Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The New Deal: 133,000 murals, frescoes, portraits, drawings, and oil & water color paintings

("Homeward Bound," an oil painting by E. Martin Hennings (1886-1956), created while he participated in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-1934. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

A few days ago, Richard Brodhead, the president of Duke University, gave credit to the New Deal for laying the groundwork for the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities by enhancing the role of the federal government: "There was no federal role in support of the humanities before this [New Deal] transformation. Without the conceptual transformation forged in the crucible of the Great Depression, it is inconceivable that a national commission could have envisioned a federal solution to the challenge of the humanities in 1964" ("The Fate and Fortunes of Public Goods: How the New Deal paved the way for the Great Society and the creation of a federal agency devoted to the humanities" Pacific Standard, March 4, 2016).

Brodhead's main argument is that the New Deal opened up the possibility of federal solutions to virtually any problem occurring in the country. I agree, and I would also add that the sheer volume of artwork produced--paintings, sculptures, wood carvings, silkscreen posters, reliefs, etc.--gave the nation an appetite for more art (and this appetite could only have increased with the many free art classes that were offered by the WPA).

So, let's take a look at just the painting and drawing totals--e.g., frescoes, murals, oil paintings, water color paintings, portraits--for the key New Deal art programs: 

Public Works of Art Project (1933-1934): 7,875 

Work Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (1934-1935): 3,676 

Section of Fine Arts (1934-1943): 1,047 

Treasury Relief Art Project (1935-1939): 10,089 

WPA art programs (1935-1943): 110,500 

Total paintings and drawings: 133,187 - the vast majority of which were for the decoration of public places, e.g., post offices, schools, hospitals, courthouses.

Some of the paintings above were overlaps, for example, a mural started by the Public Works of Art Project might be completed with funds from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. On the other hand, statistics that were used to create final reports were not always complete, sometimes missing a few states and sometimes missing a few years; so I'm sticking with the 133,000 figure. (If you're interested in learning more about New Deal art projects and/or what resources I used for the above numbers, see yesterday's blog post as well as the art program summaries of the Living New Deal.)

("Hill Orchards," an oil painting by Caroline Sehlmeyer, created while she was in the WPA's art program, ca. 1939-1943. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

Dr. Brodhead states: "Get enough economic and military superiority, and you are at best a muscled-up hegemon; add the humanities, and you could become an aspirational civilization. That's the opportunity before the United States, and seizing it is not guaranteed. How to assure this better outcome? What's needed is help advancing 'things of the spirit' - help on the artistic and humanistic side."

While I appreciate (and agree) with Brodhead's sentiments, there will be no humanities renaissance for any generation that exists today. There is little hope for significant funding increases for the humanities when the national priorities are firmly established in perpetual war and tax breaks for the wealthy. Or, to put it another way, if we are hesitant to fund projects that will prevent millions of American children from being poisoned by lead, are we really going to properly fund the humanities?

On the plus side, you can still find plenty of New Deal art. A lot of it still resides in our public places, and you can find hundreds of New Deal artworks on the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. These are your doorways into a different kind of America - an America where our respect for the humanities, as well as our sense of social responsibility towards one another, was heightened rather than diminished.

No comments:

Post a Comment