_American Rhythm_ (detail), James Daugherty, crayons/graphite/paper, 1934. Courtesy Charles and Lisa Daugherty.
We’re all familiar with the cultural archetype of the "starving artist." But what do you do with artists when it seems like the whole nation is starving?
That was a part of the tremendous challenge facing FDR when he took office in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. Contrary to the reflexive belt-tightening of government today, Roosevelt instead proposed a number of broad-reaching social welfare programs, including several that offered out-of-work artists opportunities to both contribute to society and put a bit of food in their bellies.
“For the People: American Mural Drawings of the 1930s and 1940s” is an exhibition organized by curator Patricia Phagan at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. The bulk of the show is based on an extensive series of paintings and sketches from Vassar’s collection by artists working in cartoon, political, and abstract modes, as well as the American Scene school popularized by painters like Thomas Hart Benton during the Depression era.
These studies were made as preparatory drawings and proposals for public mural projects, and most were intended for US Government commissions. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) sponsored murals for post offices across the country, some of which still stand. (Vassar has organized several tours during the run of the show to visit murals in the Poughkeepsie and Rhinebeck post offices.)
“Most of the post office murals were done in the illustrative American Scene style,” according to Phagan, “and only a very few were done as abstracts. The directors of the program wanted the artwork to be easily accessible and understandable to the broader public.” Compared to the overtly Marxist, intensely political art being made by Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera during this same period, these American public commissions tended to require that the artist remain a bit more circumspect, raising the interesting specter of a uniquely American version of the Soviet Union’s notorious enforcement of Socialist Realism.
But not to fear—artists in the WPA’s Federal Art Project labored under much less onerous patronage than those in Stalin’s Russia, and often the only demand on American artists was to make whatever work he or she liked and, for which they received a regular government stipend. While such open-ended funding might today seem like folly, just look at the results. Artists like Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning (both represented in the Vassar show) were given carte blanche to spend time making art instead of struggling, preparing the way for America’s first internationally significant contribution to painting—Abstract Expressionism—once the Depression and World War II had opened up the world stage.
“For the People” opens January 12 and runs through March 11. A reception will take place February 3 at 4pm; at 5pm that day, scholar Karol Ann Marling will give a lecture titled “The Splendid Muralists of Dutchess and Ulster County, and What They Told Me.” (845) 437-5632; www.fllac.vassar.edu