Endangered New Deal Art

THE LIVING NEW DEAL 

RACISM IN NEW DEAL ART AND ARTIFACTS

An introduction

The Living New Deal staff recognize that we are living through a critical moment in American life in which much of the nation’s history, ideology and imagery is under scrutiny over the treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, and other racialized groups. This healthy reconsideration of the nation’s past is likely to continue long after the upheavals of 2020.

The course of slavery, colonialism and conquest runs deep in our national background and White Supremacy is in the docket, rightly accused of a host of sins. People of good conscience need to speak out and take action to address the pervasive legacy of slavery, native genocide, Asian exclusion and the exploitation of non-European immigrants.

Coming to terms with the past is a necessary corrective, chiefly because it casts light on present practices that do great harm; but it is not always easy to know what to do. One thing is try to get our history right by recognizing the truth of Euro-American domination and oppression of others, while bringing to the fore the contributions of people of color to this country. Another is to subject the poisonous mythologies of American life to withering criticism in order to clear the air. Most important is changing present-day laws, institutions and practices to create greater equality and a more just social order. Necessary correctives may include reparations, affirmative hiring, police reform and other practical measures.

It may not be comfortable for some White people to acknowledge the way the racial order has favored them and their ancestors while disadvantaging others. Yet, reckoning with the past is less about personal guilt than it is about changing social institutions, frameworks of thought and relations of power. One thing that can shake people’s foundations is the questioning and removal of artifacts of the past that are present everywhere around us.

“Artifacts” can be buildings, monuments, paintings, sculptures, books and other material products of past eras that live on today. We meet them in public places, view them in museums, search for them archives and hoard them in private collections. Even our family homes are full of them. They are part of our everyday landscapes and activities.

Artifacts provide evidence of how our predecessors and ancestors lived, worked and thought. They are valued for many reasons: as family heirlooms, exemplars of local history, monuments to national heroes, public buildings, precious artworks, great literature and more. We sometimes guard them carefully in museums, libraries and houses, but other times they go into storage, get thrown away, deteriorate in the open air or are demolished for new buildings. We Americans can be quite careless about our history, learning little about it and neglecting its artifacts.

The problem before us today is how to deal with these remnants of our national history when they contain offensive racist imagery, memories of shameful actions, celebrations of nefarious leaders, or reminders of past evils. Do we seek to expunge some or all of them? Do we hide them away in cellars or museums? Do we try to learn from what they tell us about the past in order to do better today? Do we use them to teach our children how to build a better future? These are thorny questions, and they rarely have simple answers.

Some offensive artifacts have to go. But where? The difficulty with destroying artifacts is that it doesn’t erase what was done in the past or its social effects. Removal from the public gaze is often a good thing, and outright destruction can be cathartic and make a political point. But history also reminds us of the excesses done in the name of revolutionary change, like the abbeys destroyed by the Protestant Reformation, the religious statuary battered in the French Revolution, or the ancient ruins demolished by ISIS in Syria. The world has again and again lost precious heritage because of such actions, not to mention in the bombardments and madness of wars.

Clearly, we need to be selective and sensitive in considering what art and artifacts to remove in our collective effort to answer for America’s past sins. Sometimes outright destruction is not to be mourned, as with Confederate statues put up expressly to cast a glow over a romanticized memory of the Old South and its Lost Cause of defending slavery. But in most cases the answer is not so cut and dried.

Many strategies exist for dealing with controversial monuments and artworks, and some have been tried to good effect. Think of the counter-monument to confederate statues in Richmond VA, the brilliant “Rumors of War” by Kehinde Wiley. Or the reworking of several southern plantations to restore the part played by Africans and teach the history of slavery. New kinds of monuments have been going up around the country, starting with the Vietnam War memorial designed by Maya Lin. Museums are being rethought and new types of experiences created, as at the African American Museum on the National Mall or at many Holocaust Museums.

The Living New Deal is faced with similar questions about the art and artifacts of the New Deal era, 1933 to 1942, which we are actively documenting, mapping and celebrating as our organization’s mission. In what follows, we take up the problem of New Deal artworks and the preservation of New Deal sites that may generate controversy over their racial imagery, reproductions of mainstream mythology, memorialization of questionable figures, and more.

