Working-Class Artists Thrived in the New Deal Era

During the New Deal, mass left movements and government funding spawned a boomlet in working-class art. For once, art wasn’t just the province of the rich.

Ben Shahn, Years of Dust (Poster for the United States Resettlement Administration), 1937. (Fotosearch / Getty Images)

The last time New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was prominent in socialist conversation was probably in 2021 when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the Met Gala, a lavish annual display of wealth and fashion, wearing a white dress with the words “Tax the Rich” emblazoned in red. Whatever you made of that intervention — protest? Act of complicity? — the Met deserves even more socialist attention now for an inspired show titled Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s. (You can look at the entire exhibition here.)

The reasons that artists in the 1930s were so prolific, their work so political and so profoundly engaged with laborers and with left politics, are simple. There were mass left movements, including parties, influencing artists and the wider culture. As well, and as a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR)’s administration offered significant government support for artists, which made it possible for many working-class and leftist artists to pursue creative lives full time.

The show at the Met is beautifully curated to emphasize the period’s left politics and focus on workers. Most of the paintings are in realist style (though some of the same artists did more abstract work before or after this period). The painting most prominently advertised in the show, for example, is Miner Joe (1942), by Elizabeth Olds, a stunning close-up of a miner with his helmet on. The exhibition also includes Ben Shahn’s photos of black cotton pickers, as well as lesser-known works like Curtain Factory (1936–39), by Riva Helfond, which depicts women workers and includes an unmistakable visual reference to Picasso’s Woman Ironing. Next to it is Elizabeth Olds’s Burlesque (1936), an homage to dancers as workers.

Dorothea Lange, Migrants, family of Mexicans, on road with tire trouble. Looking for work in the peas. California, 1936. (Library of Congress)

Others show the conditions in which laborers lived, like Philip Guston’s moody and ominous study for what later became a mural for the Queensbridge housing project. (It’s good to see Guston here, after a 2020 retrospective on his work was disgracefully postponed by three major world museums over concern that material depicting racism would be interpreted as racist). An extraordinarily delicate woodcut, View of Atlanta (1935), by Hale Woodruff, a black artist who studied with Diego Rivera and is better known as a muralist, shows a large woman ascending rickety stairs to a rickety house, with grace and in high heels.

Some of the artists were members of the Communist Party or involved in left movements, and the exhibition does a good job of highlighting those relationships, presenting, for instance, Alice Neel’s eponymous depiction of her fellow communist Kenneth Fearing, a poet, which shows a bloody skeleton intertwined with his heart. (As Neel once put it, “His heart bled for the grief of the world.”) Other artists in the show with leftist commitments include Shahn and Olds. The exhibition features a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), a comic and terrifying glimpse of the inhumanity of work under capitalism. (“I am not a Communist,” Chaplin said in 1942, “but I am proud to say I feel pretty pro-communist.”)

Art for the Millions includes graphically elegant Communist propaganda from the period, too: covers from the New Masses (both Yiddish and English versions), a party poster “against hunger and war,” and Hugo Gellert’s haunting lithographs for the 1934 edition of The Communist Manifesto.

But as the label copy for the show notes, it wasn’t only the politically identified artists and organizations who displayed a preoccupation with labor. The famous street photographer, Weegee, has a striking 1940 image of a protest over the murder of a union agent.

Cover of volume 8, no. 3 of New Masses, September 1932. (Marxists Internet Archive)

Art for the Millions does an excellent job of highlighting the New Deal’s role in funding this work. Many of the artists and works were underwritten by the Federal Art Project, which, as part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, supported some ten thousand artists during the Great Depression, virtually without restriction on content or subject matter, and is believed to be responsible for about two hundred thousand works of art. This robust government backing for visual art wasn’t a technocratic whim: as art critic Ben Davis has noted, the Roosevelt administration’s policy grew out of pressure from leftist artists and their organizations. While in some periods the independence and isolation of the artist has been valorized, in the 1930s, communities of artists supported one another, encouraged political work, and agitated to create resources for it.

The show also highlights the work used to advertise public goods: a series of posters celebrating the United States’ National Parks and the 1937 series of simple-yet-dramatic posters by Lester Beall promoting the Rural Electrification Administration, a government office that lent money to electricity cooperatives run by farming communities.

The leftist labor politics of the present, while more visible and robust than at any time in years, seem disconnected from the production of art and culture. The reverse is also true, with the art world almost synonymous with the monied classes and working-class artists lacking in public support. While gestures at racial justice — or improved representation — are common in New York City’s museums and galleries, they often feel superficial. This exhibition reminds us that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Art for the Millions is tremendous, both politically uplifting and aesthetically awesome and will be up until December 10. If you’re in, near, or passing through New York City, you shouldn’t miss it.