Deal government support—and hence as products intended to bolster the legitimacy of the federal government as a generous servant of the people; and as tools aimed at creating and sustaining a broad national culture and shared national identity. That national identity took shape on several different fronts, most notably, understandings of the nation as a specific, and uniquely American place, and understandings of the American people as workers.
Much of the art of the New Deal era was steeped in artistic interpretation of specific geographic locales in the "American Scene," including the various Minnesota scenes painted by artists like Dewey Albinson. In his 1940 book Modern American Painting, art critic Peyton Boswell, Jr. said that the American artist of the era had: "Returned to the soil for his subject matter and traveled as far away as possible from foreign isms. He stepped down from his ivory tower and out into the fields, the streets and the factories . . . the American discovered in some Midwestern tank town or New England textile mill the same powerful urge to create that Gauguin sought in exotic Tahiti and Van Gogh found in windswept Arles. The American artist had come home."
"Coming home" to the American Scene was a theme shared by many American artists during the New Deal era. They visualized, and interpreted, the American Scene from many different points of view and in many different styles: from the Precisionist photography of Berenice Abbott, and her particular attention to the modern, urban, New York scene, to the symbolic iconography of the eroded Dust Bowl landscapes of Oklahoma and Texas as painted by Alexandre Hogue. Repeatedly, New Deal artists were attuned to the regional, local details—the people, places, things, and events—of the American Scene, large and small. As Roy Stryker, the Section chief of the FSA's photo division rather immodestly put it: "We introduced America to Americans." Regional identity was highly visible, of course—most Americans, including American artists, responded to the imperative of picturing the American Scene and picturing New Deal America on specifically regional terms. But the bigger goal of the New Deal art projects, and certainly for the FSA photo division, was to forge a shared national culture from these regions: to make Regionalism a trope of nationalism.
For many artists, "coming home" to America and forging national identity was achieved by defining modern American art: by creating a uniquely American modern art that would be distinct from European art, from all those "foreign isms" as Boswell described the modern art of Europe. And American artists of the 1930s and 1940s were definitely keen on creating modern art and creating a recognizably American, or national, art. As critic Paul Rosenfeld lamented in 1924, "We have been sponging on Europe for direction instead of developing our own." As the United States increasingly dominated as an international economic and political powerhouse in the twentieth century—the century that Life magazine editor and publisher Henry Luce coined as the "American Century"—American artists similarly aspired to define themselves and their art on distinctively modern and national terms. They were encouraged in this by a great number of critics, historians, journalists, and poets. As William Carlos Williams noted in his 1925 book, In the American Grain, American artists should explore the rich cultural resources of America's "peculiar and discoverable ground," which painters like Mac LeSueur and Erle Loran certainly did in their scenes of industrial Minnesota. Likewise, in his 1927 essay "The Americanization of Art," the modernist painter and printmaker Louis Lozowick—whose 1936 lithograph of lower Manhattan we see here—urged modern American artists to pursue the "rigid geometry of the American city: in the verticals of its smoke stacks, in the parallels of its car tracks, the squares of its streets, the cubes of its factories, the arc of its bridges, the cylinders of its gas tanks."
However much it differed in terms of style, little of this New Deal art was simply straightforward, or uncritical, "America First" propaganda. Artists ranging in stylistic diversity from social realist printmaker Nan Lurie to Social Surrealist painter Louis Guglielmi were engaged in issues of modern art and American identity. But they also aimed to raise the collective, general consciousness about social, economic, political, and cultural problems in the United States: they were New Deal artists with a social conscience, and they were especially concerned with creating a relevant, public kind of painting that spoke to a large segment of the American population about those problems. As Guglielmi remarked in the mid-1930s : “I feel it is necessary to create a significant art and not merely some super-deluxe framed wallpaper to decorate the homes of the wealthy. The time has come when painters are returning to the life of the people.”
Not surprisingly, that "significant art" often engaged issues of "work" and "workers." Work, and the work ethic, have long been fundamental components of American self, and national identity, and during the Great Depression, New Dealers held gainful employment as the single most important factor in reviving the U.S. economy and restoring American dignity.
American artists ranging in stylistic diversity from regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton to social realist William Gropper, quite literally responded to the crisis of the Great Depression with an extensive body of work celebrating work and workers. In both their private paintings and their public commissions, New Deal artists generally depicted American wage laborers as heroic figures of action and autonomy, and thus as exemplars of the work ethic. An iconography of labor—typified here in Michael Lantz's sculptures for the entrance to the Federal Trade Commission—was courted by New Deal artists and arts administrators alike, who recognized the powerful social and political import of upbeat images of rugged, dynamic workers during the severe unemployment and cultural malaise of the Great Depression.
Dorothea Lau's 1943 oil painting, Workers-Five 0'Clock may focus on the end of shift, but the brawny, muscular types she depicted were clearly intended as icons of an active American labor force. Their actions—and those of the many other workers illustrated in the art of the 1930s—attest to the general desire that Americans held during the Great Depression to move on and get out of the hard times of the present, and into a better tomorrow. As Marling writes, the multitude of "zipping airplanes and thundering stagecoaches" in New Deal murals offered aesthetic alternatives to the era's physical and psychological state of stagnation, and the same argument can be utilized to explain the number of active male bodies that are illustrated again and again in 1930s pictures and sculptures.[vi] Ironically, when social and industrial progress seemed inert, many American artists chose to depict sturdy, strong, muscular, and dynamic laborers, as if these painted and sculpted symbols of manly might and movement might actually propel the nation itself out of its economic slump.
