When Art Worked

At a time when our national (and global) predicaments are seen mostly as a matter for economists and policy wonks to solve, historian Roger Kennedy comes forward to remind us of the critical role of art. Art is not just an aesthetic pleasure or indulgence, he insists; it is a way in which people makes sense of their problems. It is a way of re-imagining the common good.

Kennedy’s new book, When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy, is a sumptuous immersion in the murals, music, paintings, photographs, posters, architecture, monuments, civic parks, books and travel guides, and countless other artifacts of public culture sponsored by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The glossy coffee-table book, published by Rizzoli, is illustrated with hundreds of stunning images selected by editor and designer David Larkin. (Full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed Kennedy’s hospitality on several wonderful occasions.)

Kennedy’s text recovers a period of American life that was grim and desperate — yet also enlivened by great hope and resolve. Should one say that art sponsored by the New Deal reflected that hope — or generated it? Both, obviously, but Kennedy is skillful in showing how art helped the American people recognize their shared predicament and enter into a social covenant to reinvent the country. He also explains how artistic visions changed public attitudes and mobilized political support for New Deal policies.

Kennedy calls his subject "actionable art." Whether it was murals in post offices, writers hired to write region travel guides or the Civilian Conservation Corps building hiking trails and public amenities in the national parks, the net effect was to engage large numbers of citizens to work on behalf of large numbers of citizens. The art that was created help express the "peoplehood" of Americans and the constructive role that government could play to alleviate misery.

The New Deal did not just hire painters, sculptors, landscapers, architecture, carpenters and other jobless people to “rake leaves,” as modern conservatives would sneer. It wanted to unleash the creative energy of artists to change our image of ourselves and mobilize public support for public policies to protect our commons.

Photos of rural poverty taken by photographers for the Farm Security Administration helped call attention to the plight of farmers and migrant workers (while making the careers of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange). Ansel Adams’ photographs of Yosemite and other natural wonders gave witness to our wilderness spaces as a precious national inheritance.

The Interior Department commissioned paintings, murals and artwork that helped Americans see American Indians in a more positive image, which was part of Roosevelt’s policy of reversing the long history of expropriation and abuse of Indians and their lands. To bolster support for the achievements of the Rural Electrification Administration, graphic artists made a series of handsome, colorful posters — "civic graphics" — that showed how electricity was helping farmers and other rural residents.

Kennedy writes that the arts "contributed mightily to building public support for the renewal of federal civil rights legislation, for Horace Albright’s reorganization of the National Park System, for the preservation and protection of other common ground, and for John Collier’s transformation of federal Indian programs. Artists had long been busy acquainting the public with Indians as individuals worthy of respect and of inclusion in the American covenant. Art had presented landscapes the deserved and required protection, celebrating magnificence."

FDR "had no interest in art for its own sake or in history that had no message for present action," writes Kennedy. "When he could decide among styles, he turned to an actionable historic realism, answering a national aspiration stated by the novelist John Dos Passos: 'We need to know what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on.' Great art is a living record.  Most important it helps form and shape our beliefs’ about what community is, and ought to be."

The scope and ambition of New Deal art is truly astounding, especially when seen in the context of contemporary politics. Could ennobling public art be created today to re-energize the American people and forge new images of common purpose? Or would fringe extremists and political critics torpedo any art that reflected an individual voice or political message?

In 1936, the Treasury Department’s Section on Fine Arts (yes, a Treasury office devoted to fine art for the public!) commissioned George Biddle to paint a series of five murals for the stair corridor at the U.S. Justice Department. Biddle did not choose glorious images of lawyers, judges or a blindfolded Lady Justice. Instead he painted images of women working in sweatshops and people living in tenements, with the idea that these were the people and circumstances that would be redeemed through the workings of law and public policy. Biddle entitled the murals "Society Freed Through Justice," and added a caption, "If we would guide by the light of reason, we must let our minds be bold."

For some critics, such images were too radical and inappropriate for a government-sponsored building. But as Kennedy notes, Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, hardly a radical, helped protect the murals as a member of a commission overseeing the process. Stone, who at one point in his life had been a "circuit riding" judge, once encountered a mural by a Peter Hurd in the Dust Bowl town of Big Spring, Texas. Stone later wrote, "What a lovely composition the Hurd mural is, how important it is that the humble people of this country should be impressed with the fact that the artist finds beauty and dignity in their life, and one of the many things we need to be taught in this country is that our lives, however simple or humble, may be both beautiful and dignified."

The idea that government — through its sponsorship of art — could help convey such ideas and make them public through various artistic ventures, is, quite simply, an amazing achievement. When Art Worked is a ravishing revelation of this relatively brief episode of American history — a time when government could be the patron for art of stunning populist grandeur and diversity without it degenerating into propaganda or kitsch.

Kennedy’s book is a welcome reminder that art has the capacity to speak to the deeper feelings and aspirations of people. It can rally the spirit and give us courage. It can make our shared heritage and values more vivid and articulate who we are. It help us summon the imagination to see the world anew. It can be both visionary and practical.

Reading through Kennedy’s book and lingering over the beautiful public art that it depicts, I could not help but mourn the mean, vulgar political culture in which we live. It is hard to imagine anyone in a position of power in Washington, D.C., today understanding the needs of the human spirit and how art might help us re-imagine our political culture. But FDR and his top lieutenants did. When Art Worked is a powerful testament to that time and the glorious art that still endures and informs our sense of ourselves as a people.