The Arts and the State in Times of Crisis: The Prospect of a New WPA, Part 3. The US in the 1930s: The WPA

NOTE: I’m delighted to be once again cohosting a “virtual residency” with my friend and colleague Francois Matarasso on my blog and his. (You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting 29 September, we’re publishing excerpts from our dialogue on public service employment past, present, and future. Then on Tuesday, 6 October, we’ll host a free Zoom conversation about how to make a new WPA real. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT — that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. Here’s the link to register.

Download our full dialogue formatted for the UK or for the US (if the links aren’t working, try a different browser or email me at and I’ll send you the PDF you want via email). Or if you prefer, you can read an excerpt each day at our blogs.

Here’s the third installment.

The US in the 1930s: The WPA

Arlene: The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a massive relief programme that was created in 1935 by the federal government in the United States in response to the Great Depression, where unemployment hit levels unequalled until today in America. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. He was a progressive guy. There was a worldwide depression, but what that looked like in America is familiar to people who’ve seen Charlie Chaplin movies or images of people queuing all day for bread. It was a true depression, so the cost of goods was deflated, everything was very cheap, but people had no money so they still couldn’t buy the necessities of life.

The idea was to have a big federal intervention that provided relief of some kind. They could have thought of it as welfare: you apply and you get a payment, you go about your life, try to find work. But these programmes took a different tack: let’s do things that need doing in this country, the important work for the public good that isn’t getting done because nobody has the money. But the programs weren’t just for artists. So, for example, one of the fondly remembered aspects of the WPA was the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, in which men and boys were employed doing infrastructure projects, including building parks and amphitheatres that still exist in the United States. It’s a model that had a lot of resonance in the 1970s; in fact, California started its California Conservation Corps and it was seen as an amazing opportunity for kids who might otherwise be caught in the school-to-prison pipeline.

There were agricultural supports for farmers, engineering and construction programmes, and much more. It was massive and covered a lot of territory. Different aspects were administered differently, reflecting culturally-embedded attitudes. The agricultural programme is often held up as an example of discrimination against black people, because most of the farmers that got help were white. A lot of people trace to this time, and to the public programmes that followed the WPA, the persistent disparity in wealth between black and white households.

The cultural aspect of the WPA is the best-known, partly because it generated so many images and artifacts. People have seen the posters, the post office murals, etc. But it was also known because arts and cultural initiatives are about communicating. So as opposed to all the non-arts programmes where photographers such as Dorothea Lange worked for the agricultural administration documenting Dustbowl farmers and their migration, many of the other programmes weren’t as well-documented, so people weren’t that conversant with them. If you say WPA, most people who have heard of it will think of the art programmes first.

I direct folks to a very old website that has a summary of the WPA art programs, which collectively went by the name Federal One. The five divisions were: Federal Arts Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, Federal Writers’ Project, and Historical Records Survey. The did a lot of amazing things: cutting-edge theatre including the Living Newspaper and the creation of ten black regional theatre companies; an index of American design; state guides; almost all the surviving narratives of enslaved people, and much more.

Artists in those programmes were structurally unemployed, and not only on account of the Great Depression. For instance, it was estimated that 30,000 musicians were displaced by new mechanical modes of music reproduction. Earlier, if you wanted music you had to go hear musicians, now you could listen to a recording or the radio. They also estimated that more than 30,000 theatre workers were unemployed by the mid-1930s because so many legitimate theatres were converted to movie theatres. The Loew’s theatre chain had 36 theatres offering 50 weeks a year of live entertainment before 1930; by 1934, they only had three left. So there was a huge structural change brought about mostly by mechanisation putting people out of work. Artists were clearly seen as an unemployed group, just like farmers or construction workers. So the approach to making programmes that used artists’ skills was grounded in need, not in making artists a uniquely special group.

François: That’s interesting on two levels. I hadn’t appreciated how important the technological change was. There’s a parallel now because we’re going through another wave of technological change. It’s striking that government could see artists just as people who had been earning their living and now weren’t — it wasn’t about art, it was about unemployment and economic change. There’s no complex about it. You just get on with it.

