How New Deal Art Redefined America

May 25, 2020
Originally published on May 25, 2020 8:20 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's something we have in common with Americans who lived during the Great Depression - not just horrifically high unemployment rates but bitter ideological divides.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES COUGHLIN: They're not even Americans, these so-called Democrats and Republicans.

SHAPIRO: Millions of people listened as Father Charles Coughlin denounced immigrants and allies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio. Membership surged in both labor unions and the KKK. And disproportionately out-of-work African Americans were not allowed in segregated soup kitchens. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the New Deal took a novel approach in bringing Americans together.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: When the Roosevelt administration rolled out millions of dollars to fund artists, musicians, writers and actors, the intention was more than just job creation during the Great Depression. It was to unite a nation in turmoil with a new vision of American culture. So composer Aaron Copland summoned an American classical sound. Photographers Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange took empathetic portraits of cash-strapped people.

Ann Prentice Wagner wrote a book and curated an exhibition about the art of the New Deal. She says the federal government paid these artists a living wage - at minimum, $3 a day.

ANN PRENTICE WAGNER: This was at a time when laborers like longshoremen might be making 10 cents an hour or maybe even a dollar or two a day.

ULABY: The artists supported by the New Deal range from painter Jackson Pollock, who was stealing food from push carts before he got hired by the Works Progress Administration's mural division, to authors Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. They recorded oral histories in Harlem and worked on a WPA guidebook. Director Orson Welles staged a celebrated version of "Macbeth" for the Federal Theatre Project with an all-black cast. It ended up touring the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MACBETH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Macduff) Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped.

ULABY: At a time when the United States was still segregated and many Americans felt the lack of a common culture, history professor Lauren Sklaroff says the WPA tried to bring people together through theater, art and music.

LAUREN SKLAROFF: So that America would have a kind of common lexicon to draw from in terms of what culture meant.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: At this time, the Works Progress Administration offers a program by the Negro Melody Singers, a unit of the Federal Music Project under the direction of Dr. Nikolai Sokoloff.

ULABY: Though flawed and paternalistic, these government programs were progressive for their time, Sklaroff says.

SKLAROFF: The Roosevelt administration had a Cabinet of African Americans advising them on racial issues. And so the same was mirrored in these arts projects.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY OVER IN BEULAH LAN'")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Way over in Beulah Lan', way over in Beulah Lan'.

ULABY: Writers across the country fanned out to record stories about the American experience, including oral histories from formerly enslaved Americans. That collection's now part of the Library of Congress. The writers were often out-of-work teachers, ministers and, in one case, a young anthropologist named Zora Neale Hurston. You can hear her voice on a WPA recording of songs by Florida turpentine workers.

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ZORA NEALE HURSTON: This song they called "Shove It Over," and it's a Latin rhythm, pretty generally distributed all over Florida.

(Singing) When I get in Illinois, I'm going to spread the news about the Florida boys.

ULABY: Hurston had just written her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," now an American classic. The WPA arts projects ended in 1943, but by that time, they had established hundreds of community art centers and murals decorating post offices and schools. Critics then denounced these projects as propaganda. And historian Ann Prentice Wagner says it's wishful thinking to imagine they might be revived today. To her, though, their importance has never been more clear.

WAGNER: The generation that was saved by that funding turned out to be the greatest and most acclaimed generation in the history of American art. How do we know what we've got this time around? How do we know what creative minds can be working on right now unless we give them a chance?

ULABY: Frontline workers, grocery store clerks and people packing meat or working for Amazon - you won't see them in murals funded by the federal government anytime soon, Wagner says, nor do we need them as badly as PPEs or a coronavirus vaccine. But, she says, paying people to tell stories promoting shared American values might help heal another sickness the country suffers from right now.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.