Our sympathies lie on both sides of such controversies. On the one hand, we value the New Deal’s progressive legacy for all the good it did for this country and for Americans of all backgrounds, despite some glaring failures. On the other hand, precisely because of those same principles we recognize the need for America to come to terms with its racist past and ongoing racial order dominated by people of European descent.

The following short statements try to set out our position:

•Why is New Deal art special?
•Reckoning with racism in art.
•Responding to imperiled New Deal art.

And, because more artworks and sites are coming under scrutiny or face destruction, we have begun to keep a list of public controversies brought to our attention from around the country.

We hope these thoughts will be of use to people of good conscience and the best of intentions in making decisions about how to treat New Deal art and sites in the future.

THE LIVING NEW DEAL

RECKONING WITH RACISM IN ART

Where does art come into the much-needed reckoning with racism in America and the effort to recognize the evils in our nation’s history and present practices? Art has always had a special place in human society and cannot be dealt with in quite the same way as getting rid of a brand of cereal, the mascot of a football team or the name on a building.

Things said and done in the present by businesses, governments or fellow citizens can be denounced, halted and even made illegal for the harm they do other people and to our principles of social justice. Yet, how do we reckon with the special character of art in trying to expunge the symbols, ideologies and practices of racism? Artworks are frequently questioned for what they represent, how they do it and why they came into being; but there are good reasons why artworks should not be judged hastily or treated cavalierly.

Some artworks are manifestly offensive for their unquestioning portrayals of slavery and conquest, demeaning images people of color and one-sided celebrations of white people’s accomplishments. After all, artists are creatures of society and their times. They are embedded in social orders and partake of the shared ideas of the worlds they inhabit. They do not float free of all prejudices, myths and folly of other human beings. As a consequence, artists and their works can be infected with the same racial beliefs as others.

To be sure, there are public monuments and artworks – even some from the New Deal era – that embody the worst aspects of America’s racial history, such as equestrian statues honoring confederate generals, florid paintings of innocent pioneers attacked by beastly Indians, and World War II propaganda with buck-toothed Japanese. In such pieces, the offense is blatant and the inherent artistic value minimal. The offense can take several forms, too, from personal hurt and righteous anger to reasoned objection to the falsification of history. Good people, heeding the moral imperative speak up against racism, may demand that such artworks be removed from public view or even destroyed.

But can we be so certain about other statuary and paintings where the offenses are less obvious and the artistic qualities much greater? Here we need to stop and reflect on the place of art in human affairs, the problematic “reading” of art by any one viewer, and the difficulty of agreeing on what constitutes good and worthy art. Here are some considerations to weigh in thinking about disturbing and controversial artworks.

To begin with, good art stands apart from mere memorial and memory. Art is a collective achievement that human societies have valued and supported for millennia. Art and artists are recognized as speaking to some of our deepest thoughts, passions and yearnings, and doing so in exceptional ways. Artworks are products of special minds and disciplined bodies, which makes every work of art special. Art is worthy of general admiration precisely because it rises above the everyday and stretches our humanity to the limits.

It is vital to appreciate the artistic value of a work, which is not always obvious to the casual viewer. While there can be many reading of artworks, good art is not just a matter of personal opinion. There are people who spend their lives learning about artistic styles and techniques, not to mention wrestling with the intentions of artists and the meanings embedded in artworks. It takes that kind of expertise to assess the value of a work and the skill of the artist. This is not to say that only experts can judge art, but that their views should be taken seriously. In the end, of course, not all works that claim to be art are worthy of the name.

As for interpreting art, good artists do not indulge in the obvious. They work with a vision that is not always apparent to the untrained eye, and they use subtlety and ambiguity to let their works speak to viewers in many ways. There is likely to be more to artistic representations than what we see on first glance. For sure, works of art are more than the images they contain and cannot be flattened into mere pictures.

Indeed, serious artworks are compositions of many parts. It is easy to misread good art from a partial perspective or by taking a piece out of the whole. Adults are capable of understanding subtle imagery and complex compositions, but they commonly disagree over the significance of the whole. While one person may think that an artwork misrepresents history or recycles discredited attitudes, other people of good might well have different views.

