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Sustaining the Spirit: A new New Deal for the arts

Rosemary Joyce

As I write this, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has on exhibit an extraordinary selection of paintings under the title 1934: A New Deal for Artists.

But Berkeley community members don’t have to go all the way to DC to see the products of New Deal support for the arts: California’s Living New Deal project provides a guide that includes the former UC Berkeley Art Museum with its mosaic murals recalling cultural life in the 1930s. Credited to Helen Bruton and Florence Swift, these murals were completed in 1936 with Works Project Authority funding.

In fact, all across the US, the impact of New Deal programs intended to support the arts have become part of the cultural imagination, and contributed to the beauty of a distinctively US landscape.

And this was done, not in the name of multipliers (although for every dollar spent supporting the arts, most observers concede we can count on additional economic activity: certainly, funding for most artists falls into the category of funding that will inevitably be spent locally on goods and services because the recipient is in no position to save).

But the 1934 Public Works of Art Project was launched in the service of keeping the national spirit high. As the website for the Smithsonian exhibit says, “Federal officials in the 1930s understood how essential art was to sustaining America’s spirit.”

Sustaining the spirit. As we witness economic declarations that the Great Recession is over, isn’t that what is missing? who among us feels that our spirit is sustained in the current corrosive atmosphere?

So yes, we need to include the arts in our economic recovery. But do we have the political will? How many school districts long ago dispensed with any arts programs? How many of us individually participate in the arts, taking classes (sustaining individual artist-teachers) or just raising our own consciousness of the potential of art to engage us with the world and to promote new understanding?

Instead of attempting to sustain the spirit, debate this spring on economic stimulus led to Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s successful amendment in the Senate barring funds for the arts. Published commentaries at the time blamed artists for alienating the public with the political content of their work.

But the art of the 1930s was equally political. The paintings in the Smithsonian Museum exhibition depict the realities of the economic depression, and display a concern with the position of labor in a country that had experienced the development of extreme economic inequality in the 1920s.

What has changed is our willingness to support activities from which we do not benefit directly. What has changed is our tolerance for art that makes us uncomfortable or causes us to reflect on what we normally ignore. We need to recover a sense of social engagement through art, not just for the good of the arts, but for the good of the social.

Oh, and in case you don’t remember what happened to the arts in the stimulus bill in February: last minute action restored $50 million, about 40% directed to state arts agencies.  And while I want to argue for art for the sake of the spirit, I cannot end this post without quoting David Obey, Democratic Representative from Wisconsin, who said

You know what? There are five million people who work in the arts industry…are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.

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