New Deal Arts After the Election

December 21, 2010
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Last month I joined a group at the FDR Memorial Library in Hyde Park, NY, which hosted a discussion of the New Deal’s Enduring Legacy, focused on the arts programs. In the wake of the mid-term election, it was a chance to assess how Americans dealt with unemployment crises and culture. The Poughkeepsie Journal covered it in this article.
    People noted today’s parallels with 1938, another mid-term election when Republicans reclaimed seats in Congress, that time a backlash against the New Deal. In the debate leading up to those elections, the WPA projects were a lightning rod.
American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work    In his overview, Nick Taylor, author of American-Made, observed that government support for the arts is always a tough sell to the American public. He noted that federal contracts officers, too, weren’t used to dealing with artists. For instance, why couldn’t WPA artists all use the same type of paint, so they could order by the barrel? Peggy Bulger from the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center added to the picture of how music and folklore got preserved at a critical juncture.

    I made several points about the Writers’ Project and how it helped innovate in the wake of the newspaper closures of the 1930s. College kids with short resumés like Jim Thompson, Margaret Walker and Ralph Ellison got on their feet with WPA writing jobs, plus a firsthand sense of what writers contributed to society. The older jobless got a life raft, short term. My main point, though, was that the arts programs left a long-tailed creative connection to American life for decades afterward. FDR said at the time, “One hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not its relief.”
    Susan Quinn, author of Furious Improvisation, about the WPA Theater Project, told the story of Orson Welles’ time with the WPA and how the play The Cradle Will Rock, staged in Manhattan amid a wave of strikes, brought drama down Broadway as cast, crew and audience all paraded from the theater where they were shut out to another space. The show went on. (See the 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock.)
    Cynthia Koch, director of the FDR Library, discussed the WPA arts legacy in the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, including NEA battles of the 1980s and the resurgent culture wars now. Good points from the live audience and from others, emailed in. C-SPAN3 will air the Arts & History event December 26 and again January 1 and 2.
    And still we have an unemployment rate hovering above 9%.

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