Furthermore, artists are often contrarians and provocateurs, and the manner in which they present the worlds they inhabit can be profoundly critical in ways that are not immediately obvious. Artists are notorious for finding the cracks in the smooth facade of a social order and in subtly undermining the very thing they seem to be celebrating. They are good at disturbing the received wisdom about style, subject and viewpoint.

If we are to learn from history, then art is an important tool for unlocking it. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of art is how it opens a window on the past. Artworks help us see the past for what it was, what it tried to hide and what it aspired to be. Because artworks move us and enlighten us in ways that drier evidence cannot, they are commonly the best reminders of how people once thought and societies were organized – even though those are things we now deplore and want to see eliminated in contemporary society.

While we cannot expect past artists to know what we know today, they were frequently ahead of their times, leaving important hints of change brewing beneath the surface. So, while artworks are artifacts of the past, they are not simple reflections of it. That is why guarding our artistic heritage is more than collections in museums organized by epoch. Art has the power to speak to us in surprising ways across decades and even centuries.

Lastly, while the removal of stock busts of Lenin in Eastern Europe after 1989 and of fawning memorials to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy in the US today are not to be mourned, good motives can still lead to the loss of artistic heritage. The history of sweeping attacks on art must give us pause before setting out to purge all offensive racial images. In certain times and places, great harm has been done to world heritage, as with the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan.

In sum, we would do well in the United States today to approach the criticism of art carefully, even if our motives are good and the moment calls for strenuous criticism of the past and its byproducts. We have to think long and hard about the place of art in society, the role of the artist and possible readings of works of art before taking action. It is easy to make mistakes that we shall later regret.

THE LIVING NEW DEAL

WHY IS NEW DEAL ART SPECIAL?

The New Deal of the 1930s was an exceptional moment in US history that changed the country. It marked a breakthrough in the long-term conservative trajectory of a nation enamored of the free market, individualism, unfettered capitalism and minimal government, and it ushered in a profound shift in federal policy which laid the foundation for the ‘social welfare state’ of the mid- 20th century. In this regard, it merits comparison with the Civil War, Progressive Era and Civil Rights era in terms of major steps forward for the mass of Americans.

Furthermore, the New Deal supported the arts to a level never seen before or since by the federal government. One reason for this was the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression, which devastated millions of Americans economically and spiritually, and at the same time left thousands of artists desperate for work. The New Dealers not only employed artists as part of its relief efforts, they saw that artists could create public works of art that would brighten and enlighten the lives of the citizenry in the midst of somber times. Many struggling young artists had their careers saved by New Deal commissions and went on to fame and fortune afterward.

The second reason for New Deal support for the arts was a deep belief, passed on from the Progressive Era, in the virtue of the public realm and the importance of government serving the general public good. With this sense of the greater commonwealth over individual gain and monetary reward, they believed that art should adorn public places and not be hidden away in private collections – and displayed in places where they might be seen on a regular basis.

The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up several programs to engage artists. The Treasury Section of Fine Arts commissioned high quality murals for post offices and federal buildings throughout the New Deal years, 1933-42. The most ambitious program was Federal One, which was established under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935. Federal One had branches for theater, music and writing, but the best known is the Federal Art Project (FAP), which paid for murals, bas-reliefs and other decorative elements for civic buildings and public sites. There were four smaller, shorter-lived arts programs, as well: The Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration (1933), the Art & Culture Projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (1934) and the Treasury Relief Arts Project (1935). The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (1935), aimed at American Indian artwork and protecting it from fraudulent competition, is the only one that still exists.

An important aspect of the New Deal arts programs is that they allowed artists a wide exercise of their own inspiration and talents. Themes were proposed as appropriate to certain buildings and designs usually had to be submitted for professional evaluation, but there was neither an overarching theme or any requirement for adulatory depictions of the country, its history or the New Deal itself. Nevertheless, one sees a recurrent thread of celebration and optimism in the works of the era, perhaps due to the overwhelming support the art programs had from both artists and the general public.

The dominant style of murals and sculptures of the 1930s was Social Realism (just as in buildings it was Moderne or Art Deco). Only somewhat less prevalent was American Scene painting. Nevertheless, there was no style favored or required by New Deal agencies and, as a result, one finds an enormous range of styles in painting, sculpture and architecture.