Arlene: CETA, the 1970s programme which we’ll talk about later, was the same: a response to unemployment. We need that now because unemployment is epidemic. Our technological shift is about music streaming, YouTube, and all these free platforms for people’s cultural creations, and the reality that most often the artist is not able to capture as much revenue from the work. It’s ironic, because there’s a zillion more artists producing. In the aggregate, it’s probably just as much money but divided among so many that fewer artists are actually able to monetize their work.

Another interesting thing about the WPA is that its origin stories are about individuals. George Biddle was a classmate of FDR’s at Groton, a super-elite prep school. He had gone down to Mexico and studied with Diego Rivera, and he came back and told Roosevelt that he wanted to bring a team of muralists to embellish a new federal building in in Washington, DC. And when Roosevelt was Governor of New York, his state relief director was this guy called Harry Hopkins. He had given the College Art Association in New York funds to put 100 artists into settlement houses — community centres created to assimilate immigrants by having classes in English, hygiene, some condescending and some good stuff, and so art programmes were integral to this. Harry Hopkins became the first head of the WPA. So these two guys that Roosevelt knew personally said, “I’ve seen this in another country, it’s a really a good thing. Let’s have it here.” And Roosevelt was like, “Okay, let’s try it.”

I think the reason I love that is because I think about trying to start initiatives as rolling a gigantic boulder uphill for a really, really long time, trying to gather popular support that will force recalcitrant politicians to respond properly to conditions. But the other way is somebody they trust just gets them to do it. I wish I knew somebody!

François: We’ve just seen the British government in the UK produce £1.57 billion to the arts and cultural sector. And I’d guess that happened because various ministers and prime ministers have friends, exactly like you’re talking about. But they’re not using that money to do a WPA-type programme. They’re trying to save what they call ‘the crown jewels,’ by mothballing organisations so that they can re-emerge and be able to make it work again after this is over. In the end, that’s why who-knows-who doesn’t work because the Trump administration is based on who can get close to the President. It’s dangerous, unjust, and opaque. Anyway, how did the WPA come to an end?

Arlene: It ended in 1942, seven years after it started. It came to an end in two different ways. One was that that World War II effectively ended it because it put people to work and this money had to be repurposed for the war effort. But it also dovetailed with rise of anticommunism. The WPA was constantly being attacked from the right for creating art that was too political, too left-wing. The head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities denounced the WPA as a “hotbed of communists.” And that was basically the end.

François: When I speak to younger artists today about community art murals in the 70s and 80s, they don’t always understand the difference between an artist who happens to paint on walls and a community artist. My impression of the WPA is that it’s got nothing to do with community arts, even if many of the artists involved were left-leaning, and reflect those values in the work, because they weren’t involving people in the work. I don’t think they thought that local people, not artists, could have a say over the work, even less contribute to its making. That’s an idea that only emerges in the 1960s.

Arlene: Yes and no; you’re half right. There wasn’t something called community arts. But there was a tremendous amount of work rooted in folk traditions, popular vernacular. The American Communist Party at that time, their policy was called Popular Front. The idea was you use all the vernacular forms and heritage of the people to create this feeling of belonging, of unity. So like the artists worked in the settlement houses, people were making stuff together. They were making dances, they were making paintings, but they didn’t have a self-conscious idea of being a community artist as opposed to a fine artist. For example, the Index of American Design, part of the Federal Art Project, documented vernacular design, and all of the arts projects included many participatory classes and workshops.

François: In Britain in the 1930s you have artists teaching miners to paint, but it’s essentially art education, with the intention to help people produce stuff that, if not the same as what the market likes, is still recognisably within an idiom and a framework. It may be more pictorial, some of it may be called naive, but it’s essentially painting in frames that you’re going to try to sell.

Arlene: I get you, but I think there’s way more grey area than you’re giving credit for.

François: I think that the WPA has an image which is romanticised by the fine art world now. The political ideology behind, say, Dorothea Lange’s photographs is far enough away from contemporary life not to be threatening to any political position. Some people who worked in WPA programmes went on to become successful in the fine art market. So I think the fine art world looks at that and says, “What a great idea. We give lots of money to artists to be artists. And the cream will rise to the to the top. Wouldn’t that be good?” I find that questionable because that’s not the best of what the WPA was about or the reasons why it was valuable.

