When art was for all Americans


During the Great Depression, heroic images of ordinary people, workers and farmers in factories and fields across the country, were strewn on the bare interior walls of post offices and other public buildings. Muralists working from their scaffolding were employed by several federal agencies, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA). On the surface, the New Deal programs supporting visual and other artists had a pragmatic goal: living wages for underprivileged artists during the worst economic crisis in American history. But these projects also served the more idealistic goal of enlivening the American experience.

The current exhibition at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee focuses on federally funded art from the Great Depression. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime: Jewish Artists of the WPA” brings together some 70 works by 41 artists and includes oil and watercolor paintings, lithographs, screen prints, woodcuts and sculptures. Aaron Bohrod and Alfred Sessler of Wisconsin are among the artists featured in the show. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” brings together for the first time pieces from several museums and collections, including the Racine Art Museum and UW-Milwaukee.

Most of the WPA artwork reflected the prominent visual movement of the time, Social Realism, whose supporters sought to accurately depict immediate reality through compositions with streamlined lines suggesting movement and strength. Avoiding genteel topics (no still lifes here), social realists delivered messages about the value of everyday life in emotionally vivid form. Social realism was also the preferred visual genre of other nations, including the Soviet Union, where representations of workers in factories and farms circulated widely. However, American artists worked under fewer restrictions and were encouraged to incorporate recognizable aspects of the regions they lived in into their depictions of everyday life.

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According to the curator of the Jewish Museum, Molly Dubin, the artists “exploited the idea of ​​Franklin D. Roosevelt, his focus on creating the ‘American scene’, the true American identity and all that it encompassed.”

Raise the cultural level

The museum’s programming associated with “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” places WPA art in the larger context of the New Deal cultural agenda. While painters were rendering images of American life, John and Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress traveled south to record blues and folk musicians. Other scholars have noted the accounts of former slaves and other marginalized citizens. Writers were employed to produce city and state guides, plays were staged and art centers established to raise the cultural standard of the country and make the arts accessible to all.

The plight of workers (and sometimes women) in a time of massive unemployment, when brutal battles for organized labor raged outside factory gates, can be discerned in some of the images. “Many of the artists were immigrants who came in search of the American dream and found themselves in one of the darkest periods in American history,” Dubin explains.

While some foreign governments had long spent lavishly on the arts they promoted, large-scale federal funding for culture in the United States was among Roosevelt’s many innovations. The content was controversial at times, spurring Congressional hearings by the same kind of ignorant people who block progress today.

“The Trump administration tried to crush the National Endowment for the Arts. Biden pledged increases to the federal arts budget, one of the largest ever spent, ”Dubin said. “I hope that those coming to the exhibition will see the parallels between yesterday and today and will be encouraged to think about the role of government spending on the arts and the role of artists in our society.

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime: Jewish Artists of the WPA” runs through September 5 at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. For more information, visit jewishmuseummilwaukee.org.

David Luhrssen

David Luhrssen has taught at UWM and MIAD. He is the author of The Vietnam War on Film, Encyclopedia of Classic Rock and Hammer of the Gods: Thule Society and the Birth of Nazism.

Read more about David Luhrssen

Jul 06, 2021



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