These images of muscular producers and the fruit of their labors helped to deflect Depression era anxieties about unemployment and undercut worries about the roles and responsibilities of masculine breadwinners.[vii] The focus on men was deliberate: labor was perceived on "manly" terms in much New Deal art, and women were most often depicted in terms of marital partnership and motherhood. Americans were all workers, but their work was gendered.
Louise Ronnebeck's 1940 mural, painted for a post office in Grand Junction, Colorado, is typical. Titled Harvest, the mural follows the basic directives for federally-funded post office murals by depicting a scene of regional relevance: a scene of a young couple harvesting the peaches grown along Colorado's Western Slope. It also provided a history of the region: from the entry into the West of white settlers, seen on the left, and the forced removal of Indian peoples—the Utes and Arapahoes, seen on the right. If the mural subtly questioned a traditional Manifest Destiny interpretation of American history, it mostly idealized hard work and heteronormative family values. It depicts the New Deal subject that Melosh calls the "Comradely Ideal": men and women working together, as comrades, here on the family farm. The Great Depression, of course, wrecked havoc with the American family—especially as men, labeled the breadwinners, often abandoned families in search of opportunities elsewhere. The divorce rate skyrocketed in the 1930s, and the birth rate plummeted. Murals like these helped not only bolster the New Deal as a social savior, but helped bolster New Deal assumptions about social order: about traditional gender roles, about the sanctity of the American family.
Yet, not surprisingly at a time of devastating unemployment, scenes of joblessness and working class struggle were hardly absent in New Deal art. As historian Michael Denning argues, the 1930s and 1940s especially saw the "laboring of American culture," and that "cultural front" included the radical, alternative politics of labor unionists, Communists, independent socialists, anti-fascists, and many others. Artists including Maynard Dixon and Nicolai Cikovsky captured the sense of despair and alienation of America's unemployed; artists like Anton Refregier transferred that despair into dissent. Refregier's mural, painted for the Rincon Annex post office in San Francisco—this is a study for one of the mural's 27 panels—would come under fierce attack by HUAC—the House Un-American Activities Committee—in the early 1950s, when Cold Warriors demanded that scenes of labor strikes and dissidence be removed from the American Scene.
Most of the New Deal's iconography of labor, however, avoided contemporary labor issues such as collective bargaining, deskilling, mass-production unionization, work-stoppages, and strikes; and promoted, instead, New Deal era government and business intentions to cast and constrict wage labor as a classless and collective enterprise.[viii] That is, images of labor presented in much American art of the 1930s often upheld status quo patterns of corporate management and control, rather than proposing a radical critique of the meaning of work and the relationships between workers and management. Many New Deal representations of American workers were "emblems of production," with both the workers and the kind of work depicted emphasizing "the technological renewal which New Deal planners envisioned as essential" to modern American society, especially after the Depression.[ix]
Seymour Fogel's 1938 mural Industrial Life is a prime example. Fogel depicted work as "mastery, [as] the vehicle to the planned future" imagined by FDR and his core New Deal politicos. "The drafting triangle, designers' compass, and laboratory apparatus are the tools of progress, wielded by men joined in the common labor of planning and building" a better American future.[x] Note the ways in which Fogel opposed skilled and manual laborers: scientists and engineers are seen engaged in research and planning, while faceless and bare-chested working men pull levers and follow orders. The message seems clear: white-collar architects, engineers, foremen, clerks, and bosses will hold the real authority in the modern, post-Depression workplace, and celebrations of manly manual laborers on America's farms and factories are the stuff of Depression era romance, nostalgia, and fantasy.
In the end, much of the New Deal's art initiative was fantastic: a utopian challenge to traditional, conservative assumptions about American art, artists, and audiences; a surprising embrace of aesthetic diversity; a new, radical, and democratic understanding of the possibilities of America's visual art on all sorts of terms. Although government funding for the arts would largely disappear in America until the NEA and various public art programs were developed in the mid-1960s, the New Deal's art programs did have a profound impact on how America was pictured, and how Americans pictured themselves, during the years of the Great Depression—and even later.
Notes and References
[i] Musher dissertation p. 160.
[ii] Sally Stein, "Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" and the Paradox of Iconicity," in Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, eds., Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 344-355.
[iii] Quotes from Musher ms.
[iv] Bonnie L. Grad, "Stuart Davis and Contemporary Culture," Artibus et Historiae 12, no. 24 (1991): 181.
[v] A. Joan Saab, For the Millions: American Art and Culture Between the Wars (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 15.
[vi] Marling, Wall-to-Wall America, p. 17.
[vii] Melosh Engendering Culture; Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).
[viii] See, for example, David Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth Century Struggle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), and Stanley Vittoz, New Deal Labor Policy and the American Industrial Economy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).
[ix] Bernard F. Reilly, Jr., "Emblems of Production: Workers in German, Italian, and American Art During the 1930s," in Kaplan, Designing Modernity, 287-313.
[x] Barbara Melosh, Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 88-89.