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Response to Philip Kennicott's Washington Post article "FDR's stimulus package for artists: No cause for nostalgia

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Evelyn McCorristin Peters: Response to Philip Kennicott's Washington Post article "FDR's stimulus package for artists: No cause for nostalgia

Evelyn McCorristin Peters

Fine art for everyone


Response to Philip Kennicott's Washington Post article "FDR's stimulus package for artists: No cause for nostalgia

Upon reading Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post article, “FDR’s stimulus package for artists: no cause for nostalgia,” I looked back on recent research I had conducted on these very programs. Kennicott touches on the subject of whether there will ever be another government-supported arts program as there was in the 1930’s. He states the answer is no, but challenges us as to whether this is the right question to ask. This question arises from the obvious nostalgia of people visiting the recent Smithsonian American Art museum’s exhibition “1934: A New Deal for Artists.” I think it would be safe to assume that most people visiting this exhibition are those that love art and would generally be approving of   support of the country’s art and artists.

I agree with Mr. Kennicott when he states, “there have been tectonic political and cultural shifts since the art on view at the Smithsonian was created.” There is no doubt that our current world of never ending “entertainment” and opportunities to escape our present circumstance if only for a few moments have changed the way in which we all view our cultural institutions. However, to claim that the culture wars of the 1990’s are what caused a failure of funding to the NEA is short sighted. Kennicott is correct in stating during this time the NEA was “under constant assault for isolated artworks deemed offensive by conservatives,” who “essentially neutered the government’s ability to directly fund artists.” The government of the FDR administration was also under this same barrage.

The loss of faith in progress and human purpose after World War I affected American culture in conflicting ways. A decade of material excess and a longing for stability caused the wealthy and poor alike to redefine what it meant to be a United States citizen. These conflicts did not escape the artists of the time. The average American citizen became isolationist, intolerant, and conservative to varying degrees even while the era of the ‘1920’s roared around them in previously unheard of prosperity. The Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence, and political and labor dissent was often quashed. Conservatism rose with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol and the issue of Evolution was before the courts. Many viewed the ideals of modernism as the downfall of the country...

In this political and cultural climate a new understanding of modern art emerged, one whose primary focus was to define American art. As Erika Doss, author of Twentieth-Century American Art states “However diverse, all were similarly committed to the primary cultural and critical issue of the post-World War I era: defining uniquely American forms of modern art distinct from those of Europe.” These artists were attempting to define what it meant to be American by depicting historical and regional scenes embracing both order and stability with a sense of realism.

Mr. Kennicott notes, “The culture wars [of the 1990’s] also came with significant collateral damage to the general perception of artists.” The conservative critics of the NEA used the negative perception of artists to devalue any funding of the arts in general. The same can be said regarding the general attitude during the 1930’s as well. There was a tendency for artists not to consider public tastes and to paint solely for their own satisfaction, an avant guarde model alienating the general audience. The idea of the starving artist cut off from the rest of society by either him or herself and others, led to a social alienation that was not conducive to being a successful artist. It is not only “hard to imagine a government official saying that artists deserve funding because ‘they eat like other people,’ as the New Deal’s Harry Hopkins once did,” it was considered a generally preposterous statement then as well!

To view art, through movies, music, and paintings is a form of escapism that should not be deemed “fluff.” To step into a different perspective of a situation, through either nostalgia or an opposite representation of circumstances, is a valuable commodity in a fast-paced world. Our perception of art has changed as Mr. Kennicott notes. The fact that the “prettiness” depicted throughout the exhibition in the American museum has become a mass commodity simply speaks to its value. If others did not find it valuable, they would not pay for the privilege of owning it, be it on a postcard, print, or original work. Our capitalist society proves its value each day. The portrayal of the American scene in the 1930’s was not merely escapism. It was also a portrayal of what the American people believed they were and what they wanted to be again. Yes, this is nostalgia, which is often evident today as well.

As Historian Helen Langa observed, the artists participating in the art programs of the 1930s held the belief that the opportunities to provide a cultural improvement to the average citizen would play an important role in forming a national identity. This was a new direction in American thought. This presentation of a utopian vision of the country presented by artist would serve as a unifying force for social good, a force that was sorely needed at a time of great strife. Artists then as now came under assault for portraying what they saw, which of ten did not coincide with what Americans of the time wanted to portray. FDR wanted to provide a cultural education for the average American citizen. I believe here is where the nostalgia arises in response to the current exhibition. Many citizens today want to believe that their government is simply trying to make their lives better, that it is striving to provide this “utopian” world. This is universal, how this is achieved underlies our present conflicts. The nostalgia is for a government that provides for the people, either by being larger or smaller, the wish is ultimately the same.

I can only hope that the last productive era of artistic endeavor was not the 1930’s as author Roger Kennedy claims in When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy. There was simply not a strong link between what artists produced and what the people wanted. The problem of subject matter across small towns of the country’s post office murals completed in the 1930s is testament to this. Repeatedly, controversy arose during FDR’s arts programs just as government support of the arts now causes politicians to gnash their teeth. Many artists and critics believe that it was only through the Depression, by taking back the art from finance capitalism that American artists were embraced by the public and encouraged to represent American culture. This did not particularly happen then and it does not appear as though it will ever happen. Just as the arts programs of the 30’s fell victim to war preparation in the wake of World War II, our current programs fall victim to our wars of the day.

In 1965, the Federal government established the National Endowment for the Arts. In December 2007, President George W. Bush signed a bill allocating $144.7 million for the endowment. This total $207 dollars per person. Statistics show that per capita the United States spends less on arts funding than any other major country.

After much debate, $50 million in funding has gone to the NEA. In order to justify this part of the economic stimulus package, government representatives explained that this would largely assist administration of art programs, not necessarily individual artists. Controversy consistently haunts arts funding. Republican Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia was quoted as saying, “I just think putting people to work is more important than putting more art on the wall of some New York City gallery frequented by the elite art community.” Of his constituents 2,663 are employed in 778 arts related businesses, can we presume he considers them all “elitist?”

On the other side, Democratic congressional representative David Obey believed retaining NEA funding important, “There are five million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5% unemployment—or 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.” Kind of sound like Harry Hopkins does it not?

The issue as to whether arts are essential to the public will continue to come under fire in times of economic struggle as well as times of prosperity. It is difficult to put a value on something that is by nature a matter of personal taste and emotions. Mary Chapin Carpenter writes a weekly commentary and sited the speech of Penelope Cruz as she accepted her Oscar award for best supporting actress this year in an attempt to explain the justification and need for continued arts funding: “I grew up in a place…where this was not a very realistic dream. On the night of the Academy Awards…I stayed up to watch the show. This ceremony was a moment of unity for the world because art, in any form, is and has been and will always be our universal language. And we should do everything we can, everything we can, to ensure its survival.” Will there ever be a strong support of the arts by federal government? Kennicott is probably right, there will not be, not similar to that of the 1930’s, and we will all be a little worse of for its absence.

To learn more about the exhibition:
Image credits: Ross Dickinson, Valley Farms, 1934, oil on canvas, 39 7/8 x 50 1/8 in. (101.4 x 127.3 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor



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