Monday, February 23, 2009

Quick Thought For a Busy Monday

"Federal officials in the 1930s understood how essential art was to sustaining America's spirit."

Labels: politics


Blogger George said...

@ 1934 Flickr Pool for 1934 - 38 images (paintings)

Picturing the 1930s Flickr pool - 143 images

2/23/2009 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Biff said...

The question here, relative to what Art the public might need, is what art is available to the people, today and eighty years ago. It seems that then the public access for "high" art was comparatively very slim. As well, there was no television, internet, or even consumer art approaching the dispersal levels we have now. (With the possible exception of newspaper comic or illustrational art.) Hence, the appearance of WPA mural art, of itself, must have been uplifting. For the most part, the public art of the day was representational, narrative and figurative.
It was in Mexico in 1927 that the mural revival began with Diego Rivera. Prototypical or not, for our own WPA murals, Rivera, influenced by Giotto, was involved in replacing his own Paris derived style, with one that he intended to be accessible to the illiterate peasant as well as the elite.
I wonder if art that fails to address social identity in some way can be substantially effective to build moral?

2/23/2009 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

There is a name for the type of art you mention, “propaganda”.

Benedetto Croce in his essay on aesthetics from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Fourteenth Edition) states:”…Art is not philosophy,…Art is not history,…Art is not natural science,…Art is not the play of fancy,…Art is not feeling in its immediacy,…Art is not instruction or oratory…Hence arises what Schiller called the ‘nondeternining’ character of art, as opposed the ‘determining’ character of oratory; and hence the justifiable suspicion of ‘political poetry’—political poetry being proverbially, bad poetry.”

So what should art do? Perhaps the opposite of the suicide bomber, create an explosion that makes people more alive. To ask more of art might be too "determining".

2/23/2009 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

Much contemporary art is full enough of "inside jokes" "irony" and polarizing statements, that it is rather inaccessible to most people.

While art can improve morale, I think it has to speak to all levels, not just the elite, or it won't.

2/23/2009 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

American art in the 1930s was considered to be highly derivative. Inferior to its European models, both traditional and modernist. Was New Deal support of the arts an attempt, then, to boost our national spirit by finally besting European culture? A sort of Depression-era Apollo Program - an international competition? Today, I think, government has no political motivation (like international competition) to support the arts in a big way. Not after half-a-century of America leading and dominating the arts (a very different situation from the 1930s).

Here's a thorn for the side of this conversation. Twelve years ago, J.G. Ballard suggested that the arts were never America's greatest contribution to the world. So America should (or just naturally would) drop the arts and get on with what it does do best, i.e., creating the lowest-common-denominator joys and toys of daily life: fast food, movies, casinos, etc. Which leads me to another thought: Do contemporary American artists try to stay relevant by creating the aesthetic equivalents of fast food, movies and casinos - sensing which side the bread is buttered in our culture?

2/23/2009 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Biff said "I wonder if art that fails to address social identity in some way can be substantially effective to build moral[sic]?"

Biff, I would say no. Only art that directly addresses our morale can boost our morale - and I suspect there's a lot of national morale problems to address right now, not to mention in the near future. But can artists who are used to expressing their personal concerns, or to devising ways of getting attention in a fast food culture, be up to the task? Or, will artists who have been ignored up til now (because they were too serious or traditional) suddenly snap all eyes in their direction?

2/23/2009 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

George's links and Biff's comments are very interesting. The original Smithsonian article describes the funded work like this:

They painted regional, recognizable subjects—ranging from portraits to cityscapes and images of city life to landscapes and depictions of rural life—that reminded the public of quintessential American values such as hard work, community and optimism.

What would be funded if a new federal program were launched today? Would Federal officials today "understand" the same things that "Federal officials of the 1930s" did? Should they?

Also, a page at SIU, Public Works of Art Program, claims $1.2M was spent on 15,663 works of over 3000 artists. This represents $75 per work or $390 per artist. According to Measuring Worth, this would be equivalent today to anywhere from $1,200 to $3,600 per work and $6,500 to $19,000 per artist, depending how you measure inflation. If we split the difference, that's $2,400 per work and $12,500 per artist, tho of course a big mural would get a much larger share than a small drawing.

2/23/2009 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

I like what John Hovig wrote! Ed, can that be emailed to our New York State congressmen/women?


2/23/2009 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Only art that directly addresses our morale can boost our morale.

Is that so? what about Giotto? or Paolo? or Caravaggio? or Picasso? or?

