The Case for New Deal Art

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.
Lucy Flower Technical High School for Girls, Chicago, Illinois  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Registry

President Roosevelt and his circle believed in the value of the public realm and public service, so they made government investment in public goods such as parks, schools and civic buildings a pillar of the New Deal. Along with its immense building programs, the New Deal brought a level of government support for public art never seen before-–or since. This is reason enough to celebrate the legacy of New Deal art.

The Treasury Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Arts Project of the WPA are the best-known programs, but there were others: The Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration, the Art and Culture Projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Treasury Relief Arts Project. Together they produced tens of thousands of artworks, most of which still adorn public places and brighten the lives of Americans to this day.

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson
In 1938, Henderson completed the six WPA murals begun by Gerald Cassidy for the US Courthouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

New Deal art programs employed thousands of unemployed artists during the Great Depression, establishing careers and sometimes literally saving lives. Some of America’s greatest artists worked under the New Deal, such as early 20th century giants like Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and Maynard Dixon. Followers of the famous Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, like Bernard Zakheim, Victor Arnautoff and George Biddle, produced inspirational murals. Postwar Abstractionists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston and Lee Krasner came out of the New Deal, as did a host of artists of color such as Sargent Johnson, David Park, Charles Davis, James Auchiah, Gerald Nailor, Jo Mora, Lusi Arenal, Dong Kingman and Isamu Noguchi.

“Ohio” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.

“Ohio,” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.
Bellevue, Ohio Post Office  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

New Deal artists were not just diverse and prolific, they had wide license to exercise their inspiration and talents. As a result, the quality of New Deal art deserves respect for its aesthetic brilliance and originality. A recurrent thread of celebration of American life runs through much of public art of the era, but New Deal artists frequently infused their works with social commentary and criticism. Because people today understandably question art that includes dishonorable people and practices from America’s past, hasty judgement of New Deal murals frequently miss their qualities and subtleties.

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949
Native American artist Allan Houser and other Indian artists were invited by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts to paint murals at the Department of Interior Building in Washington, DC.  Source
Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Full appreciation of New Deal art can also be impeded by the dominant painting styles of the time, Social Realism and American Scene, which have long been out of fashion. Social Realism has often come under attack for its celebration of manual (and masculine) labor and resemblance to Soviet art, while American Scene painting is dismissed for being nostalgic and vernacular. Only recently has art of the New Deal-era enjoyed a revival in the art world.

New Deal art is all around us yet too often poorly maintained, unmarked or inaccessible to the public. A growing number of these artworks are jeopardized when the buildings that house them are torn down or renovated. Our society needs to value and protect the New Deal’s legacy of public-spirited art. Furthermore, we sorely need a new New Deal to support struggling artists of today so that they may create diverse and inspiring imagery for the future.

The Living New Deal offers recommendations to communities and institutions dealing with challenges to New Deal artworks.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.
Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939

“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939
Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff trained with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and taught at Stanford. New Deal murals portraying Native Americans and enslaved people can be considered controversial today, but are often misconstrued.  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

 

From the New Deal to the Green New Deal

by Richard Walker
Abstract:  A Green New Deal is the best way to deal with climate change, economic crisis and social-political disintegration in one sweep. The original New Deal offers the best model for a Green New Deal because it faced similar challenges of conservation, economic collapse, immiseration and political reaction in the 1930s and was successful in overcoming them. Indeed, like the New Deal, the United States today needs nothing less than a program of national reconstruction and renewal that is more than the sum of carbon reduction, infrastructure investment, more jobs and better wages.

Growing Together Illustration by James McInvale

Growing Together
Illustration by James McInvale
Photo Credit: Creative Action Network

The New Deal was not only successful in its time but provides an excellent model for public policy today. As a nation we face a set of profound challenges comparable to the era of the Great Depression, requiring an equally ambitious and thorough attack led by the federal government – the only entity with the power, money and scale to take charge.  The lessons of the New Deal enumerated here offer hope for an embattled nation and a guide to redirecting public policy following 40 years of neoliberal deconstruction.

The New Deal provides guidelines for how to attack the major crises of today. Climate change and economic recession get most of the attention because global warming is bearing down like a runaway train and the economy has gone off a cliff. But the nation faces a massive deficit of investment in infrastructure and lags behind Europe and Asia in modern public amenities.  A gulf between the rich and the rest has precipitated a social crisis marked by underfunded education, gnawing poverty and personal despair. The US is in the throes of a deep political crisis that has the republic teetering on the brink.

