The WPA and The Art of Nature

One of the countless, vibrant depictions of nature produced by the WPA.

One of the countless, vibrant depictions of nature produced by the WPA for the “See America” campaign.  Source High Speed Productions, Inc.

The August issue of venerable arts and (counter)culture magazine Juxtapoz explores the image of nature in artworks created by Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor for the “See America” campaign, promoting the National Parks.


Carlo McCormick’s “THE WPA AND HOW THE FEDERAL ARTS PROJECT CHANGED AMERICAN ART,” considers how artists represented American nature in the 1930s and 1940s, situating the varied depictions within a longer national legacy: “From the folkloric to the Transcendentalists, the naturalists to the plein air painters, we’ve long been imagining nature, but perhaps never so vividly as we did in our single most crisis of confidence, the Great Depression.” “See America,” and indeed other New Deal representations of nature, promoted the all-important idea, McCormick argues, that “nature itself can make us whole again.”


The image of the natural sublime wasn’t always cheery in Depression-era art. But it was generally depicted as useful, a space for reflection during a moment of transition. McCormick suggests that this amounts to a “quiet politics” that “runs amok in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, a cruelty of the dust bowl on the Okies metaphor for our social ills, it ransacks our native lands with the folly of our greatness as perpetrated by Mount Rushmore. It lays open before us as the freedom highway set forth by Woody Guthrie in his depression-era ‘This Land is Your Land,’ where any and all can roam, ramble or follow their footsteps to find, as he describes in a verse that has subsequently been changed, ‘was a wall there that tried to stop me / a sign was painted said private property / but on the back side it didn’t say nothing.’”




Gabriel Milner is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

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