FDR's stimulus package for artists: No cause for nostalgia





The visitors comment book at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition "1934: A New Deal for Artists" has taken on a distinct note of nostalgia. "America needs another public works art program now," wrote Gene, from Maryland, after looking at paintings created for President Franklin Roosevelt's Public Works of Art Project, the first of several New Deal programs that supported artists during the Great Depression.

"Do we need another public art program for the 2009 great recession?" asked someone named Robbie. "Yes."

Open for comment since the show was unveiled in February, the book sits surrounded by a colorful display of paintings created from 1933 to 1934 during a short-lived phase of the alphabet soup of 1930s arts programs. The voices calling for another "new deal" for artists are found among generic comments about the prettiness of the art, and they echo a question that came up when Morris Dickstein came to town in late October to promote his new book, "Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression," at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center: Will there ever again be a government-supported arts program like those funded by the New Deal?

The short answer is no, but are these voices asking the right question?

Although stimulus funds allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts (which received $50 million) may eventually make it to individual artists through a system that disperses federal money to state and local arts agencies, this is a far cry from the rapid flow of support to individual artists during the short-lived PWAP. Between December 1933 and June 1934, about 3,000 artists were put to work on art that captured "the American scene," a project that resulted in more than 15,000 works of art. By contrast, the $50 million for the NEA is earmarked "for projects that focus on the preservation of jobs in the arts." Which means it will aid people who work for arts institutions, and only indirectly to artists themselves.

There have been tectonic political and cultural shifts since the art on view at the Smithsonian was created. The culture wars of the 1990s, which saw the NEA under constant assault for isolated artworks deemed offensive by conservatives, essentially neutered the government's ability to directly fund artists. The culture wars also came with significant collateral damage to the general perception of artists. A handful of them, often attacked because of their sexuality, became symbolic of artists in general. And by focusing on particularly cerebral or confrontational artists, critics of the NEA managed to make it seem as if artists simply didn't do constructive work. In the current climate, it's hard to imagine any government official saying that artists deserve funding because "they eat like other people," as the New Deal's Harry Hopkins once did...



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