The only way to address these challenges is the kind of sweeping program that the Green New Deal has come to summarize. A half-century of experience with neoliberalism has shown that there is no alternative to strong government action led by mass popular mobilization. Nothing less than a Green New Deal will save the country from climate change, economic depression, a crumbling foundation, social malaise, concentration of power and political disintegration.

It needs emphasizing just how radical the New Deal was in terms of the long sweep of US history and how thoroughly it refashioned the country and its politics. The left has spent too much time criticizing the New Deal and FDR for what they did not do – bring the revolution, end White Supremacy, liberate women, etc.  We would do better to appreciate what they did, in fact, accomplish in just one decade, 1933-1942 – roughly the time left to deal with climate change.

How the New Deal Responded to the Crisis of the 1930s

The New Deal is a shorthand for the policies and achievements of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1942.  It encompassed far more than the best-known programs, such as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, involving over 60 laws and programs in all. The Living New Deal is documenting that amazing decade, reviving historical memory and rethinking deeply ingrained political tropes – because so much of the conventional wisdom about the New Deal is wrong.

I will consider the New Deal’s accomplishments in six areas: economic recovery and regulation, employment and class, investment and modernization, conservation and restoration, programs for the people and national political revival.

Economic Stabilization and Recovery

The Great Depression was the greatest failure of capitalism in US history and one that challenged the legitimacy of the nation’s class system, dominant ideology and political leadership. By winter 1933, US output had fallen by one-third, unemployment risen to one-quarter of the labor force and profits and wages had declined sharply.

In 1933-34, the New Deal ended financial excess and put the banking system on a new foundation. This meant shutting down bad banks, separating commercial and investment banks and providing deposit insurance. In addition, FDR called in gold, devalued and solidified the dollar and stock markets were regulated.

Meanwhile, the administration set up price controls under the National Industrial Recovery Act and Agricultural Adjustment Act. The unpopular NIRA was later dropped, but the AAA became the basis of US farm policy for the next fifty years.[1] More important was the creation of the PWA in 1933 to start the process of federal investment in infrastructure; it would be the central pillar of New Deal spending.

A massive relief effort began with the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933.  FERA salvaged bankrupt state and local treasuries, ending the downward spirals of government revenues, spending and employment. In the winter of 1933-34, FERA created the first relief jobs program, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), for which Congress created a permanent replacement in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). 

The New Deal cost roughly $650 billion in today’s dollars. [2] With today’s population that would come to  over $1.1 trillion – a surprisingly modest sum. It was paid for by higher taxes on the rich and the corporations, aided by revived alcohol taxes from the end of Prohibition, and the administration was willing to tolerate peacetime federal deficits for the first time in US history.

Crucially, economic recovery came before World War II. Under the New Deal, GDP grew at an average rate of almost 10 percent and had fully recovered by 1939.[3] Contrary to popular opinion, the war did not solve the Great Depression, but it did dry up unemployment by recruiting millions into the military and by the greatest deficit spending in US history – the same formula as the New Deal. 

Employment and the Working Class

Green New Deal Artist Unknown

Green New Deal
Artist Unknown
Photo Credit: Oregon State University

A pillar of New Deal policy was aiding the working people. The New Dealers saved capitalism but they saved millions of people from desolation at the same time, chiefly through programs for mass work relief: FERA, CWA, WPA, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and National Youth Administration (NYA). These agencies combined created more than 20 million jobs for the unemployed over ten years, giving workers dignity and injecting income into bankrupt households. Those are impressive numbers compared to the 15 million unemployed when FDR took office and the 5 million who were still jobless when the war began in 1942.    

The New Deal succeeded in raising working class wages and incomes by supporting unionization.  Unions were legalized in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935; New Deal public works required fair and prevailing wages of contractors; and the Fair Labor Standards Act was added in 1938.  It also created the first federal safety net through unemployment payments in the NLRA and the Social Security Act of 1935. Greater taxation of the rich and higher incomes for the working class sharply reduced inequality, ushering in the most egalitarian period in US history.

Not only were jobs programs life-saving financially, they restored workers dignity. Non-discrimination clauses brought jobs and wages to African Americans and other minorities. In addition, they aided economic recovery by raising wages, making relief payments to households and aiding state and local governments. Those flows stimulated aggregate consumption and raised net consumption out of the same total national income. 

Investment and Modernization

The New Deal was more than a short-term program of recovery and make-work projects. The federal government invested in the infrastructure of the country, or what was then called “public works.” The government built tens of thousands of civic facilities, such as city halls, courthouses, schools, sewers and parks, as well as regional systems like dams, aqueducts and airports.[4]

At the heart of this effort was the Public Works Administration (PWA). Just as important, the administration pumped money into existing federal agencies, like the Bureau of Public Roads and Bureau of Reclamation, and demanded contributions from the states.  Governments at every level – federal, state and local – were reanimated.  Moreover, the feds asked the state and cities to propose projects they wanted locally and thus gained important political buy-in. 

