Today it is hard to imagine that the national government would spend millions of dollars to put unemployed artists to work for the good of the country.
But that is precisely what happened in the United States at the height of the Great Depression. There has been a lot of talk lately about the “worth of the humanities” and of the creative arts in particular.
In the 1930s Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), oversaw the Federal Art Project (FAP), one of the New Deal cultural programs. Hopkins repeatedly stressed “that the objective of this whole project is … taking 3,500,000 off relief and putting them to work.”
Art has always been and continues to be a source of value. In the America of the 1930s, artists and their labor were considered to be important cultural assets. This expanded definition of art and its worth presents an opportunity for us today to reconsider how we designate cultural value.
Why We Do Need the Humanities
As a scholar of American visual culture who has written extensively about the 1930s, this strikes me as an important moment to revisit as we contemplate the utility of the arts and the humanities in contemporary American life.
The idea that art is a viable and important form of labor and that understanding history is crucial to our understanding of the present, is something that I grapple with on a daily basis as chair of an art and art history department.
Students regularly ask me what they can do with an art history or studio art degree. Their parents balk at the idea of endorsing the arts as a career path.
Following Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” I would argue that the arts teach students to think creatively.
Roth argues that we need more than critical thinking in order to be successful. “Fetishizing disbelief,” he writes, “as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources.”
Instead, he stresses the importance of creative work as reflected in the commitment, energy, and more importantly, the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art, and science.
And that is why I suggest that in today’s environment where there is a fading interest in humanities, we should re-frame our ideas of what constitutes value and revisit the moment in the 1930s when art and artists were valuable contributors to the national labor pool.
Engagement Through Art
It is important to remember what was accomplished.
In its eight-year existence, the FAP created over 5,000 jobs and funded over 225,000 works of art. The artist George Biddle is credited with writing to his friend and former prep-schoolmate Franklin D. Roosevelt and encouraging him to emulate the Mexican mural program, which he called “the greatest national school of mural painting since the Renaissance.”
This type of engagement was crucial to the ideology of the WPA cultural projects. Biddle, Hopkins, and FDR all saw direct links between a strong democratic country and its artwork. They believed that making art was a way of making strong citizens.
Indeed, Biddle advocated for including artists in the national relief program since, he argued, the artist was as valuable a worker to the health of the nation as “the farmer or the bricklayer.”
For New Dealers, the arts and the humanities—painting, sculpture, music, theater, and literature—were not only a viable form of labor, they were key to America’s past, present, and future success.
Many of the works created on the FAP directly addressed the relationship between manual and intellectual labor.
This is what the two large-scale public murals created through the FAP, recently restored and now in the foyer of the Wilson Commencement Academy in Rochester, New York, illustrate.
Life of Education and Exploration
Inspired by the monumental Renaissance masterpieces by Michelangelo, Peters broke with his traditional, small-scale easel practice (he was primarily a landscape painter of local scenes) to depict a subject matter that shows the need for balance between doing and thinking.
It seems Peters imagined these classical themes within a visual vocabulary that stressed images of progress through learning and work.
The first panel, Life of Action, depicts a generic cityscape under construction. In this all-male tableau, Peters presents an inventory of workers—ranging from unskilled to professional and including both manual and industrial work—all actively performing some form of vigorous labor as they build the city behind them.
At the center of the piece is the architect. Wearing a suit and tie, he presents his plans for consideration, a blank sheet of paper on which all future possibilities can be inscribed.
In the second panel, Life of Contemplation, Peters stresses education and exploration as the keys to a balanced life. In the front corner of the work, a woman sits against a globe with open hands, as if holding a book.
But her book is behind her and the page clearly reads “the young blood flows freely and tests its hope, on mottled palette—oh yet vague canvas…,” suggesting that the book she will read has yet to be written.
To her right sits another woman, reading an actual book. Parallel to the Life of Action, another architect figure, with his back to the viewer, faces two young children and the reading woman.
A man with a beaker and test tube, wearing a tie under his lab coat, performs some sort of science experiment. A standing woman, presumably a teacher, holds a book and leads a discussion.
Behind her, the stories she has been reading appear to come to life: an armored rider on a white horse, identified by Peters as Joan of Arc, charges into battle in front of a medieval castle. Adjacent to this, Columbus’s ships sail toward the “new world” as a Native American scout crouches in the distance.
By explicitly linking the past to the present, Peters transforms contemplation and its corollaries of education and imagination into an active process. Thus contemplation becomes a form of action akin to the work being performed in its partner panel.
Value of Art as Work
Taken together these works provide an inventory of New Deal imagery: the teacher, the laborer, the architect, the student. They situate Peters, as the artist, as an important cultural laborer.
They encapsulate in visual form the ideologies of the New Deal and suggest that art and contemplative labor were valuable forms of work, as important to nation building as building bridges and skyscrapers.
As we revisit these works in the 21st century, it is tempting to criticize them for excluding people of color and presenting a whitewashed version of history.
Instead, I would argue, we should look back at their forecast future value as marking an important moment in time—one in which art was considered a valuable form of work—and learn how to use these skills today.
Today we are enmeshed in media. We watch it, surf it, translate it, and hack it. These are the tools of the present and of the future. But as artists and art historians, we also use these tools to investigate and understand the past.
We use new media to understand old media and to understand the world around us.
Following Peters and his peers on the WPA, we need to look for a renewed balance between action and contemplation.
In our present moment, this must be done through humanistic inquiry and creative work.