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

 

Democratizing Beauty

Berkeley, California Rose Garden

Berkeley, California Rose Garden
The garden, featuring 1,500 varieties of roses, was one of the first of the New Deal’s Civil Works Progress projects. Conceived in 1933, it was dedicated for public use in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

I had to think hard when a reporter recently asked me what most surprised me about what I’ve learned about the New Deal. After a pause, I replied “The importance of aesthetics.” My response was primed by the first sentence of a list of goals set forth by the National Resources Planning Board [NPRB] for what the Roosevelt Administration sought to achieve after the war:

“The fullest possible development of the human personality, in relation to the common good, in a framework of freedoms and rights, of justice, liberty, equality, and the consent of the governed.”

I marveled at how alien such a high and holistic aspiration seemed not only in the present but in all the administrations of my lifetime. It was especially so in light of the time it was written— January, 1943 at the nadir of the Second World War when Americans were still under food rationing. But, in fact, it succinctly summarizes much of what the New Deal set out to accomplish.

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio
This public library was constructed in 1939 with the aid of Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A multi-color glass mosaic crowns the lobby.
Photo Credit: Evan Kalish

Although Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had all of the advantages that inherited wealth and status gave them—spending three months on the Grand Tour of Europe for their honeymoon, for example—they both came to believe that access to beauty should not be the exclusive prerogative of their own class. In 1941, in his dedication of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., President Roosevelt declared that great works of art such as those in the Gallery belong to all men everywhere, but that the government furthermore had a duty to create new art and take it to where there had been none before.

The WPA’s Federal Music, Theatre, Writing, and Art Projects and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts did just that, so that Roosevelt could deftly leap in his speech from Andrew Mellon’s gift of Old Masters in the Gallery to what FDR felt all Americans were entitled to: “Recently… they have seen in their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and post offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to.” Both FDR and Eleanor believed that access to beauty was essential for “the full development of the human personality” not only for healthy individuals, but also for a healthy democracy. Even in the absence—or obverse—of such goals at the federal level today, New Deal projects such as Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens, Mt Hood’s Timberline Lodge, and Denver’s Red Rock Amphitheatre have enabled millions to nourish their spirits just as the NPRB hoped they would in the midst of war.

 

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco
The richly detailed interior and exterior of the school, built in 1937, was meant to provide a cheerful atmosphere for the disabled children.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.

Indian Bowman
Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

From FDR’s speech at the National Gallery dedication:

“Great works of art belong to all men everywhere. Art was foreign to Americans, they were taught. Recently, they have discovered that they have a part. They have seen their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and Post Offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to. They have seen across these last few years rooms full of painting and sculptures by Americans. Walls covered with the paintings by Americans. Some of it good, some of it not so good. But all of it native and human and eager and alive; all of it painted by their own kind in this country. And painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.” 

Dedicated in conviction that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on too.