Crucially, the New Deal walked on two legs: big regional infrastructure and small local projects. For the latter, the relief agencies were absolutely vital. The CWA, WPA, CCC, and FERA undertook local improvements numbering in the hundreds of thousands: playgrounds, recreation halls, baseball fields, picnic areas, water lines, street trees, ranger stations, park roads and trails and more.  These, too, were projects asked for by local governments, with local financial participation.[5]

Almost entirely overlooked is the degree to which the New Deal modernized the United States. It brought the entire country into the 20th century. The 1930s witnessed the second greatest leap in economic productivity in US history after the 1920s – higher than the World War by far.[6]   The New Deal aided modernization through its massive investments in hydropower and highways, at a time when industry and transportation were shifting en masse to electric motors and trucks.

This infrastructure was long-term investment that continued to pay off after the New Deal ended. The war effort was the first beneficiary, as was recognized at the time. But roads, dams, schools and hospitals continued to function for decades after that, and many are still with us.

Conservation and Restoration

An essential element of the New Deal was conservation – healing the land and resources along with the people. This massive effort is too easily overlooked because it took place far away from the urban centers—on rangelands, forests, farmlands, marshes and coasts.  The New Deal was nothing if not green.[7]

Most of the New Deal’s conservation programs were small-scale works. CCC camps planted 3 billion trees under the direction of the US Forest Service.[8]  A massive soil conservation program was set in motion on damaged range and farmlands under the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which built erosion dams, regraded hillsides and planted windbreaks. Grazing controls were imposed for the first time on federal lands under the new Grazing Service. 

Around 200 national wildlife refuges were established during the Roosevelt years, often at the president’s personal direction, and a new Duck Stamp program channeled millions of dollars from hunters to wildlife programs. Several new national parks and national monuments were established, and national forests were expanded. The CCC built the waterworks, roads and campgrounds that rendered federal recreational lands usable. 

Many protected areas were purchases of degraded lands in the Dust Bowl or cutover forests, while agricultural policy paid for the withdrawal of millions of acres of farms from production, returned to wetlands and woods that aided wildlife.

Programs for the People

Green Jobs Illustration by Lisa Vollrath

Green Jobs
Illustration by Lisa Vollrath
Photo Credit: Creative Action Network

While the New Deal employment and relief effort was focused on the working class, it went much farther. It embraced farmers, retirees and the poor. In addition, there was an array of programs targeting the  forgotten and neglected. An essential principle was universal programs with non-discrimination clauses. This was not only a matter of principle. It made such programs more popular with the public.[9]

A number of programs aided tenant and marginal farmers and others targeted African Americans. The New Deal built the first federal public housing projects in both rural and urban areas. It also brought the first federal initiatives to meet the special needs of the handicapped and a major turnaround in the treatment of Native Americans.

A primary quality of New Deal activity was its wide distribution, or “geographic universality”.  There is hardly a county or city anywhere in the country that did not get federal funds for a high school, hospital or park from the New Deal – not to mention land restoration, farm subsidies and programs for poor farm families, such as the Resettlement Administration’s housing and town-building. When the New Deal invested in depressed places, the people saw the evidence of federal concern with their own eyes, both in what was built and who did the work.

Lastly, there was a firm belief in the need to address the whole person and the needs of the public as a whole. The New Deal prioritized aid to education from school lunches and teachers’ aides to college buildings and laboratories; built up health programs from school nurses to the National Institutes of Health; and invested in recreational facilities and programs from playgrounds to national parks. One of the most remarkable dimensions of the New Deal was its creation, en masse, of civic buildings, civic spaces and public art to edify and elevate the spirits of the people.

Political Renewal of the Nation

The Green New Deal

The Green New Deal
Illustration by Jordan Johnson
Photo Credit: Creative Action Network

Franklin Roosevelt was a master politician and dealmaker who played his cards carefully. But he was also a true leader, coalition builder, progressive reformer and believer in American democracy. These qualities ran deep among all the New Dealers like Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins and Mary McLeod Bethune.[10]

The New Dealers first step was to take charge of a terrible situation with a real sense of urgency. They waded into the fray, ignoring precedent, deficits and naysayers to introduce legislation, issue executive orders and draw up plans for action. There was no blueprint, just a liberal pragmatism and willingness to try anything that might work.  For all his patrician background, FDR was able to speak to the public in a manner that restored their confidence in government and gave them hope.[11]

The New Dealers built a broad coalition across class, regional and racial lines. FDR knew that his legislative program depended not to alienating the South over race because he needed that left-leaning white populists of the southern delegation to pass New Deal legislation. That coalition frayed over the years as southern landowners reasserted their power.[12]

FDR was willing to bring unions on board and address the catastrophic conditions facing the working class. Conversely, his aristocratic origins gave him the confidence to stand up to the rich and the corporations when he needed to. He wisely sought to defang radical uprisings by meeting some of their demands, as in the case of the Townsend Movement’s demand for old-age pensions.