Elevating the human spirit is what great art is about, not just art of this age, but art of all ages.

To this point, I was in the Met on a day when a bomb blast in Iraq killed hundreds, while walking through one of the dim rooms, the one where the Christmas tree is in December, I looked towards a carving from the 15th century and realized that in spite of mans depravity, our art elevates us from our sins.

I might add that the opinions about the American art of the thirties needs to be re-thought. The art world was very small in this period and supported by few patrons who were thus able to affect the prevailing taste of the period.

If one is aware of European art from the thirties, it is clear that American painters were developing an entirely different American style. European influences can be expected but these seem more pronounced in the abstract works from the period. Many American representational artists from this period were ignored in the middle part of the last century. Artists like Stuart Davis were all but ignored in this period but have found new support and interest today.

2/23/2009 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/23/2009 01:33:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

George said "Is that so?"

George, I was speaking of national morale, not individual morale. Certainly, the individual's morale can be lifted by any work of art that resonates with something positive inside that individual.

Opinion of American art of the 1930s has already been rethought. But the view of many at the time was that it was mostly imitative. I think Stuart Davis (one of my favorite artists), Carl Holty (a fellow Wisconsinite), Romare Bearden and others were very original indeed.

2/23/2009 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Tatiana said...

Only art that directly addresses our morale can boost our morale -

I'll disagree with this one too..because there have been far too many personal experiences where I've nursed my broken spirit by going to a gallery -- and maybe just seeing a lovely persimmon depicted did the trick...I cant be the only one!

2/23/2009 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger Tatiana said...

"National Morale" must be a composition of individual morale/s? no?...Art up, out and supported can have a collective influence -- the pieces make the whole.

2/23/2009 02:30:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I was speaking of national morale, not individual morale.

ok, but there are very few things which can collectively raise national moral, landing on the moon maybe. I think art functions more like what Tatiana suggests. It works its way on us individually.

Regarding American art in the 30's. Again I suggest caution here against drawing generalizations. As I mentioned, it is the abstract and avant guard art which is the most closely connected to European models. There is a large group of American representational painters who forged an uniquely American style. Because the latter part of the twentieth century was dominated by the modernist paradigm much of this painting was relegated to a secondary position. It is this forgotten lineage of American representation which can provide Modernism with an alternate set of self critical and developmental paths.

Just a quick glance at the paintings in the Flickr links would suggest they can offer much to think about to contemporary painters

2/23/2009 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger max mulhern said...

Who chose the artistsin the 30's (ie. who was on the commission)? What were their criteria?

Who would be on the commission today and how would the new commissioners choose today's artists?
Just wondering . . .

2/23/2009 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

2/23/2009 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a young artist, I was fortunate enough to meet & have a conversation with Jacob Lawrence. When I mentioned the difficulty of making art while also paying the rent, he brought up the WPA.

He was young at the time, and I believe he was paid to turn in 2 paintings every month or so. He suggested that it had not simply been a short term program to help pay the rent, but more importantly, allowed him time to work. A pretty good investment, I would say.

2/23/2009 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

I said "Only art that directly addresses our [national] morale can boost our [national] morale."

It just seems to me that this was the idea that drove the New Deal art programs. Thus, the murals celebrating American life, labor and progress. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "The W.P.A. artist, in rendering his own impression of things, speaks also for the spirit of his fellow countrymen everywhere." MoMA Dedication Speech, 1939.

2/23/2009 04:36:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

OT: Still waiting for details

Not everything valuable plunges.

Despite the grim economic environment, the art market let out a collective sigh of relief as Christie's in Paris successfully auctioned €206 million ($266.7 million) of Impressionist and modern artworks collected by the late designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge

2/23/2009 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The New Deal art programs were one of the "make work" programs used to employ people.

That will never happen in the present situation, at best the NEA will get a cash bump, but a WPA like program has no chance of support.

2/23/2009 05:42:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

George said "... a WPA like program has no chance of support."

That's probably a good thing. In the 1930s, the federal administrators of the art programs - who apparently didn't share FDR's views on art - wanted "art for the people," i.e., Social (not Socialist) Realism. Avant garde art was the art of the rich - the people who had caused the nation's economic woes with all their excesses. Artists were accepted into the programs on the basis of skill level, not financial need. They were then classified and given commissions according to their skill level, for example: an artist classified as low skill level might be given a school or post office mural project, while city halls and courthouses were given to those with higher classifications. Gorky, an abstract artist, got an airport mural commission - but to get even this required the support of influential people, and met stiff resistance. Who among us is hungry enough, today, to put up with such things? Keep in mind, too, that the rich and their preferences in art are no more popular today than they were then. So, unless you can paint a nice picture of a wind turbine ...

