The New Deal Put Huge Numbers of Unemployed Artists to Work

New Deal job programs didn't just absorb unemployment but allowed thousands of artists and writers to work on ambitious creative projects. Works Progress Administration funding allowed a golden age in US culture — but drew vicious anti-communist attacks, offering a foretaste of McCarthyism.

Detail of a fresco by Victor Arnautoff at Coit Tower in San Francisco, California.

After a divisive election, US politics are anything but back to normal. If Joe Biden pursues the same neoliberal policies that we’ve seen these last forty years, there is little chance of him rebuilding trust among working-class voters. Looking to break with this recent history — and confront a fresh Great Depression — it’s no wonder that many on the Left draw inspiration from the social programs of the 1930s, as they advocate a modern Green New Deal.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to build the country out of the Depression began in 1933, the year he became president, and was rolled out in earnest from 1935 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Its job-creation schemes remain well known — as do its programs’ effects in building infrastructure and public works visible around the United States still today.

But perhaps rather less well known are an important part of this period’s political debates: the art programs of the New Deal. Under the same mantra of letting people use their abilities rather than being retrained or go vacant, they put thousands of visual artists, sculptors, writers, actors, musicians, architects, and photographers to work.

A disclaimer: I’m a Norwegian socialist and know many Americans may consider ours a “socialist country.” But your own history is itself impressive. Most remarkable about the New Deal art programs is the bold idea of letting people use their own skills and abilities, instead of endless job retraining and forcing people to take up meaningless tasks in order to receive benefits. While even Norway’s famous but withered welfare state now increasingly resembles Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the New Deal shows that more humane alternatives exist.

Living New Deal

“We want to reveal this invisible landscape,” says historical geographer Gray Brechin enthusiastically as he points to a map he has just given me showing New Deal art in San Francisco. We sit in his office at the University of California, Berkeley, where he and colleagues run the Living New Deal research project, which has so far mapped over sixteen thousand sights from this period. Artists enrolled in state programs were paid to bring art to the people, which largely meant sculptures and murals in public places. These latter could be parks, museums, universities, schools, hospitals, and, not least, post offices; considered the meeting place of the modern era, free from both religion and commercial forces.

Many artists were awarded assignments by the Section of Fine Arts, which was established under the Treasury in 1934 and lasted until 1943. One of the visual artists, Frank W. Long, published a memoir describing the ambivalence many of them felt over working for the state. Certainly, artists felt gratitude for commissions and a salary to live off in the midst of the Depression. But there was also irritation over bureaucratic micromanagement and the lack of artistic freedom.

As Long writes, the leaders of “the Section” mainly hoped not so much to help hungry artists, as to establish their own “school” of American art. They planned for it to be a conservative counterpart to the Cubism and futurism exerting influence from France; they also sought an “apolitical” foil to the popular, social-realist murals of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and José Orozco. Far from all American artists wanted to be part of that vision.

Bloody History

San Francisco is among the cities in the United States with the clearest traces of New Deal art. Getting off the train in the Embarcadero, immediately after the long underwater tunnel from Berkeley, some of the most important destinations are there, right away.

Up Columbus Avenue to the north is the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, a maritime museum shaped like a ship with 465 square feet of murals inside and impressive mosaic and stone art on the outside, the latter developed by African-American artist Sargent Johnson. In a racist United States, Johnson was hardly a shoo-in for this commission; but several African-American artists were helped by the New Deal’s art programs, including writers Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston. About 15 percent of WPA employees were African-American, and they faced racism as elsewhere in society, but they also got support from progressive New Deal ideologues.

The Aquatic Park Bathhouse.

For instance, Walker, a black, female poet aged twenty in 1935, was seen as so talented that her supervisor let her work on her own material during working hours — an almost unheard-of privilege. Progressive New Deal staff often had to maneuver between unaccommodating artists who challenged the rules and the opposing pressure coming from Republicans and an aggressive right-wing press. The latter generally opposed support for the arts and were especially on guard against topics that were absolutely off-limits: communism and cooperation across racial divides.

One work that challenged both of these taboos was Anton Refregier’s twenty-seven murals in the series “History of California,” painted in the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco. Refregier chose to paint the state’s history as it was: as a bloody class and racial conflict. Workers fight each other over racial divides, but Refregier let the unions be the story’s humanistic voice, by including an 1875 statement by Irish labor leader Frank Roney: “Attacks upon the Chinese I consider unreasonable and antagonistic to the principles of American Liberty.”