A vital quality of New Deal leaders was their ethical commitment to the public good and to the welfare of the common people. They recognized the importance of work to self-worth; the value of civic works in uplifting communities; and that education, recreation and the arts were essential to the human spirit.  Their sense of public service also meant no significant scandals hanging over the agencies dispensing such huge amounts of money.

Lastly, Roosevelt and the New Dealers understood that a nation devastated by the Great Depression and left rudderless by Republican leadership needed a new sense of national purpose. The New Deal gave Americans a project of national renewal in which they could participate, feel ownership, and witness in their everyday lives.

FDR was urged by many liberals to seize emergency powers, but refused. He was confronted by fascist movements, was abandoned by the capitalist class—many of whom were fascist sympathizers that feared FDR’s alliance with the working class.  Nevertheless, Roosevelt was a committed democrat who wanted, like Lincoln, to save the Republic from itself.[13]

The New Deal was a political earthquake in American governance. The power of the federal government grew exponentially and the federal system was transformed. The Democrats replaced Lincoln’s Republicans as the dominant party for the next half-century. And, despite many failings of the New Deal on racial grounds, there was an epochal shift of African-American voters to the Democrats.


[1] Both were overturned by the Supreme Court but the AAA was revised and passed a second time by Congress in 1938.

[2] Fishback, Price and Kachanovskaya, Valentina. “The Multiplier for Federal Spending in the States during the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 75, No. 1, 2015, pp. 125-62.

[3] Romer, Christina. 1992. What ended the Great Depression? Journal of Economic History. 52, no. 4: 757-84.

[4] Leighninger, Robert. 2007.  Long Run Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal.  Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.  Smith, Jason Scott. 2006. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Taylor, Nick. 2009. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam Books.

[6] Field, Alexander. 2011. A Great Leap Forward:1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

[7] Brinkley, Douglas. 2016. Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.  New York: Harper Books

[8] Alexander, Benjamin. 2018.  The New Deal’s Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[9] There has been too much criticism of the New Deal as ‘racist’, which is not true. It was not the Civil Rights revolution, but its programs were of enormous benefit to the vast majority of Americans. Sitkoff, Harvard. 2009. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade. New York: Oxford University Press.

[10] Smith, Jason Scott. 2014. A Concise History of the New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[11] Leuchtenberg, William. 1963.  Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-40.  New York: Harper Torchbooks.

[12] Katznelson, Ira. 2013. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.  New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

[13] Katznelson 2013.

Ten Lessons for a Green New Deal

Poster

The Green New Deal by Jan Berger
The Green New Deal  Source

FDR and the New Dealers were idealists, but their genius lay in a hard-nosed pragmatism and a willingness to experiment. The Green New Deal is still mostly a set of potential policies and hoped-for outcomes.  To succeed, it needs to take seriously ten lessons from the first New Deal.

  1. Advance universal programs. The New Deal succeeded by serving a wide range of Americans, rather than targeted populations. All seniors would receive pensions, all jobless qualified for work relief, and all localities were eligible for public works.
  2. Fix income inequality. The New Deal dramatically reduced income inequality by taxing high incomes and corporate profits, curbing financial speculation and lifting the fortunes of workers through the right to organize, fair labor practices and federal minimum wage. As a result, the postwar era was the most equal in American history.
  3. Civilian Conservation Corps Poster
    In the 1930s the CCC employed millions of young men. They planted a billion trees, fought wildfires, restored cropland, and were on the scene following hurricanes and floods.  Source

    Create good jobs.The New Dealers understood that Americans do not want handouts; they want jobs that provide dignity and a living wage. The Civilian Conservation Corps hired 3.5 million young men to build parks, plant trees and fight wildfires in exchange for family income and education. The Works Progress Administration trained and employed 9 million workers in useful jobs in their communities.

