'1934: A New Deal for Artists'

Philip Kennicott on '1934: A New Deal for Artists' and Depression nostalgia

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

The visitors comment book at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition "1934: A New Deal for Artists" has taken on a distinct note of nostalgia. "America needs another public works art program now," wrote Gene, from Maryland, after looking at paintings created for President Franklin Roosevelt's Public Works of Art Project, the first of several New Deal programs that supported artists during the Great Depression.

"Do we need another public art program for the 2009 great recession?" asked someone named Robbie. "Yes."

Open for comment since the show was unveiled in February, the book sits surrounded by a colorful display of paintings created from 1933 to 1934 during a short-lived phase of the alphabet soup of 1930s arts programs. The voices calling for another "new deal" for artists are found among generic comments about the prettiness of the art, and they echo a question that came up when Morris Dickstein came to town in late October to promote his new book, "Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression," at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center: Will there ever again be a government-supported arts program like those funded by the New Deal?

The short answer is no, but are these voices asking the right question?

Although stimulus funds allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts (which received $50 million) may eventually make it to individual artists through a system that disperses federal money to state and local arts agencies, this is a far cry from the rapid flow of support to individual artists during the short-lived PWAP. Between December 1933 and June 1934, about 3,000 artists were put to work on art that captured "the American scene," a project that resulted in more than 15,000 works of art. By contrast, the $50 million for the NEA is earmarked "for projects that focus on the preservation of jobs in the arts." Which means it will aid people who work for arts institutions, and only indirectly to artists themselves.

There have been tectonic political and cultural shifts since the art on view at the Smithsonian was created. The culture wars of the 1990s, which saw the NEA under constant assault for isolated artworks deemed offensive by conservatives, essentially neutered the government's ability to directly fund artists. The culture wars also came with significant collateral damage to the general perception of artists. A handful of them, often attacked because of their sexuality, became symbolic of artists in general. And by focusing on particularly cerebral or confrontational artists, critics of the NEA managed to make it seem as if artists simply didn't do constructive work. In the current climate, it's hard to imagine any government official saying that artists deserve funding because "they eat like other people," as the New Deal's Harry Hopkins once did.

A shift in perspective

It's not just the perception of artists that has changed. Our relationship to art is also fundamentally different. The basic prettiness that is on display in many of the works at the American Art Museum -- the landscapes, the folk scenes, the cityscapes -- is now a mass commodity, available on greeting cards, inspirational posters, snapshots uploaded to social-networking sites and on film. The escapist entertainment, the screwball comedies and Busby Berkeley spectaculars that Dickstein analyzes in his book, show how much our relationship to commercial entertainment has changed as well.

Dickstein argues that escapism during the Depression wasn't just fluff, but a significant and productive way of processing misery. Today, we live in a world better described by the title of Neil Postman's 1985 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," a panicked, prescient and pre-Twitter updating of Marshall McLuhan's classic "the medium is the message." Which is to say, escapist entertainment isn't an essential and constructive leavening in a serious world, but has invaded almost every aspect of not just entertainment, but news and even interpersonal communication. Just as prettiness has become inescapable, the challenge today isn't to escape, it's to escape escapism.

Almost every art form put to work during the Depression has changed so fundamentally in form and spirit as to be almost unrecognizable today when set beside exemplars from the 1930s. Important classical music sounds nothing like Aaron Copland. No serious documentarian would use scripts so full of poetic and propagandistic piffle as Pare Lorentz's iconic films, "The River" and "The Plow That Broke the Plains." After the upheavals of pop art, performance art, video art and conceptual art, the landscape by Ross Dickinson, "Valley Farms," that greets one at the door of "1934: A New Deal for Artists" looks to be not just from a different generation but a different planet.

The nostalgia for New Deal art is, in large part, a misplaced nostalgia for a seemingly pre-lapsarian world of art that is representational, which for many people is synonymous with "beautiful." And yet this is not, in fact, an exhibition of merely pretty pictures. Dark industrial scenes, shattered cities, twisted human forms and a recurring palette of somber, earthen colors prevail. The gnarled farmer's wife with the sausage-size fingers and mottled red flesh in Ivan Albright's "The Farmer's Kitchen" is a fine knockoff of German expressionists such as Otto Dix or George Grosz. It's also a painting that aggressively eschews beauty.

Audiences willing to overlook the manifest ugliness depicted in this art, and still find it beautiful, are very likely responding to something even deeper than the paintings. The interest in this work, the enthusiasm for Dickstein's book, the appetite for Depression-themed films and documentaries on television, suggests that the period represents an ideal of how art should relate to society for many Americans.

Work in progress

You get a good sense of that ideal in the title of Roger Kennedy's new book, "When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy," which surveys the broader landscape of cultural programs in the 1930s. This was, it seems, the last era when art was productive, when there was an organic link between what artists made and what audiences wanted (which made government support relatively uncontroversial). The fantasy is about a bygone era of unity, common meanings and the integration of art and spiritual life.

The most compelling pages of Kennedy's book, however, aren't about the visual arts, but infrastructure. If there's a dream to be salvaged from New Deal cultural programs, it is found in the bridges and trails built in the national parks, rough-hewn stone picnic shelters created by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or highway overpasses on new parkways. These simple, sturdy and beautifully designed works almost seem to echo the sentiments of the art and design duo, Bauhaus giants Josef and Anni Albers: "We prefer good machinery to bad art."

These programs and others, including the massive Historic American Buildings Survey, which documented in photographs and drawings more than 38,000 structures, have received relatively little attention during our current wave of New Deal cultural nostalgia. But they served a vital public purpose. Most of all, they met that implicit standard of government-funded culture: that it work. We may regret how deeply that sense of utility and pragmatism about arts funding is embedded in the American psyche. But you can see it nascent even in the PWAP works created with a direct infusion of government cash. In 1934, Roy Strong painted the Golden Gate Bridge under construction, with one red tower half risen on the far shore and a lot of broken earth in the foreground. It is a picture of something being built, construction in action, and it was one of the paintings from the PWAP that Roosevelt chose to hang in the White House.

Even the great patron of the arts, from a supposed golden age, wanted art to pay homage to work.

1934: A New Deal for Artists

is on exhibit through Jan. 3 at Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F Sts. NW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.americanart.si.edu.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company