Arlene: But if the artworld people are saying it was just giving them the money to do whatever they want, they’re mistaken. They were employed to do specific things that were considered public goods, social goods. You can list people: Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison or Zora Neale Hurston were in the Federal Writers Project; Jacob Lawrence was a Federal Art Project painter — there’s a long list of people. But what they did was people’s art for the WPA, and then as they became more well-known, they worked in the conventional framework of getting your work published or getting paintings shown. But mostly their subject matter remained very much rooted in all the same aesthetic and social concerns as when they were in the WPA.

François: I agree, but there’s also the missionary idea: if you pay artists to go and work with communities, they will do good, because artists are good people and they bring good things, this good thing called culture. They will civilise wherever they go.

Arlene: Which is the democratisation of culture rather than cultural democracy. That’s the part of the Popular Front idea that is not very appealing to me — “Let’s have this chamber ensemble go play lunchtime concerts in the factory.” But maybe it’s better to have a lunchtime concert in the factory than no concert at all. That just would not be the thing that I think does what is needed.

François: A social good is having the choice to be able to go listen to a string quartet. But if it’s “We understand that you will be a better person, and more socially acceptable if you like this stuff….

Arlene: We’re parsing the elitism of it from the democratic impulse, but a lot of these things were very confused.

François: As they still are.

Arlene: I like I like the framework that the Council of Europe used when it articulated the democratisation of culture versus cultural democracy, because that makes sense to me. It’s been true since the beginning of time that democratisation of elite culture — discounted museum admission, busing kids to blockbuster shows — gets a whole lot more money and attention than cultural democracy — pluralism, participation, equity in relation to multiple coexisting cultures. We’re always trying to change that. I wouldn’t want to romanticise the WPA because it was highly imperfect in all the ways that anything mass-scale is highly imperfect. But the truth is it did a number of important things. Right now, theatres are folding right and left, they can’t sustain themselves; just in these six months they ran out their resources to the point where they’re no longer viable. And that creates all these unemployed theatre artists and if the federal government did supply the funding to have troupes where it hadn’t been sustainable to have theatres before, that would be a great thing in this country.

François: One of the differences is that the infection makes certain kinds of artistic activity simply impossible. You could hire the actors and create black theatre companies as part of the WPA in the 1930s. Today, you’d have to have a good long think about what you’re going to do, because the economic model that we’re working with won’t work for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to imagine when we’re going to be able to sit in a theatre again elbow to elbow, or when people will want to.

There’s one other thing I’d like to bring up to finish talking about the WPA. The work that many of the artists were making was engaged with what America was, how it was changing, what its values were. That’s a parallel, also true of the work of government-supported artists in the Second World War in Britain. America and Britain were both facing enormous change and existential threats. Then it seems natural both for people to become more politicised and for artists to think about where they live, what they’re doing, and what the society is. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that gives the works of that period a degree of commonality and the degree of resonance after the period has ended. You recognise a sense of common purpose, common preoccupations. You would recognise that in the 1950s too. But in the 1930s the common purpose and preoccupations are to do with things that really matter; they’re urgent, if you like, they’re about who are we? And where are we going? In the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was about a lot of things, but it wasn’t asking “who are we and where are we going?”

Arlene: That’s true. There’s a strong argument that the reason it wasn’t asking that was because of the rise of the Red Scare. There was a huge push toward art that couldn’t be dismissed is as left-wing. But that’s a whole other conversation. For the Federal Theatre Project, that was super-explicit in their description of what they were — it’s in Hallie Flanagan’s book Arena. She was head of the Federal Theatre Project and another person who crossed paths with the right person at the right time. She had gone to college in Iowa with Harry Hopkins. They did Federal Theatre of The Air on radio, The Living Newspaper, which I mentioned before. That was the intention, to make the theatre relevant to the day. The book is very interesting. I also recommend reading about the 1936 American Artists Congress. There are library copies and used copies around of Artists Against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists’ Congress. The painter Stuart Davis opened the Congress this way:

“In order to withstand the severe shock of the crisis, artists have had to seek a new grip on reality. Around the pros and cons of ‘social content,’ a dominant issue in discussions of present-day American art, we are witnessing determined efforts by artists to find a meaningful direction. Increasing expression of social problems of the day in the new American art makes it clear that in times such as we are living in, few artists can honestly remain aloof, wrapped up in studio problems.”

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