  4. Fiscal stimulus pays. New Dealers rejected the conventional wisdom about balanced budgets that had hamstrung the Hoover Administration and used fiscal stimulus to spur economic recovery.  The higher tax revenues from growth meant the deficit stayed within reason.
  5. Modernize the nation. The Public Works Administration and other agencies invested in big infrastructure, such as airports, dams and bridges, laying the foundation for the nation’s future prosperity. Most of these New Deal public works are still in use today.
  6. Invest in lagging places. The New Deal closed the gulf between urban and rural America by aiding rural areas through programs such as the Farm Credit Administration, Soil Conservation Service and Rural Electrification Administration. It improved the lives of people everywhere through new schools, hospitals, parks, housing and more.
  7. WPA sewer project for the City of San Diego

    WPA sewer project for the City of San Diego
    The Works Progress Administration, a federal jobs programs during the Great Depression, paid for all kinds of projects that federal, state, and local leaders thought would be worthwhile.

    Involve local communities. The New Deal worked with state and local governments to build hundreds of thousands of small-scale projects—parks, sidewalks, waterworks, etc. —requested by local officials. These brought visible benefits to local communities across the country and made Roosevelt the most popular president in U.S. history.

  8. Focus on the public good.The New Dealers sought the public good over private profit and put public careers ahead of personal gain. This spirit of public service pervaded a nation previously in despair.
  9. Restore faith in government. The New Deal rekindled Americans’ belief in government by programs that aided ordinary people and by the example set by the New Dealers. Corruption was extremely rare because it simply was not tolerated.
  10. A growing movement

    A growing movement
    Climate protesters urge Congress to adopt a Green New Deal
    Photo Credit: Sunrise Movement

    Go green. Conservation and environmental restoration were central to the New Deal’s agenda. It provided clean drinking water and new sewers; built thousands of parks and wildlife refuges; and planted billions of trees.  Restoring the land and the people were two sides of the same coin.

While the centerpiece of the Green New Deal is climate change, its advocates understand the need to address inequality, jobs and infrastructure. They now need to come up with dozens of concrete ways to attack the many problems facing the nation, as did the New Deal.

Meanwhile, critics calling the Green New Deal pie-in-the-sky need to learn the greatest lesson of the New Deal.  A climate program that does not address the needs of ordinary Americans is not only unjust, it is doomed to failure. Only a sweeping call to rebuild the country while serving the people will galvanize Americans to work for their common betterment.

Opposition to the Green New Deal

Opposition to the Green New Deal
Conservatives decry the plan.
Photo Credit: Heartland Institute

 

A version of this article appeared in The Washington Post.

Was the New Deal Racist?

The CCC offered African American enrollees the opportunity to learn a trade.

CCC men at woodworking shop in Cabin John, Maryland
The CCC offered African American enrollees the opportunity to learn a trade.

Both friends and critics of the New Deal point to actions by President Franklin Roosevelt and the exclusion of African Americans from some programs as evidence that the New Deal was racist. But in order to evaluate the New Deal fairly we have to ask what the country was like at the time.

While the New Deal revolutionized many aspects of society and government, it was not able to overcome America’s entrenched racial order. The fact is, the United States had been a white supremacist country from the beginning—rife with genocide and suppression of native people; slavery followed by Jim Crow; and the exploitation and exclusion of Chinese, Mexicans, and Filipinos. That was the world the New Deal inherited. The Civil Rights Movement would not arrive for another generation.

Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes hands the first constitution issued under the Indian Reorganization Act to delegates of the Confederated Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana, 1935.

Indian New Deal
Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes hands the first constitution issued under the Indian Reorganization Act to delegates of the Confederated Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana, 1935.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The New Dealers faced the daunting task of overcoming long-established patterns of discrimination and social hierarchy. They did not challenge the prevailing racial order head-on, but that’s not the same as saying it was racist. The leading New Dealers—Eleanor Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and Harry Hopkins—were outspoken critics of racial discrimination and made a systematic effort to include people of color in New Deal programs. Their overall achievement was impressive, if far from perfect.

Most New Deal programs reached out to include Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians to an unprecedented degree. People of color worked in large numbers in all the big relief programs and there were education, recreation, and health programs aimed specifically at helping them.

An educator, author and civil rights advocate,  and advisor to FDR and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she headed the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration.

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1943
An educator, author and civil rights advocate, and advisor to FDR and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she headed the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration.
Photo Credit: Picyrl

For example, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the so-called “Indian New Deal,” was a radical shift in federal policy. It was a genuine effort to honor native sovereignty, improve reservation lands, promote artisan crafts, and build schools for native children. On the other hand, the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams built on the Columbia River flooded thousands of acres of Native American lands without even providing irrigation water to local reservations.

Other New Deal achievements baked in discriminatory policies. The Social Security and National Labor Relations Acts of 1935 made an exception for agricultural and domestic workers, effectively excluding African Americans and Chicanos as a result of compromises FDR made with Southern Democrats and Western Growers to get these programs through Congress.

