At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday (April 27), Brack Brown, a resident of the Academy Village and a docent at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, will present a talk on “The Art of the Great Depression.”
Depression-era art chronicled people’s experiences and gave voice to a vision born of economic crisis, and of social change and renewal. The combination of federal arts funding through the New Deal and the stimulation of social movements for civil rights, industrial unionism, and social reform created a new cultural environment, new forms of art, changed understandings of community and individual social roles, and a collapse of distinctions between art, culture, and politics
Brown will discuss a variety of events and demonstrate the role of art in various parts of the Great Depression, and will welcome input from the audience.
THE CRASH: In the 1920s presidents and economists confidently predicted America was entering a “new era’ when everyone would be rich. Expanding agriculture, the building of cities, a burgeoning stock market, and lots of jobs characterized the Twenties. But in late October of 1929 the stock market crashed. Banks failed, lending dried up, interest rates soared, tariffs were raised unwisely, there was panic selling, and international trade dropped like a stone. Enter the Great Depression whose effects (foreclosures, 25% unemployment, an army of migrants, and fears of labor unrest and socialist advocacy) persisted for a decade.
THE DUST BOWL: In 1931, the year before Franklin Roosevelt began his first term, a second calamity unfolded in the American heartland, the Great Plains. During the Twenties there were good rains, a last large wave of Homestead Act settlers, a massive expansion of plowing-under the native grasslands, forecasts of bumper crops, and high demand overseas. Rather suddenly the rains stopped, the winds churned, expanded industrial farming drove out settler families and sharecroppers, and numerous blinding blizzards turned the Great Plains to dust. Crops failed, farms were abandoned, and livestock died. This ecological collapse, compounded by the economic collapse, produced hundreds of thousands of unemployed, many of whom began to take to the road and the rails seeking better luck in the Far West.
Roosevelt produced a blizzard of new federal agencies and programs. His objectives were to provide massive relief employment (not hand-outs); to check rising social and class tensions, to maintain job skills for those facing long-term unemployment, to bolster workers’ self-respect and personal dignity, and, he hoped, to foster regional and national pride largely through the arts (paintings, posters, music, theatre, writing).
Brown notes that for artists, the New Deal meant that for the first time the Federal Government became a major patron of the arts. One result was that a staggering volume of paintings, prints, posters, murals and sculptures was produced. New Deal support was mainly but not exclusively effected through the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP); Work Projects Administration (WPA); the Federal Arts Project (FAP); The Department of Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture; and the Department of Agriculture Farm Security Administration Photographic Project.
Programs sponsors explicitly warned the artists to avoid abstract, expressionist, symbolic, and modernist styles. The emphasis was to be on Realism (including Social Realism), Regionalism, and “The American Scene.
Ordinary Americans at work and play was a dominant theme, though some social protest art was also produced. Much of the art was for public buildings of all kinds, where people had regular access and could see and admire the works for free
For the first time a distinctive body of American art was produced. Art was no longer for the wealthy, it didn’t have to come from Europe, and artists deserved to be employed, respected, and patronized using public funds.
Written by Charles Prewitt, Academy Village Volunteer