2/23/2009 07:45:00 PM  
Anonymous sus said...

There is a good chance that the contemporary interpretation of the WPA program may not include stipends for the production of original work. Building on what some consider successful arts program from the last decade, a new "WPA" will probably weigh heavily to experiential projects. Given Obama's history in community organizing, this seems highly likely.

2/23/2009 08:13:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Tom, that's pretty much it. Over the last few years there have been good biographies of Pollock, and De Kooning among others, artists who were involved one way or another with the WPA.

This is a different world, the population is three times what it was then, the economy ten times more complex, media manifestations beyond anything imaginable then, it all points to a different solution. A friend in Detroit just told me that the Detroit Institute of Arts laid off 20% of their employees today, desolation row.

Never the less I think something profound is happening, it is a re-adjustment of an attitude, or just a change in perspective, but it is happening now, I've been talking with young people about this and they get what I mean. It is the most exciting time since the sixties, improv, there's no script.

2/23/2009 08:28:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

"What I'd like to see are the numbers justifying the belief that the financial sector needs millions of dollars of assistance before it can create its exotic instruments (and, one presumes, wealth, if only for itself), while conventional wisdom holds that the main thing artists require is cheap space."

Will never happen. New York is going to continue the process of bleeding the meek and the freaky in favor of the best and the brightest.

And from Saltz on the ethics debate:

"I don’t blame losing the debate on the crowd being conservative. Rather, I blame myself and my team for having no idea how to debate, and for existing happily in what I consider a parallel art world."

Separate but equal, right?

"As Brice Marden said: “It’s not the art that’s suffering; it’s the market that’s suffering. They don’t have anything to do with each other.”"

It's going to take more than one
to, as we all said must happen, reframe the debate - not that it will do any good.

2/24/2009 01:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to know what you think of the Obama administration's plan to give Gaza a $900 million donation. Clinton is in the process right now. It shows passion but I think we need some of that same passion back home.

2/24/2009 01:28:00 AM  
Blogger jeff f said...

So lets see, realism and good skills means your not as good as a "modern" or "post-modern" artist according to some. I find that such a lot hooey.

One thing the WPA did give us is Dorthy Lang Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn all worked on projects.

Reginald Marsh painted murals, he was hardly a minor artist in his day.

Many Americans did not have indoor plumbing in the the 30's.
You could go the movies for a dime or a quarter for the whole day.
Could a bowl of soup for a dime or free if you were destitute.
Of course if you had no money a dime must have seemed like a lot of money.

A project such as the WPA would not even get the time of day now. First off we are not building any new government buildings that are in need of murals, or any large projects for that matter.

2/24/2009 03:45:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

There are many kinds of skills. Painters priviledge painting skills. Performers priviledge performance skills.

Ninjas priviledge their collateralized debt skills.

Many people believe Ben Shahn to be a minor artist which is why Warhol was a nobody when he emulated him early on.

But snobbery aside, whatever floats your boat.

Myself, I like flush toilets over the composting outhouse.

Now go electrify your rural audience.

2/24/2009 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

jeff f said "... realism and good skills means your not as good as a 'modern' or 'post-modern' artist ..."

In the 1930s, avant garde artists were less likely to receive WPA commissions. Realists and Regionalists had the upper hand. By the 1950s, any painter who was not an Abstract Expressionist - and a pure one at that - simply didn't exist. (Even Pollock was in danger of excommunication in his last years.) Thank God for today's pluralism, and the passing of the "one way only" views of art. Though I do wonder if artists who still apply pigments to a piece of canvas are - in the eyes of critics, curators and collectors - nothing but quaint folk who should confine themselves to craft fairs. I guess some form of art is up, and some form of art is down - always. By the way, jeff, your paintings are top notch.

George: Would you expand on what young people are telling you, and why this is an exciting time?

2/24/2009 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

James Kalm, I love this:

"So what should art do? Perhaps the opposite of the suicide bomber, create an explosion that makes people more alive. "

Are those words or are you quoting someone?

2/24/2009 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger George said...