“History of San Francisco” mural by Anton Refregier at Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco, California.

This was the last New Deal art project, completed in 1947, and Refregier placed a picture of his hero, the recently deceased FDR, at the end of the lobby. It was immediately ordered removed by the new Truman administration. In 1953, Vice President Richard Nixon tried to have the rest of the work removed, in a congressional hearing that brought charges against the art itself. Local politicians from both parties defended the work, which emerged victorious from the case. Other murals showing interactions between people of different racial backgrounds were not that lucky.

Labor and St. Francis

Not far from the last New Deal artwork, we find the first. At the top of Telegraph Hill is the famous Coit Tower, with its beautiful depictions of work in both city and countryside. Its theme was considered so controversial, in an era of sharpened class struggle, that the opening to the public was postponed.

A twenty-minute walk south, at the entrance to Chinatown, stands a statue of Sun Yat-sen, “the godfather of modern China,” who spent a lot of time in San Francisco in the early twentieth century. The sculpture was erected by renowned artist Beniamino Bufano, who was also commissioned to create the New Deal era’s largest work of art, a giant sculpture of the city’s patron saint, St. Francis. The idea was that it would be placed on Twin Peaks and tower over the city like Christ towers over Rio de Janeiro. But this time, the work was stopped by uproar from the right-wing press before it had come off the drawing board. At Twin Peaks, we thus find a more modern saint: Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, erected by sculptor Peter David Edstrom from Småland in Sweden.

Coit Tower, in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, California.

In further pursuit of the New Deal’s forgotten heritage, Bolerium Books on Mission Street is a natural stopover. Since 1981, the chaotic antiquarian shop has sold left-wing and queer literature under the slogan “Fighting commodity fetishism with commodity fetishism.” As soon as he hears that I am Norwegian, the shop owner asks if it really is true that the Norwegian Communist Party condemned homosexuality as bourgeois. I reply that I am afraid it did, but that fortunately they quickly took it back and apologized. When I ask to use the toilet, I am told that there is a poster in there in Norwegian or Swedish, which he would like help with translating. Having examined the walls covered in revolutionary poster art from around the world, I finally find, under a caricature of McCarthy, the message: “Join the Communist Youth League” written in Danish. The owner seems pleased to have solved the Scandinavian mystery.

Federal One

One of the titles I pick up in Bolerium Books is The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935–1943 by Jerre Mangione. It turns out to be one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. The New Deal’s art program entailed, in addition to the already mentioned visual arts, music, theater, and literature. The famous photographs that Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans took of American life during the Depression were also part of the New Deal, but they were working for the Farm Security Administration.

The art program, called Federal Project Number One, instead took place under the more expansive WPA. As with the vision for the visual arts, the administrators also had ideas about how other art forms should be practiced. Actors were hired to bring both news (living newspaper productions) and classical pieces out to the people across the nation, while musicians were set to form symphony orchestras that played in the amphitheaters their construction worker colleagues in the WPA had recently erected.

But what to do with the writers? One possibility was to allow them to write novels, poems, and other texts as they pleased on the government payroll, but it was unrealistic for two reasons. First, many of the enrolled writers were not necessarily professional scribes, but a fractious congregation that had nothing in common beyond the fact that they worked with text in some way. Nonfiction writers of all forms, including writers of manuals and the like, were far more common than good poets and writers. Second, Congress (in part justifiably) would cry blue murder about state-funded communist art if the authors were given free rein, long before the first sentence was ever written.

The solution was to set writers to write guidebooks for all states in the country. It may sound like a small job for thousands of people, but it was anything but. The idea of the program’s visionary director, Henry Alsberg, was not to compete with private guidebooks on restaurant tips, but to tell the grand story of the United States and her people. In other words, the material was inexhaustible. Regional supervisors were employed in all states, writers recruited, and collaborations with commercial publishers established. What could possibly go wrong?

The short answer is — just about everything. Many of the recruited were not good enough to do research and write, while the best writers had big egos and great difficulty in being told what to do. At the same time, the federal government had a need for extensive control, so manuscripts were piling up in DC on the desks of people who wanted to review every page. The Depression also took a big toll, and many employees had mental health or drinking problems.

