This Dardanelle, Arkansas, Post Office WPA Mural is not much different from the one in my home town, except that the crop is cotton.
The logical successors to the Ashcan school were the Federal Art Project painters. This was the visual arts part of the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. At no other time in American history has government made such an effort to support the arts in all forms. While autocrats sometimes employed art to create an ethos for their state, democracies do not, in general, use art and artists like this.
Whereas this WPA Office Mural from Arlington, Massachusetts is distinctly northern in character, and refers back to our original settlement stories.
Since non-representational artists—still considered the avante garde—were not making much of a living in the Thirties, you can imagine what a boon government support was for them. But most of the WPA art was representational, and most of it was local. We remember the WPA for the murals in our post offices, libraries, schools and hospitals, not because it supported the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock before they became famous.
Could this be from anywhere else but America’s heartland, celebrating corn as it does? In this case, Mount Ayr, Iowa.
Yesterday I wrote that art is primarily a reflection of the aspirations and values of the society that created it. The WPA art is an example of art as a change agent. In the midst of the Great Depression, America needed to be reminded of her exceptionalism. In government buildings across the country, painters did just that.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!