Thursday, August 20, 2015

New Deal Art: "Tenement Flats." The timeless story of income & wealth inequality.

Above: "Tenement Flats," an oil painting by artist Millard Sheets (1907-1989), created while he participated in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-34. The painting is described in the following way: "In Tenement Flats, Millard Sheets showed the urban poor of his native California, structuring the painting to suggest that working Americans provided the foundation for the lives enjoyed by the rich. The large houses looming on the hills above the tenements are reminders of the gulf between the classes during the 1930s. Sheets's sympathies are clear. He set up a poignant contrast between the silent, dark mansions and the sociable neighborhood of the tenements, where housewives sustain family and community against all odds" (emphasis added).  In the upper left-hand corner of the painting, note the woman, "perhaps a housekeeper," trudging up to the dark mansions of the rich.
The message of this painting is relevant to our situation today, where many (not all) super-wealthy Americans live & prey on the poverty and financial insecurity of others: paying them pathetic wages, putting their retirement security at risk, crushing them with debt, enjoying (and sustaining) a bail system that they can afford but the poor cannot, engaging in illegal tax evasion and sketchy tax avoidance (thereby shifting the revenue burden onto the struggling poor and the shrinking middle-class), engaging in all manner of civil & criminal wrongdoing that transfers more and more wealth to them, and so on. Yes, this painting and its message are very relevant to 21st century America. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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