We're all familiar with the stereotypical image of the "starving artist". Some of us might even claim to have "been there, done that." Most of us, though, look far too "healthy" to make it stick. Though I'm sure the original image came from the West Bank or the Montmartre streets of Paris, our home-grown version no doubt came from the streets of New York. The image today is light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek, but starvation or even deprivation is no laughing matter. For the struggling artist, dedicated to his or her craft, life has never been a bowl of cherries, even in the best of times. But when times get bad for the nation as a whole, for those in the arts, living "on the edge" anyway, the situation becomes desperate. The phrase "starving artist" begins to describe not an amusing symbol, but a hopeless situation.
This nation had already slogged through almost three years of downwardly spiralling economic depression before the Roosevelt administration came to power in 1933. By that time it was more than just an economic depression, but a social, political, and moral depression as well. Even those lucky enough to retain a job in such times still felt the pinch, struggling to make ends meet, going to bed every night wondering when or if the axe might next fall on them. For artists, from painters to playwrights, the axe had already fallen, often repeatedly, eliminating their livelihoods, depressing their spirits, often making it impossible to continue their art in any form. And pity the poor artist with a family to support as well. Fortunately, within weeks of his inauguration, like a white knight on a gallant steed, the Roosevelt Administration's new Works Project Administration (WPA) with it's Federal Arts Projects came riding to their rescue. To the liberal social activists of the era, it was seen as a godsend, a governmental revitalisation of the arts on a scale never before known in the history of mankind. To Roosevelt's political enemies, it was pure socialist propaganda.Hard as it may be to understand, it was actually both. Whether liberal, socialist, or in some cases, Communist, the WPA artists were quite often political activists. Not so much in painting, but in graphic design, literary, and dramatic works such as the children's play, Revolt of the Beavers, their disgust for the status quo came thinly disguised. A critic called the play "Marxism a' la Mother Goose". But even in the presumably benign art of post office mural painting, controversy was only just beneath the surface as in the case of Fletcher Martin's Mine Rescue, a Social Realism design for the post office in Kellogg, Idaho. It was to depict an injured minor being carried on a stretcher to safety. Local citizens objected, fearing the subject might pain those who had lost a loved one in one of many mine accidents in the area. At first the government defended Martin's design, but later settled on an inoffensive "compromise" entitled Discovery, depicting two excited prospectors discovering a local lode of precious metal.
Thus whether it was Social Realist painting, disheartening photos of the nation's poorest poor, posters designed to raise morale, songs written to do the same, or dance companies and drama troupes seeking to unveil the worst social injustices of the time, the Federal Arts Projects were more often than not political. Today we would call it political public relations, emphasising the bad, promoting efforts at improvement, and trumpeting successes. It was not a program aimed at turning out masterpieces, though, given the high quality of creative talent employed, this was sometimes the case. Instead it was an effort to literally save an entire generation of artists. And from Thomas Hart Benton to Eric Sloan, to Ben Shahn, to Hans Hofmann, and photographer Dorothea Lange, it did just that. In the area of photography especially, many of the WPA's images have burned their way into our national psyche.
Never intended as a permanent institution, the program came to an end in 1943 as the nation came to grips with its more urgent wartime concerns. But far away from the hard-bitten streets of New York City, in unheard-of places like Nappanee, Indiana, and Caldwell, Ohio, the WPA artists left behind a legacy of exceptional images which have stirred the pride and stimulated the minds of generations since. No one got rich off this art, least of all the artists themselves; but no one starved creating it either. And this country, and those inhabiting it now, as then, copped one of the greatest art bargains since Julius II decided his chapel ceiling needed a fresh coat of paint.