First off I'm not an historian, but I think the art world in the first half of the 20th century was more of a community than it is now. Everything was smaller and some of the differentiation you are suggesting are more the result of an historical viewpoint looking backward than it actually was experienced in the small art world of the time.

Between 1900 and 1965 the US population increased by 250%. What people like to call "pluralism" doesn't exist. While it has no valid definition, it does suggest that because, along with the US demographic, the art world increased substantially in size and could no longer function with the hegemony of a single style. As a result there was support for multiple coexisting styles, something which has been mistaken for an idea or "ism" but which in fact is just an expansion within the art world and its marketplace.

By the end of the 20th century, the US population had become 4 times what it was in 1900 and the art world experienced another growth phase. The current downturn is a corrective reaction to the over stimulation of the economy and the art world.

Every forty years or so, there is a changing of the guard and in this case it is the baby-boomer generation which is passing over the reigns of the culture to a new generation. This seems to be happening simultaneously in several areas, for example the election of Obama is symbolic of this within the politics of this nation. The financial crisis and recession belongs to the baby-boomer generation and they are the ones most affected by it.

Younger artists, in all fields seem to understand that they actually have a chance to make their own mark on the future. It is a generation born into a media rich world (hey folks I still remember radio plays) that they take as a given, to mash up as they desire. To me it seems exciting.

2/24/2009 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

George, our thinking agrees on this one. The changes in the art world over the last half-century are due to sheer size/expansion. In 1939, there was exactly 1 modern art museum in America. Today, modern/contemporary museums, galleries and collections are everywhere. In fact, every kind of art has at least one institution displaying and preserving it (or so it seems). In the first half of the 20th century, a single artist could be promoted as "the greatest living artist" and "the artist of the century." The art world was so small that this didn't threaten the interests of most collectors, curators and academics. More than that, they all needed a hero in a world that was still hostile to the new art. Try the same promotion today, however, and the majority of the art world will push back hard. Too many interests would be threatened by the presence (manufactured or otherwise) of a "greatest living artist." Which is not to say that a "greatest living artist" doesn't exist now, but only that we'll have to wait a long time for hindsight (and a different sort of art world) to reveal the name.

2/24/2009 01:32:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Tom, I think we more or less agreed in the beginning, it's hard having a conversation in writing, especially with the time lag.

When I looked at the 30's paintings on the Flickr sites I was reminded of the lost trail of American realism which was eclipsed by the avant guard artists in a time with a much smaller art world.

In looking through the pictures I was struck by how fertile this ground is and I suspect it is fairly unknown by young artists today. In the present, a period which lacks a singular hegemonic style I would think artists would find inspiration through a lineage of artists from the past. If one is a representational painter, the American realists (whatever, those 30's guys) represent a vital modern link to historical European painting.

2/24/2009 02:04:00 PM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

In the last 80 years we have seen various mechanisms for art funding by government - and all but the covert funding by the CIA in the 1950's (if the rumors are true anyway!) became political footballs.

In an era where the political party who is on the outs will fight the one that is in tooth and nail rather than have a friendly working rivalry, I am not sure such a thing is possible.

If the economy doesn't improve by 2010, I do believe the political process will go through one of those Era changing events.

In any event, expect the culture to be changed significantly, a mindfulness that "the party can end" and a more careful shepherding of resources.

2/24/2009 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger jeff f said...

For me the best WPA art was done by the photographers. I like some of the murals but they do not hold up. Marsh did some good work, but I'm kind of partial to his work anyway.

Dorthy Lang, Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans come to mind as they created some striking imagery and documented the moment. If we look at Thomas Hart Benton's murals (a rationalist and Pollock's teacher) some interesting work, but they seem very much like stage sets for a certain kind of Americana.

Philip Guston was a WPA artist and he was hardly a rationalist.

Here's a link to a list of some artist who worked on the program.
It's not a complete list.

Thanks for the compliment Tom.

2/24/2009 04:32:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Don't forget, Diego Rivera
Born 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico; one of three Mexican artists considered to have revitalized the ancient art of fresco painting (along with Jose Clement Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros); painted the controversial murals at Rockefeller Center, New York, NY in 1934 in spite of his strong socialist beliefs; personal friend of Leon Trotsky until Rivera they had a falling out over disposition of Rivera's increasing financial success; husband of Freda Kahlo (and others); died November 25, 1957 (Mexico).

2/24/2009 05:39:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Here's a short article that describes what artists had to put up with in their part of the New Deal.

2/24/2009 06:35:00 PM  

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