The dominance of Social Realism and American Scene art in New Deal works is significant for their evaluation, criticism and preservation. For one thing, those styles, which arose after World War I, went quickly out of fashion after World War II in favor of Abstraction. For decades, they were regarded as old-fashioned, lacking in sophistication, and quaint, at best. Social Realism came under attack for the tendency to celebrate labor and its resemblance to art done under the Soviet Union. American Scene was rejected for its unfashionable nostalgia and uncritical celebration of mainstream culture.

Only recently has the art of the 1930s enjoyed some revival in the museum world, as in the 2016 exhibition mounted by the Chicago Art Institute, which traveled to Europe afterward. Still, New Deal art is everywhere around us today, in post offices, courthouses, city halls and public schools, and it continues to bring joy to most of those who see it regularly.

In fact, some of the greatest and most distinctive American art was created in this period and under the New Deal’s aegis. Such early 20th century figures as Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and Maynard Dixon, for example, are now celebrated in art history. Then there were those who learned the Mexican mural style from Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, such as Bernard Zakheim, Victor Arnautoff and George Biddle. And, for those who may think New Deal art was old-fashioned and passé, the list includes some surprising postwar giants, such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston and Lee Krasner.

Importantly, the New Deal art programs were open to all and supported many artists of color, such as African Americans Sargent Johnson, Charles Davis and William Edouard Scott; Native Americans James Auchiah and Gerald Nailor, Latino Americans Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora and Lusi Arenal; and Asian Americans Dong Kingman, Kikuta Nakagawa and Isamu Noguchi – not to mention recent immigrants such as Ben Shahn and Jose Moya del Pino.

Yet, too much of the New Deal arts legacy has become inaccessible given the heightened security around schools and civic buildings these days. Too often it is poorly maintained, remains unmarked in any way, or is in jeopardy from officials ignorant of its value. All too much New Deal art was put away in museum basements or painted over during building modernizations through the years.

We firmly believe that this country needs vastly more funding for public art and the maintenance of the artistic heritage we already have. Many states and cities have “one percent for art” programs that have done wonderful things in supporting artists and improving public spaces. But half the states have no such program and the federal government’s National Endowment for the Arts is persistently underfunded. We need a “new New Deal for Art” to support the diverse artists of today and the spectrum of imagery they want to express.

THE LIVING NEW DEAL

RESPONDING TO IMPERILED NEW DEAL ART

We at the Living New Deal often hear about controversies involving New Deal art, particularly murals in public buildings. People around the country approach us for help in answering challenges to valued artworks and understanding the options for preservation. We have, therefore, come up with this short advisory for those facing such controversies.

As an organization preserving and publicizing the accomplishments of the New Deal, 1933-42, we believe that the public art sponsored by the New Deal art is witness to a period of optimism, communal spirit, and government activism in the midst of great distress and widespread despair in the Great Depression. That a diverse group of unemployed artists could be put to work beautifying public spaces and raising the spirits of the American people throughout the country, still resonates.

New Deal artworks are a national treasure because they were funded by the American people and they represent a unique collaboration among artists, government, and local communities. We believe that the schools, post offices, libraries, and other civic buildings that house these works have a responsibility to protect, promote, and interpret this legacy to today’s viewers.

We recognize, however, that some New Deal art has become problematic. Some depictions of history or daily life from the 1930s now seem obsolete and perpetuate racial stereotypes, celebrate colonialism and devalue people of color. We respect those who do not want to be confronted repeatedly by images of enslaved people, “savage natives”, or a parade of “heroic” White men. We agree that some New Deal art should be removed, placed out of sight or kept as museum pieces.

We caution strongly against hasty judgements, however. The vast majority of New Deal art was created to honor common folk, tell local stories and inspire the American people, and most of it is of significant artistic merit. There must be a balance between meeting modern standards of justice and preserving historically significant artworks. In very few cases should works of art ever be destroyed.

This conversation goes to the heart of America’s evolving view of itself and it can become heated because it matters to our national future. All parties need to listen to each other and deliberate carefully about the fate of artistic assets that belong to us all. In that spirit, we offer this set of considerations for dealing with controversial New Deal art.

