Saturday, March 25, 2017

New Deal Art: "Finishing the Cathedral of Learning"

Above: "Finishing the Cathedral of Learning," an oil painting by Harry Scheuch (1906-1978), created while he was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, 1934. The Cathedral of Learning is part of the University of Pittsburgh campus. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Above: A closer look at the workers in the painting. The figures depict laborers from the New Deal's Civil Works Administration. Two exhibit labels describe the scene: "Workers scurry like busy ants to complete the University of Pittsburgh’s lofty Cathedral of Learning. The men and trucks trample the winter's snow into mud as they labor through the frigid winter of 1933-1934 to house much-needed new classrooms... Scheuch emphasized the dramatic scale of the cathedral against the tiny workers to show what can be achieved when people work together."

Above: A photo of the Cathedral of Learning, ca. 1933-1934, from the book, America Fights the Depression: A Photographic Record of the Civil Works Administration, New York: Coward McCann, 1934, p. 37. Used here for educational, non-commercial purposes.

According to historian Kenneth J. Heineman, John Bowman, the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, was a critic of the New Deal but, "Once Roosevelt established the Civil Works Administration in 1933 to provide temporary work to the unemployed, Bowman stood in line for federal aid" (Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh, Penn State University Press, 2005, p. 64). This is a phenomenon that we frequently see today too, where some people feel that government programs that help other people are "wasteful spending," but programs that help them are okay. And it's a phenomenon that work-relief administrator Harry Hopkins explained in his 1936 book Spending to Save: "There is a curious thing about these [New Deal] operations which have been dotting the landscape of the United States for the past three years. Although they are attacked constantly in newspapers, people who visit them report that workers, public officials and citizens alike exhibit strong pride in them. Derision is reserved for projects elsewhere that they have never seen" (p. 169).

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