By 2020, the Works Progress Administration, a Great Depression-era government program that gave billions of dollars to artists in the 1930s, was largely the material for high school US history classes. But it wasn’t long before she became the source of fascination in the art world when the pandemic hit the US and Europe. At the end of March last year, just two weeks after the lockdown began in most places, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist called for a state aid program on the scale of the WPA. (So far, none has come up.) A month later, art historian Jody Patterson wrote in one ARTnews Essay that the “goal of the WPA of radical inclusiveness and accessibility – where art benefits more people than less – should not be the distant vision of a past generation”. Government funding for the arts – seldom, if ever, a sexy topic – hadn’t seemed so interesting in ages.
With all this renewed attention the WPA is receiving, it is no wonder that Wieland Schulz-Keil’s 1976 documentary New deal for artists was digitally republished last week. The film, which was first shown on West German television, not only reveals how and why Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s government saved the arts in a time of crisis, but also examines how organizations like the WPA paint, sculpture, photography, theater, and more changed forever. across the United States. As this film shows, when artists are promoted, so is the whole country.
In order to get the country out of the economic doldrums, Roosevelt found it necessary to stimulate the arts. And so in 1935, as part of his larger New Deal program, the WPA was formed with the mission of paying out funds to artists in need. Participants, including playwrights, writers, visual artists, and more, were given between $ 20 and $ 25 a week (about $ 390 to $ 487 in today’s dollars) to produce whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Crucially, there were almost no restrictions on what they ultimately produced. “You didn’t ask whether you painted this way or that,” says artist Bernarda Bryson-Shahn in the film. “You asked if you needed or wanted help.”
That way, artists who got paid through the WPA could experiment in ways they wouldn’t otherwise have. Orson Welles, the filmmaker and playwright who narrates the film, used his money from a WPA subsidiary, the Federal Theater Project, to produce an all-black production of William Shakespeare Macbeth in New York. Some of the people who starred in it got their first big roles – ones that were almost impossible for black actors before the WPA. in the New deal for artistsWelles reminds us that the WPA artists’ creations were also “largely protected from government interference.”
But most of the participants in the program concentrated either directly or indirectly on the same topic in their work: the USA itself. “The American artist was finally looking for his own country for his own topics,” the artist Aaron Bohrod once explained. In other words, artists no longer had to go all the way to Paris to find an enriching art scene. Now all they had to do was travel to a bigger city or, better still, the Midwest.
There was no question that the Midwest and Southwest had suffered the worst of the Great Depression. Industry there had been dealt a blow and many were unemployed. Poverty was everywhere, especially after the Dust Bowl decimated the country’s agriculture. Artists tried to shed light on the struggles of the people in this part of the country, often through photography. The Farm Security Administration, established in 1937, became the primary source of this imagery. Artists like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks worked under the sign of photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, turning their lenses on those who had lost everything. Their looks were empathetic – rarely before them in US history had photographers cared so much about their subjects – and there was a desire to shed light on the plight of the Southwestern people to a larger audience. Welles says of Evans: “He never humiliated his subjects.”
Watched today, New deal for artists is most noticeable for its repeated emphasis on color artists who benefited from WPA programs, of which there were many. Zora Neale Hurston, Jacob Lawrence, Richard Wright, Diego Rivera and countless others have produced remarkable pieces with their resources. In the film, the focus is primarily on Indian artists who have made careers because of the WPA. Among them was Harrison Begay, a Diné painter, who declared that he no longer had to design in a market-oriented manner and was suddenly free to try out ambitious and more modern ways of working. “That is the everyday life of my people,” he says, holding the picture of a woman surrounded by sheep in his hand.
But nothing good lasts forever, and in the late 1930s the WPA was attacked – on both sides. Left parties quarreled with some of the artists involved, particularly Rivera. (The French he spoke to considered them too bourgeois, although his murals are full of workers at work and have inspired many.) Radicals also found a contradiction in taking money from the government. Here is the poet Kenneth Rexroth explaining the paradox: “For the left, I mean, to take money from the bourgeois state? St. Paul has a sentence for this: It means to make friends of the mammon of injustice. “
Alarmed by these perspectives, right-wing extremists also found something to complain about. They tried to slander the WPA by calling it communist, and their racist speeches got newspapers to stage the screed over the black-led and multiracial theatrical productions of playwrights like Joseph Losey. In the early 1940s, the WPA was finally closed amid Conservative demands for its end. “The Neanderthal has taken power,” as the contentious writer Studs Terkel puts it.
But, in a sense, the damage had already been done: artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky had received their first major opportunities through the WPA, and for the next decade they would continue to Define the Abstract Expressionism Movement . Oddly enough, the role of the WPA in their careers is all but forgotten, as are the early works these now revered artists created through the agency, in part because many have been lost. The EPA itself has also largely disappeared from the public eye. “It’s as if it never existed,” says Terkel. “Not even in history books, but in people’s minds as well.” These words offer a good reason to see New deal for artists and prove the opposite to Terkel.
New deal for artists is currently streaming virtually.