  1. Find out who controls the artwork. It is important to determine who owns the art, who has a rightful interest in it and what voices should be heard before taking action. Many New Deal artworks are in the public domain and managed by the General Services Administration (GSA) in trust for the American people. A private owner or a local postmaster may not have the right to dispose of an artwork without further approval.
  2. Consider the work as an historic artifact. Artworks are windows on the past and valuable for what they teach us about American history. Should we take offense at representations of what took place and how the dominant culture thought about it, or can we use them as evidence of what was wrong? Problematic parts of our history cannot be expunged by eliminating images of them, however distressing. Looking forthrightly at attitudes expressed in a 75-year-old mural can show us how our nation has changed since then.
  3. Avoid hasty interpretations of artwork. Multiple readings of art are common. The message of a New Deal mural may be more subtle, and more subversive, than it seems at first impression; it cannot be assumed that the artist meant to glorify the things depicted. Many New Deal artists were progressives who, when they could, criticized racism, imperialism, genocide, and economic exploitation, and they regularly honored the labor and lives of common people, including African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. For example, a mural showing Black people working in the fields may have been celebrating their contribution to the region. Similarly, a mural with both Black and White workers, but the former in a lower-status jobs, or even enslaved, can be an honest portrayal of local history, not a racist act. In fact, if a panoramic mural in a southern state didn’t include African-American laborers, it would be a strange whitewash of local history!
  1. Understand the artistic value of the work. It is common to hear that good art is just a matter of personal opinion, but this is not true. There are people with the expertise to assess the value of a work and the skill of the artist. Art historians can spot a difficult and relatively rare medium such as fresco or bas-relief. Consulting an expert or taking time for research can reveal value that is not obvious and temper hasty judgements. (It can also confirm that a knock-off statue of a military officer or former president is not a worthy piece of art.)
  2. Think of the viewers and their experience. A mural in an elementary school is not the same as one in a high school or post office. Certainly, young children should not be exposed to pictures that could make them feel uncomfortable. New Deal artists did some delightful works for children, but the imagery can be stereotypical and exclusionary; removing these murals from view is justifiable. Older students and adults, however, are capable of understanding anachronistic imagery, especially with guidance; good explanatory signage can put art into context and acknowledge critical views.
  3. Consider the opinions of the wider community. Is there widespread agreement about removal or is the criticism confined to a small group? While it often takes a few courageous voices to spur a community to action, the vocal few also need to listen to others. New Deal art belongs to the entire community around a school, a post office or a town hall; in fact, each is part of a national public art portfolio belonging to all Americans. Removal should not rest only on the objections of a vocal few; input must be sought from the larger community and groups depicted in the artwork.
  4. Seek positive alternatives. Is there an educational opportunity here? Constructive responses can use New Deal murals to spark consideration of historical events, national mythologies, and how artists portray them. One approach is to provide explanatory and critical literature by the artwork or, better yet, interactive kiosks that solicit viewers comments; a broader approach, especially in schools is to create student research assignments and build school curricula around a mural. An especially successful response has been to commission a counter mural by a local artist that creates a visual dialogue between past and present. Where a work of art is controversial, it can be better to engage in a (perhaps painful) conversation than to simply make an offending work vanish.
  5. Find out the options for preservation. Most oil-on-canvas paintings or free-standing sculptures can be taken down and placed in protective storage. Offensive art can often be placed in a museum setting along with similar works as a way to illustrate (and learn from) a cruel past and its ideologies. Documentation is vital; many New Deal artworks have gone missing over the years from sheer forgetfulness. The least costly solution for a disputed artwork can be to simply cover it up; drapery, plywood, and drywall will not damage wall murals and can be removed at a later time. Covering is normally the only option for frescoes, which are painted directly on the wall and cannot be dislodged without damage or at great expense.

The Living New Deal believes that artistic legacy of the New Deal need to be appreciated as part of a larger story of an activist government that promoted a democratic American art accessible to all. That is still a valuable principle 75 years later. Although some of that art has dated poorly and our thinking has evolved, most New Deal art is still an inspiration and a valuable reminder of what could be done today if the federal government put more resources into public art and public education.

We urge principals, school boards, postmasters, librarians, and others who face demands to remove or destroy New Deal art to be cautious in weighing public opinion and exploring their options. The best solution is usually to find ways to make these artifacts relevant to today’s rethinking of America’s racial order and its unfulfilled promises of equality and justice.