The Arts and the State in Times of Crisis: The Prospect of a New WPA, Part Part 7. What Made Public Service Employment Successful — Or Not?

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 arlenegoldbard@gmail.com 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 seventh installment.

Part 7. What Made Public Service Employment Successful — Or Not?

Arlene: The WPA is hard to see through a lens of success and failure because there were so many different programs under that umbrella. They tried out a ton of different things, some of which seem ridiculous to me now, and some of which seem really good. So for example, the Treasury Relief Art Program (TRAP) was for artists who were on relief to do things like decorate federal buildings. They also made easel paintings. If you were a painter, you’re supposed to turn in a certain number of canvases of a certain dimension, and then get your check. Or people in Washington commissioned murals for all the post offices across the country, and some artists would place an oak tree here in Illinois and substitute a cactus in New Mexico. Some had the Indigenous people thanking the conquerors for coming to save them. Those were all early. The more sophisticated the people were who came to be in charge of those programs, the more willingness to experiment, the better they were.

The Federal Theatre Project was an excellent program. They made theatre happen in places that couldn’t otherwise sustain it, and people really appreciated it. The Federal Writers Project was also deemed very successful, partly because of the historical documents it left behind. There was kind of a cultural anthropology tone to the Federal Writers Project, capturing material that was oral tradition and therefore bound to be lost, such as the narratives of enslaved people.

François: That’s where I see a parallel with what happened in Britain during the Second World War, that commitment to mapping perceived treasures including the very ordinary aspects of social life of a country at war. In America you weren’t at war at that time, but it was a country in a crisis because of the Depression. That may have been one of the things that contributed to the program’s success artistically and culturally, but I wonder whether it may also have helped build some popular support for it because that feels like a self-evidently good thing. Who’s going to object to producing guides to the states, you know, or to some oral history work?

Arlene: So who did object and how? Nowadays, as things have evolved, there is a blanket objection, which we now see in Congress from people who just don’t want government to spend money on social programs. That’s kind of an omnibus objection. But the specific objection that brought the WPA down was from anti-communists in government, and it was because of the specific content of those materials that were produced. It can go from kind of the general objection of why do we want to preserve the culture of all these people that don’t amount to anything when we have our wonderful museums and libraries for the real culture, to objections to a left-leaning play saying public dollars shouldn’t be going into spreading these pernicious ideas. As I said, those attitudes converged with gearing up to get into the war took it down.

There’s another argument that didn’t really hold water in the Great Depression, because the poverty levels and the unemployment levels were so astronomical, but the other counter-argument that is being deployed now and has been deployed in America for the last 35–40 years is that it’s a role of the marketplace to employ people and it’s not a good thing to have government employ people (beyond civil service, the military, and so on) because it makes them weak and lazy. Later on, when Reagan came into office in 1980, and the right wanted to destroy CETA, the public service employment program, they cited things that they thought were ridiculous, like people in San Francisco got jobs doing a circus. What a waste of public funds, they said.

So what are the responses to those arguments against public service employment? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The chickens that are coming home to roost in America right now are because we had such a concerted attack on the idea of an effective public sector. Reagan’s favorite saying was, “I’m here from the government and I want to help.” During the period of the 70s, the national Chamber of Commerce went huge on trying to foment a culture war, leading to Reagan’s election and on and on. Now Trump is the apex of this campaign to destroy faith in the idea of a public sector, to weaken it beyond repair, and it has been really successful. When Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, she was part of that story, too. What we’re facing in the US now is the total success of that campaign to the point where we effectively have no public sector in many ways and what we do have is incredibly crippled. But the wicked problems we’re facing cannot be addressed by anything other than an effective public sector. I see that as the connection between all the crises we’re facing.

François: That’s where there is a real parallel which has been clear to me since the pandemic started. I think the case for a return to a public sector, even in in the US, should become possible because of the scale of what all our societies are facing. Only the State has the resources and the power to intervene effectively. That’s the parallel with the Second World War. When you’re facing an existential war, you mobilize society, you do things that nobody would allow at another time — like you send kids to go live on farms, so they don’t get bombed in London. You couldn’t have separated children from their parents in any other circumstance. It’s the same now: we’re not allowed to see our friends or our grandchildren. I’m hopeful that the pressure will come up in the same way that after 1945 there was a pressure that said, “Look what we’ve been through, we have to change, because we are not going to go through that again.”

So universal responses could be on the cards. I didn’t understand why Obama didn’t do it. From what I read of America, there’s a massive infrastructure problem of crumbling bridges and buildings. And that’s what you do when you’re faced with people out of work on the scale that we’re talking about. This takes us back to universalism. It’s about employing artists because they’re part of the workforce. There’s no point in sending an artist to build a Hoover Dam, but there is a point in sending an artist to paint or photograph the people who are building.

Arlene: A hard thing here is that as this anti-government campaign has succeeded, the primary impact is the privatization of all social goods. Because of that, there’s a huge story of effective infrastructure being replaced by ineffective incompetent infrastructure. One of the best examples goes back to when Los Angeles had an excellent mass transit system; the Red Car Line used electric streetcars, but General Motors and the Firestone Tire Corporation made money from internal combustion engines and rubber tires. They lobbied so hard that the city actually tore out the Red Car Line streetcar tracks, destroyed the streetcars and substituted a very ineffective, inefficient and polluting set of buses. We see that story everywhere. So with all of our infrastructure, what should be happening is stopped by the fact that unless certain corporations profit sufficiently, infrastructure investment won’t get through.

Another point you raised was to note that these programs were distorted to a certain extent by the typical attitudes or biases or understandings of the time. I mentioned before that the agricultural programs under the WPA were biased against black farmers and they suffered greatly as a result. There’s a lot of that. But then there are the federal theatres, and while the WPA didn’t transcend sexism, there were a lot of women employed in and running these programs. They were of their time.

François: That challenges us to ask, what do we not see? What are our blind spots? And that’s a really important, really difficult question to answer.

One of the blind spots may be that artists deserve special treatment, special programs. It’s perfectly legitimate for all groups to lobby and defend their interest. That’s what democracy involves. What you have to do is to recognize that’s what people are doing. And the art world can be pretty sanctimonious about how much good it’s going to do for everybody else to mask its lobbying.

Arlene: Yeah. I found that interesting way back in the 80s when I was doing more work with people in the UK that we would talk from an American perspective in terms of rights, and people much more spoke of demands. For us rights were the bottom line: if you got a right installed, then nobody could transgress it. That was naïve. The demands view is probably a more accurate description of society, with competing demands trying to acquire power and triumph over each other. That’s part of the tragic romantic view of human life, which is probably more accurate. But I did believe in rights and I do still do in many ways.

François: Yeah, I also hold rights as a principle, that they are a kind of bottom line. Of course, we haven’t ever got to a society where everyone’s rights are defended and fulfilled. Beyond that you inevitably get into competing demands. These are the things that people don’t want to admit about democracy. Democracy is not a level playing field. Some people are much better equipped to defend their rights. That’s why I’ve always liked the idea that the test of democracy is how well it defends minorities, not the majority. After the election, how do the people who lose fare?

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about arlenegoldbard.com.