Politics & Policy

Artists on the Dole

Just in time for the New New Deal, a show of Depression-era art is depressing indeed.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — the supposed smelling salts offered to the swooning U.S. economy — contains more than a few controversial allocations of taxpayer dollars. Chief among these were $50 million worth of stimulus to the National Endowment for the Arts. The arts and artists suffer at least as much as any other industry in an economic downturn, defenders of this particular provision asserted.

No argument there. But governments, past or present, do not exactly have a stellar record when it comes to patronizing the arts. Those who believe otherwise would do well to look at the painting, sculpture, and architecture of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or Communist China. Alternatively, take a trip to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for an inspection of “1934: A New Deal for Artists.”

The exhibition, which opened in February and will run until January 2010, spotlights the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP): the New Deal’s original unemployment plan for out-of-work artists and America’s first large-scale foray into government-sponsored art.

#ad#The PWAP was the brainchild of George Biddle — a painter who had been a prep-school classmate of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. In correspondence during 1933, Biddle suggested to Roosevelt that the government commission painters to decorate the soon-to-be-completed Department of Justice headquarters.

Roosevelt responded favorably to the suggestion and passed it along to the Treasury Department, which put Edward Bruce, a lawyer-turned-painter-turned-lobbyist, in charge of the effort that became the PWAP. Lasting only from December 1933 until June 1934, the PWAP temporarily put “unemployed” artists to work decorating public buildings and civic spaces across the country. Over its seven-month existence, the program employed 3,700 artists, spent $1,312,000, and generated some 15,000 works of art before being folded into the Emergency Work Relief Program.

“1934: A New Deal for Artists” displays 56 of the PWAP’s products in honor of the 75th anniversary of the program — which conveniently coincides with the latest round of economic troubles (“the worst since the Great Depression”) and the Obama administration’s massive federal intervention. 

The artists represented in the exhibition — who were largely unknown before the PWAP began and mostly remained so after it ended — were relative neophytes; some of them were actually amateurs. Accordingly, the collection, which depicts their vision of Depression-era American life — bleak urban scenes and rural landscapes, workers, factories, farms, and so forth — is low on originality.

In fact, almost all the paintings are highly derivative and not very well executed. At its best, the show offers works such as J. Theodore Johnson’s “Chicago Interior” or Daniel Celentano’s “Festival,” which borrow heavily from superior contemporary artists such as Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton.

At its worst, the exhibition is a monotonous lineup of lumber yards, coal towers, waterfronts, ice packers, snow shovelers, and migrant workers in scenes that pit worker against manager and rich against poor. These paintings are derivative not of contemporary American art, but rather of the social realism of the Mexican muralists of the 1930s and the socialist realism of the Soviet Union, with its demonization of capitalists and glorification of the proletariat.

Millard Sheets’s “Tenement Flats,” for example, depicts the working poor of Los Angeles joyfully going about their daily business. Meanwhile, cold, dark, and forbidding Victorian mansions — the homes of the privileged — loom in the background, revealing which side of the class struggle the artist, and by extension the government, is on. Interestingly, this painting hung in Roosevelt’s White House.

In “The Farmer’s Kitchen,” Ivan Albright creates a horrifying caricature of an aged and suffering farmer’s wife, complete with bulging and swollen knuckles and exaggerated wrinkles and creases, to show the cruelty of a life of manual labor.

#page#Meanwhile, Douglass Crockwell, one of the few artists in the show who went on to find fame and success in subsequent decades, is represented by “Paper Workers,” which displays working men toiling away in a paper-making plant under the watchful eye and threatening presence of a suit-wearing manager.

Even Tyrone Comfort’s “Gold Is Where You Find It,” one of the show’s strongest paintings stylistically speaking, does not escape the brooding classism. This painting, which also hung in the White House, presents an idealized miner, fit and muscular, cramped into a dangerous mine shaft drilling into the earth’s core, risking death in pursuit of the mining company’s profits.

#ad#Of course, the entire exhibition is not given over to such propaganda. There are some crudely rendered representations of architectural and engineering triumphs of the era (the Golden Gate Bridge, Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning), a couple of amateurish depictions of wildlife, and a few pleasant landscapes. But even these are not necessarily free of ideological freight. Case in point: “The Farm” by the Japanese-born Kenjiro Nomura, which appears to be a tranquil portrayal of a farm under gathering clouds. According to the curator’s active imagination, however, the dark clouds represent the prejudice and racial injustice Japanese immigrants faced in the Pacific Northwest and foreshadow the paranoia that would lead to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Such an interpretation might be farfetched, but it is a stretch that the American Art Museum is comfortable making. In fact, it is clear that the show is both piggybacking off and cheerleading for President Obama and his New Deal Redux, with its vast expansion of federal intervention and increased funding for the arts. It also echoes the new administration’s ambivalence toward capitalism and its tendency toward politically correct expressions of guilt for America’s history of oppression on the basis of race, sex, and class.

“1934: A New Deal for Artists” was likely planned and staged to show the wonderful things that occur when the federal government gets into the art business — or any business. But instead of making a convincing argument that American artistry benefited from partnering with Washington, the show inadvertently makes the case that federally subsidized art — like so many government products — tends to be depressing, joyless, unoriginal, and extremely ideological.

Those tempted to favor increased government “reinvestment” in the arts, or intrusion into any other practice best left to the private sector, should take note.

– Ryan L. Cole served as a speechwriter in the administration of George W. Bush.

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