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Art and the Great Depression

“Art in America has always belonged to the people and has never been the property of an academy or a class. . . . The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration is a practical relief project which also emphasizes the best tradition of the democratic spirit. The WPA artist, in rendering his own impression of things, speaks also for the spirit of his fellow countrymen everywhere. I think the WPA artist exemplifies with great force the essential place which the arts have in a democratic society such as ours.”

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Radio Dedication of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City,” May 10, 1939. 

Printed with black and gray on cream-white paper, this horizontal lithograph shows nine people around or near a pickup truck to our right and a man sitting in front of a shed to our left under a moonlit sky. We are low to the ground, looking slightly up at the scene. Four men wearing hats load the back of the truck. The truck has a tractor-like cab with the windshield tilted out, lamp-like headlights, and the thin tires have spokes. A woman wearing a shin-length dress sits on the fender next to the door we can see, and she looks away toward the men to our left. A younger girl stands with arms crossed and young boy sits on the ground, both facing away from us, near the woman. Beyond the truck and to our left, an oil lamp sits on what might be a box or piece of furniture, next to a round basket. A person wearing a long garment, perhaps a coat, and a wide-brimmed hat faces away from us and seems to support a woman wearing a long dress, whose face turns up as she sways back. Another man sits next to an open door of the wooden shed to our left. A tree growing on the far side of the shed curves up over the sloping roof. A farmhouse sits on the horizon in the distance to our left. Two large, textured, sawn tree trunks lie on the ground close to us in the lower left corner. The land rises in low hills under the truck and shed. A crescent moon hangs in the dark sky above between two arms of clouds that sweep in from our right. On the paper under the printed image to the left, the artist inscribed the work: “To Patricia Syrett from Thomas H. Benton.” The artist also signed the work in the other lower corner, to the right: “Benton.”

Thomas Hart Benton, Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corporation, Departure of the Joads, 1939, lithograph in black on wove paper, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Florian Carr Fund and Gift of the Print Research Foundation, 2008.115.14

Does art “work” or have a purpose? How?

Is making art a form of work? Make your argument for why or why not.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated that art in America has never been the sole province of a select group or class of people. Do you agree or disagree?

Define what you think Roosevelt meant by “the democratic spirit.” How do you think art can represent democratic values?

The Great Depression spanned the years 1929 to about 1939, a period of economic crisis in the United States and around the world. High stock prices out of sync with production and consumer demand for goods caused a market bubble that burst on October 24, 1929, the famous “Black Thursday” stock market crash. The severity of the market contraction affected Americans across the country. The most visible effects included widespread unemployment, homelessness, and a marked decrease in Americans’ standard of living. In addition, a severe drought produced the Dust Bowl—a series of damaging dust storms. This environmental disaster ruined many farmers during a period when the economy was largely agricultural.

In office at the time of the crash, President Herbert Hoover (term 1929–1933) was unable to stop the free fall of the American economy. His successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected president in a landslide in 1933 with campaign promises to fix the economy. Roosevelt acted quickly to create jobs and stimulate the economy through the creation of what he called “a New Deal for the forgotten man”—a program for people without resources to support themselves or their families. The New Deal was formalized as the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), an umbrella agency for the many programs created to help Americans during the Depression, including infrastructure projects, jobs programs, and social services.

Through the WPA, artists also participated in government employment programs in every state and county in the nation. In 1935, Roosevelt created the Federal Art Project (FAP) as the agency that would administer artist employment projects, federal art commissions, and community art centers. Roosevelt saw the arts and access to them as fundamental to American life and democracy. He believed the arts fostered resilience and pride in American culture and history. The art created under the WPA offers a unique snapshot of the country, its people, and art practices of the period. There were no government-mandated requirements about the subject of the art or its style. The expectation was that the art would relate to the times, reflect the place in which it was created, and be accessible to a broad public.

Artists working in the FAP and for other WPA agencies created prints, easel paintings, drawings, and photographs. Public murals were painted for display in post offices, schools, airports, housing developments, and other government buildings. Community art centers hosted exhibitions of work made by artists employed in government programs and offered hands-on workshops, led by artists, for everyone. Illustrators made detailed drawings that cataloged the physical culture and artifacts of American daily life—clothing, tools, household items. The WPA intentionally seeded arts programs and supported artists outside of urban centers. In so doing, it introduced the arts to a much more diverse swath of Americans, many of whom had previously never seen an original painting or work of art, had not met a professional artist, nor experimented with art making.

The art produced through government programs pictured both the hardship of the period and a vision of a better America. Breadlines, homelessness, and farms reduced to sand were common subjects. The successes of WPA programs were depicted and documented, too: triumphs such as the construction of vast dams to provide flood control for farmlands and generate hydroelectric power, the expansion of the electrical power grid across the country, and conservation and agriculture programs to restore productivity to areas of the country swept by dust and wind storms. Artists created idealized visions for the future and experimented with abstraction in response to the changing world around them. Under Roosevelt’s government programs, artists found meaningful work in making art for ordinary Americans and publicizing the WPA’s accomplishments.  The WPA-era art programs reflected a trend toward the democratization of the arts in the United States and a striving to develop a uniquely American and broadly inclusive cultural life.

The WPA’s Federal Art Project ended in 1943. The United States had entered World War II, and war-related production boosted the economy at home and spurred job creation. The FAP also came under question politically, as some groups cast it as a producer of propaganda that curtailed artists’ freedom of expression.

The National Gallery of Art collection contains many examples of works of art from this period of history. The art offers a window through which to explore the social conditions of the Depression, the mainstreaming of art and birth of “public art,” and the opening of government employment to women and African Americans.