Nevertheless, FDR put African Americans into positions of power not seen since Reconstruction. A group of prominent African Americans were popularly known as FDR’s Black Cabinet. They included Lawrence Oxley, a high-ranking official in the Department of Labor; Mary McLeod Bethune, the director of the National Youth Administration’s Office of Negro Affairs; and Robert Weaver, who served as an economic advisor to the president. FDR also appointed William Hastie as the first-ever African-American federal judge.

The Farm Security Administration established camps for migrant farm workers in California, and the CCC and WPA hired unemployed Mexican Americans on relief jobs.

Men at work
The Farm Security Administration established camps for migrant farm workers in California, and the CCC and WPA hired unemployed Mexican Americans on relief jobs.

By Executive Order, discrimination was barred in the relief agencies and workers were paid equal wages regardless of race nearly everywhere. The WPA employed hundreds of thousands of African-American, Asian, Mexican, and Native American citizens. These were not only men doing manual labor. Women of color were hired as teachers, social workers, librarians, and in other professional and service sectors, often working on integrated teams.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is often cited as a segregated program, but at the outset it was integrated. Intense opposition in rural areas of the North and across the South ultimately forced the CCC to segregate its camps.

The New Deal ended President Hoover’s aggressive deportation of Mexicans and invested heavily in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Hawai’i. Yet, President Roosevelt made a catastrophically bad decision to issue Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned some 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans as the country went to war at the end of 1942.

WPA artist Tyrus Wong

WPA artist Tyrus Wong
Many minority artists were employed or commissioned by New Deal art programs.

While the New Deal fell far short of ending racial discrimination, it set in motion the forces that would challenge Jim Crow in the postwar era. The number of people of color working for the federal government increased dramatically during the New Deal and many were elevated to important positions in government. Many of the black leaders Roosevelt relied upon would go on to help launch the Civil Rights Movement. Integration of the Armed Forces would begin by the end of World War II. Supreme Court justices appointed by FDR were crucial to postwar judgments against segregated education, anti-miscegenation laws, and housing discrimination.

The New Deal marked an important step forward in addressing the problems of U.S. society. Its outlook, policies, and programs, while far from perfect, contributed to the advancement of millions of citizens of color as part of its massive effort to improve the lives of all working people, seniors, children and other ordinary Americans.

FDR’s " Black Cabinet"

FDR’s "Black Cabinet"
An informal cabinet of African Americans served as public policy advisors to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt,. Front row, left to right: Dr. Ambrose Caliver, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Dr. Robert C. Weaver, Joseph H. Evans, Dr. Frank Horne, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lt. Lawrence A. Oxley, Dr. William J. Thompkins, Charles E. Hall, William I. Houston, Ralph E. Mizelle. Back row, left to right: Dewey R. Jones, Edgar Brown, J. Parker Prescott, Edward H. Lawson, Jr., Arthur Weiseger, Alfred Edgar Smith, Henry A. Hunt, John W. Whitten, Joseph R. Houchins. Source: Scurlock Studio, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” taken in March 1938″
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Our New Map and Guide to New Deal New York
by Richard Walker

Two years in the making, the Living New Deal’s newest publication, a “Map and Guide to New Deal New York” highlights nearly one thousand public works throughout the five boroughs and describes 50 of the city’s notable New Deal buildings, parks, murals, and artworks. The 18 x 27 inch, multi-color, citywide map folds to pocket size. Three inset maps offer walking tours to the New Deal in Central Park, Midtown, and Downtown Manhattan. The “Map and Guide to New Deal New York” is the second map the Living New Deal has published showing the impact of the New Deal. “Guide to the Art and Architecture of San Francisco,” published in 2013, has proved popular with residents, tourists, and teachers alike.

We are grateful to the many people who guided us in selecting the New Deal sites featured on the New York map and who carefully reviewed many drafts. Special thanks for the excellent work of cartographer Molly Roy and designer Linda Herman. Two events will be held in Manhattan to celebrate the completion of the New York map. Each will feature leading New Deal historians, authors, and exhibits on New Deal history and activism.

Thurs, May 11, 6pm at Roosevelt House at Hunter College. Information and registration

Thurs, May 18, 6:30pm, Museum of the City of New York. Information and registration

The Map and Guide to New Deal New York can be purchased for $6.

Art Review: American Painting of the 1930s
by Richard Walker

Art of the 1930s may finally be coming back into fashion—something that New Deal aficionados can celebrate.