As in the visual arts program, many of the writers pushed for a progressive agenda that created problems for all the president’s men, both concerning content in the texts and wage policies. The New York office was paralyzed by strikes most of the time, with associated showdowns between Trotskyist and Stalinists. Outside the offices, Republican congressional representatives circled around for just such stories, eager to deal a deathblow to the most hated part of the New Deal.

Relegated to the Shadows

And so it went: in 1938 Republican representative Martin Dies of Texas, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, convened a congressional hearing in which he attacked the art project’s weakest point: the literature and theater programs. Before the hearing, a series of lies were put forward by the National Civic Federation, a conservative economic organization founded in 1900. They claimed that the leaders of the literary program were known for publishing obscene literature, that $20 million had been spent without a single publication (at this time more than one hundred books were published, at a much lower price), but most of all: that the arts programs were dominated by communists who shut others out and spent the state’s money on propaganda.

In a hearing with many dubious witnesses, the head of the theater program, Hallie Flanagan, was asked if Shakespeare’s contemporary colleague, Christopher Marlowe, whom she had mentioned in an article, was a communist. Republican J. Parnell Thomas pulled out the New Jersey guide and complained that one of the essays in it “was written as if there existed a conflict between labor and capital.” Although this caused some amusement, the press mostly stood with the Republicans, who managed to give the program the coup de grâce in 1939. It was allowed to continue at the state level but provided it found its own sponsors.

From there, quality dropped considerably, and the great collection of folklore, unique eyewitness depictions (for example, from the last living generation of ex-slaves), and cultural history was replaced by more commercial guides. Finally, what was left of the writers’ program was, like the rest of the country, enrolled in war preparations. Under the new name, the Writers’ Unit of the War Services came out with the last sixty-four books: Servicemen’s Recreational Guides.

Over six crazy and chaotic years, however, the ambitious literary program managed to deliver what it had promised: fifty-one major works in the American Guide Series, works that were part of a larger collection of 276 books and 701 pamphlets. And during its four years of federal financing, the Federal Writers’ Project supported more than 6,600 writers, editors, and researchers. The guidebooks were mostly well received by both readers and critics, who promised them a long and important life in American history. The critic Robert Cantwell, for example, wrote that they shed a new and unexpected light on America, a “country to take seriously.” He also believed that “it is doubtful if there has ever been assembled such a portrait, so laboriously and carefully documented, of such a fanciful, impulsive, childlike, absent-minded, capricious and ingenious people.” The British poet W. H. Auden, on his side, called the whole project ”one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.”

Author John Steinbeck, who himself worked for the WPA during those years, was also a big fan. In his novel Travels with Charlie (1962), he writes that the guidebooks comprise “the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it.”

But rather than receiving the long life critics predicted for this collective Great American Novel, the memory of it and the entire New Deal legacy was relegated to the shadows by the McCarthy era that followed the war, as the anti-communist witch hunt that started in the late 1930s was fiercely stepped up. It’s tragic that so much of the collected material is now gathering dust in the archives; the New Deal’s art program was always too utopian to survive long in the hostile climate the elites and conservative press created. Mangione writes that virtually every newspaper in the country fiercely attacked the state’s jobs program, to the extent that it infected shame on those who participated in it. To be expected perhaps, as most major media companies were owned by some of the nation’s richest, people who had little praise for Roosevelt’s tax hikes for the wealthiest from 59 to 75 percent.

The failures aside, the legacy is still clear enough: throughout the United States there are beautiful works of art painted and sculpted by artists who were commissioned rather than going unemployed. Some 475,000 works of art were produced; among the most famous visual artists in the program were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Arshile Gorky. The last three were not American citizens (causing their dismissal from the WPA in 1937); meanwhile, Pollock became rich and famous during the Cold War, with CIA support.

The guidebooks themselves are, however, still highly readable, as they contain history and collected folklore that does not go out of date. And perhaps more importantly, thousands of artists were held up and allowed to develop their talent during the Depression, rather than disappearing into completely different professions or alcoholism and suicide, which were also terribly common.

One of those who found a safe haven in the literary program was later Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, who wrote a fitting epitaph for the defunct program: “We adored the project, all of us. This was in the days before gratitude became obsolete. We never expected anyone to have any use whatsoever for us. With no grand illusions about Roosevelt and [WPA head] Harry Hopkins, I believe they behaved decently and imaginatively for men without culture — which is what politicians necessarily are.”