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The purpose of the PRISM series from Green Comma is to provide a glimpse of something interesting in the humanities and some additional resources for exploration of that initial interest for high school and freshmen college students. It is not meant to be the definitive biography of the artists or a history of the times. We hope to make it interactive through your posts and comments. If not, go forth and explore.
All opinions are the writer’s own.
In 1935, the United States was far from an economic powerhouse that it became in only ten to fifteen years later. That history, especially about the manufacturing acceleration to mobilize and supply for World War II, is another topic altogether.
Our topic is about the 8th of April, 1935, 82 years ago.
That day, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 was passed. Of the funds appropriated for the relief act as a whole, $27 million (in 2016 dollars that’s $473 million) was set aside for Federal Project Number One, a federal project to employ, provide sustenance, and a forum for the nation’s artists in the service of the economy and its renewal. The umbrella project housed the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writers’ Project. All with with the express mandate to operate without discrimination regarding race, creed, color, religion and political beliefs.
What makes this remembrance more than simply a distant memory of economic revival is the sheer scope of imagination that, hitherto, had been absent in world affairs.
The US faced an unemployment rate of over 21 percent in 1934, which had dropped to 19 percent in 1935. The suicide rate in the 1930s was around 14 to 17 percent per 100,000. Desperation overrode anger. The shock of hunger and poverty was worse than anything that the United States had ever encountered. Thousands upon thousands left foreclosed farms and took to the roads; cities saw snaking bread and soup lines of able-bodied people without any means of support.
“In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
In our current day, when the new president’s budget has been announced though yet to be discussed in Congress, we know that the administration is directing its fiscal scissors on major arts organizations’ funding.
It is, therefore, a timely historical lesson to revisit, albeit briefly, how the Roosevelt administration in the midst of the worst economic crisis in United States history mobilized a veritable army of artists, muscians, sculptors, writers to not only create works for their fellow citizens but to provide a livelihood for thousands, who in turn invested in the economy, and, the greatest benefit of all ꟷ showcased a distinctive and robust cultural life that defined the United States in the eyes (and ears) of the world from then on forward.
The WPA posters brought basic civic, health and public service announcements to vast numbers at a time when the available media was limited to radio and the movies (both not completely widespread to those who couldn’t spare many dimes).
There was hardly a single artist of the 1940s and 1950s, who started in the 1930s who didn’t work for the WPA projects. From the cantankerous John Cheever, prep-schooled and empty-handed, who worked as a junior editor to Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and W.H. Auden, who said, “[O]ne of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.”
The Federal Arts Project was a heavyweight unto itself as it gave shelter and work to hundreds including the incomparable Americans who dominated the postwar-Expressionist art world : Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Thomas Hart Benton and Stuart Davis.
Willam de Kooning wrote: “The Project was terribly important. It gave us enough to live on and we could paint what we wanted. It was terrific largely because of its director, Burgoyne Diller. I had to resign after a year because I was an alien, but even in that short time, I changed my attitude toward being an artist. Instead of doing odd jobs and painting on the side, I painted and did odd jobs on the side. My life was the same, but I had a different view of it. I gave up the idea of first making a fortune and then painting in my old age.”
The Federal Music Project included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Marc Blitzstein, to name just a few. The chief legacy, especially of the music project is that music was brought to ordinary people, into classrooms, into settlement houses, into small-town USA. The WPA also created vast archives of American traditional and folk music from across the states, the first ethnomusicology archives. That legacy made music and art a mandatory part of the US classroom curricula till recently when the first cuts in education funding is a beeline to arts and music classes.
The Federal Theatre Project had marquee names such as Orson Welles and John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, Elia Kazan.
For African Americans, the WPA offered a strong foundation to establish a footing in the national psyche at a time when racism and discrimination was the law of the land in many parts of the country. In every aspect of the arts ꟷ from writing, drama, dancing, music ꟷ African Americans came to the national consciousness as artists. One of the great treasures at the Library of Congress are the slave narratives that were recorded during that time.
There are many arguments as to why spending on the arts is in decline and in no small measure, it traces back to the Great Depression when the federal debt started to balloon in order to get people back into work and the economy and then spending during the war at a larger rate. What it did give America was a sense of identity and pride that is unmatched in the last century across the world. It defined what “American” meant in the arts.