It has been a long time since a major exhibit of art from the 1930s has been mounted, but curators at the Art Institute of Chicago rectified that last summer with an installation, originally titled “After the Fall: American Painting in the 1930s.” I saw the exhibit this winter at Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. It has since moved to London’s Royal Academy of Arts, where it will be on display until June 4, 2017.

The exhibit is extremely well done in terms of the selection of the 45 paintings and the explanatory text on the walls and in the catalogue. The latter provides a succinct introduction to the Great Depression and how Americans reacted to it. The exhibition includes works by such noted artists Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, and Grant Wood, whose iconic American Gothic had never left North American shores before. But the exhibit goes well beyond, taking in lesser-known painters of remarkable talent, such as Alexander Hogue and Paul Sample.

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930
Grant Wood used his sister and his dentist as models for a farmer and his daughter

The predominant Social Realist and American Regionalist styles of the time were largely eclipsed by postwar Abstract art in the United States and regarded as backward by European art historians fixated on the early modernism represented in Cubism, Constructivism and Surrealism.

The international audiences viewing the exhibit at the l’ Orangerie were clearly delighted by this refreshing look at a kind of American art they rarely see and the excellence of the works on display. Surprising were the number of early experiments in Abstraction as well as some fiercely political paintings, like Philip Guston’s Bombardment and Joe Jones’ American Justice.

From the perspective of the New Deal, however, there were some glaring absences. An exhibit devoted solely to framed paintings necessarily omits the mural art characteristic of the age, when artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn, and Aaron Douglas were probably better known for their public murals than their canvases. Another is that while FDR’s programs are briefly mentioned, and the hiring of artists by federal programs noted in passing, the term “The New Deal” does not appear in the exhibit, as far as I could see. Talk about historical amnesia! This is, alas, all too typical of art historians and curators, who are taught to treat art as something apart from politics and social life.

Evidently, our task at the Living New Deal is not just to uncover a buried civilization of public works, but to revive the memory of all the artwork created under the auspices of the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s.

 

Farewell to Curtis Roosevelt

It was with great sadness that we learned this week of the passing of Curtis Roosevelt, grandson of FDR.  Curtis was a member of our Advisory Board and a stalwart supporter of the Living New Deal. Dick Walker visited Curtis and his wife, Marina, twice in the last two years at their home in the south of France, and they were most gracious hosts and lively company.  Curtis was a great admirer of his grandfather and grandmother, proud of the Roosevelt family lineage, and a feisty New Dealer to the end.  He thought the Living New Deal was in the best tradition of his grandfather’s legacy and was enthusiastic about the idea of creating a national New Deal museum.

Curtis Roosevelt earned a masters degree from Columbia University, worked in public relations and education, and spent twenty years at the United Nations, where he served as chief liaison with non-governmental organizations. After a stint as the head of a prep school in England, he moved to Mallorca with his new wife, Marina, and later to a village in France. In recent years, he was better known in Europe than in the United States, and he was a founder of the anti-austerity group in France, Roosevelt 2012.

Having grown up in the spotlight at the White House, Curtis seemed quite happy to be out of it in later in life. But he was clearly still wrestling with the burdens of his famous childhood in his recent memoir, Too Close to the Sun. Unfortunately, that youthful moment in the sun remains what he is best remembered for, if the regrettably light-weight obituary in the New York Times is any indication. It is not his childish locks that we should remember but his political commitment to New Deal principles of public service and social welfare, which put him well to the left of the mainstream Democrats of today.

Did the New Deal Cure the Great Depression?

FDR Flashes the Victory Sign, 1942

FDR Flashes the Victory Sign, 1942
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), the 32nd President of the United States, at his estate in Hyde Park, New York.
Photo Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

The Great Depression, the worst crisis in American history, brought the country to its knees by 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt took office. FDR and his team launched the New Deal to help get the country back on its feet. They succeeded, yet the myth persists that the New Deal had little effect on economic recovery and only World War II ended the Depression.

The proximate cause of the Great Depression was the financial meltdown that began in October 1929. Stock prices nosedived, millions defaulted on mortgage payments, and thousands of businesses and banks were shuttered.

The real economy was going into recession well before Black Friday, when all hell broke loose. Investment shrank, wages were slashed, layoffs multiplied, and consumer demand shriveled, propelling the economy into a downward spiral. By early 1933, GDP had fallen by half, industrial output by a third, and employment by one-quarter.

A key accomplishment of the New Deal was to get the U.S. financial house in order. Failing banks were culled, deposit insurance instituted, homeowners bailed out, and mortgages guaranteed. The Federal Reserve loosened up the money supply and credit began to flow again.

Meanwhile, billions were pumped into the economy through emergency relief funds and public works programs, from the CCC to the WPA. Not only were millions of desperate American put to work, their families had spending money to stimulate aggregate consumption.

Furthermore, federal spending shot ahead of tax revenue, creating a large budget deficit. FDR didn’t believe in deficits, but was willing to try anything, thus inventing ‘fiscal policy’ even before economist John Maynard Keynes gave it a name.

1933 NRA Poster

1933 NRA Poster
A National Recover Administration sign in a restaurant window, 1933

The economy took off, reaching double-digit growth rates. By 1937, the Great Recovery had pushed output, income, and manufacturing back to 1929 levels. Then recession hit in 1937-38, dropping output by a third and driving unemployment back up. Three things contributed to the setback: FDR tried to re-balance the budget; Social Security taxes kicked in; and the Federal Reserve tightened money supply.

Nevertheless, growth resumed in 1939 and regained its long-term trajectory before war broke out. The big exception was unemployment, which stayed above 10 percent, forever marring the New Deal’s reputation. Worse, a key study exaggerated joblessness by not counting the millions working in federal work programs.

World War II brought full employment through military recruitment and full-tilt production, with the federal government running more massive deficits than the New Deal ever dared.

To be sure, recovery cannot be ascribed only to the New Deal. By the 1920s, the American economy was the largest in the world and the assembly line, electricity, chemicals, and petroleum had unleashed a new Industrial Revolution. Advances in productivity continued through the 1930s. Dramatic improvement in transportation was helped by the New Deal’s extensive road building. The downside was closure of obsolete factories and railways, terminating millions of jobs, which explains much of the unemployment that remained despite the Great Recovery.

The History of the World in One Mural

It’s well known that there are some WPA murals in Bronx’s DeWitt Clinton High School, notably one called “The History of the World”.  But who knew it was a monumental work 194 feet long?  One thousand square feet in total, it is a kind of Sistine Chapel of New Deal artworks.

Every square inch of the upper half of the walls is covered with images that truly do attempt to present a History of the World from creation through prehistory; across the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece, ad Rome; covering the middle ages, pre-Columbian America, the Vikings, the Crusades, and several of the world’s great religions; and finally the New World, conquest and colonization, and wars, all the way up to Modern Times (the 1930s).  Above all this, the entire ceiling is done as the night sky with its constellations.

“The History of the World” mural was the product of six solid years of work by Alfred Floegel, and is his masterpiece. Floegel was an out-of-work German immigrant artist employed from 1934 to 1940 by New Deal agencies, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  While it may be a bit Western-centric by modern standards, the mural is still remarkably diverse for its time, a hallmark of many New Deal artworks.

Alfred Floegel's 'History of the World' mural at DeWitt Clinton HS, NYC

Hallway, 2015
Alfred Floegel’s ‘History of the World’ mural at DeWitt Clinton HS, NYC  Source
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz Frank da Cruz

The magnitude of the work wasn’t my only surprise.  The Principal of DeWitt Clinton, Santiago Taveras (Santi), had recently been visited by Floegel’s son, who is about the same age as the murals. Alfred, Jr. was on a pilgrimage to see his father’s greatest work. He left some clippings, photos, and handwritten notes with Santi, who shared them with me.

I did my best to photograph the entirety of the mural and some samples of the ceiling, but a proper job would require elevated platforms and special lighting.  It’s a job that should be done before this unique work goes the way of so many other WPA murals and is damaged, painted over, or lost in a building reconstruction.

To view all the photos, click here.

Frank da Cruz, Bronx, New York City

A Forgotten Arts Competition – For Ships!

Did you hear the one about the New Deal competition to decorate round-the-world passenger-cargo ships? No? You’re not alone. Few people know of this 1940 Section of Fine Arts competition, which generated over 70 pieces of art for six ships.

Living New Deal Associate Wayne Yanda has been researching this competition for several years and had the opportunity to visit with the last surviving winner, Bernard Perlin, whose post office mural in South Orange, NJ can still be seen. Other notable winners were Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Hildreth Meière, and Edmund Lewandowski.  Over 450 artists submitted more than 1400 designs, the second largest held by the Fine Arts Section after 1939’s 48-State competition.

Yanda has started a RocketHub crowdfunding campaign for a research trip to the National Archives and the Archives of American Art. If enough people donate, he’ll spend almost two weeks gathering the images and documents needed for his book, tentatively titled, Arts Afloat: The New Deal’s Lost Competitions. An exhibit is also in the works.

Visit http://www.rockethub.com/projects/51615-arts-afloat-the-new-deal-s-lost-competitions to learn more about this project. The last day to take part is Tuesday, May 19, 2015.