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Ann Rice O'Hanlon & The Memorial Hall Mural: New Deal Art Programs and Social Realism

Social Realism or "American Scene?"

New Deal-funded artists embraced murals as an artistic medium for democratizing art, for reaching audiences that would normally go to galleries and museum exhibitions.  They also used murals as a means to portray a particularly American vision of the United States, painting commonplace, often historical, things they saw in their localities, their personal lives, and the problems and hope of the people around them.    

The "American scene" aesthetic thus "reflected the optimism of the New Deal administration" (Morgan, p. 43), the idea of building "public consensus around liberal new Deal values" (Morgan, p. 45).

Social realism also uses historical and commonplace themes in art to add a component of social content and criticism, especially from the perspective of the poor and working classes.  Artists working in this style created art in public spaces that exposed social, racial, and economic inequities with the goal of inspiring viewers to work for reform.  Social realists believed public art had the potential to transform "America's political consciousness with regard to matters of class struggle and related campaigns for social justice" (Morgan, p. 43).  Artists working in this style also took their inspiration from the Mexican muralist movement, believing that "the public medium of the mural comprised a viable vehicle for the articulation of revolutionary political messages" (Morgan, p. 45). 

Contreras, Belisario R. Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art. Lewisburg ; London: Bucknell University Press ; Associated University Presses, 1983. (N8838 .C6 1983)

Morgan, Stacy I. Rethinking Social Realism : African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. (NX504 .M67 2004)

Rung, Margaret. "Essay: Three Ways to Study New Deal Art in Chicago." Roosevelt University Center for New Deal Studies. 2016. Accessed February 02, 2016. http://www.roosevelt.edu/CAS/CentersAnd Institutes/NewDeal/HistoryFair/NewDealArt.aspx. 

Context

New Deal Art came out of and responded to three main areas:

The Depression era:

  • Economic crisis and despair; economic dislocation; rampant unemployment; drought
  • Lynchings; Jim Crow segregation; trade unions and labor actions; increased class consciousness; upsurge in interest in the Communist Party
  • Optimism and hope regarding the potential for progressive or radical social transformation of hard times into better times for the most downtrodden and the working class
  • Emergence of a type of "modern nationalism, one that combined an appeal to patriotic fervor with an appeal to the popular classes, 'the American people'"--the New Deal would reconstruct American society and the federal state would serve as the agent uniting American people and the nation (Harris, p. 20).

The American scene:  

  • Rejection of European influences
  • Art that describes and interprets the American way of life
  • Art that has roots in the artist's people and depicts the things the artist loves in his or her own style

The Mexican mural movement (see also the "Creating the Mural" tab of this LibGuide):

  • Technique--frescos or other murals; aesthetically powerful; reverence for indigenous folk cultures and imagery
  • Location--sited in public buildings or in public spaces where mass audiences can see the murals and interact with art
  • Themes--Democratizing art for the common person; social justice (religion, labor, lynching, unemployment, documenting human and social subjects); awareness of and depiction of subjugation of native peoples; prominently featuring people of color
  • National visual language--American artists could use Mexican artists as a model for producing a "national school of mural painting" of "vital, national expression" (as George Biddle wrote to President Roosevelt in a letter suggesting a federally funded art program) (Morgan, p. 45; Contreras, p. 31)

Sources:

Contreras, Belisario R. Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art. Lewisburg ; London: Bucknell University Press ; Associated University Presses, 1983. (N8838 .C6 1983)

Harris, Jonathan. Federal Art and National Culture : The Politics of Identity in New Deal America. Cambridge Studies in American Visual Culture. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. (N8838 .H37 1995)

Morgan, Stacy I. Rethinking Social Realism : African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. (NX504 .M67 2004)

New Deal Art Programs

There were five Federal art programs during the New Deal, 1933-1943:

  • Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), 1933-1934
    • Funded by Civil Works Administration (CWA)
    • 3,749 artists employed to decorate public buildings with representations of the American scene (non-relief)
  • Section, 1934-1943 
    • Full names:  Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (1934-1939); Treasury Section of Fine Arts (1938-1939); Section of Fine Arts of the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Agency (1939-1943)
    • Funded by the Treasury Department, 1934-1939; and the Federal Works Agency, 1939-1943
    • 1116 murals and 301 sculptures commissioned for post offices and other Federal buildings
  • Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), 1935-1939
    • Funded by the Works Progress Administration; administered by the Treasury Department
    • 446 artists employed; created 10,000 easel paintings, 43 sculptures, and 89 murals
  • Works Progress Administration/Works Projects Administration Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP)
    • Funded by the Works Progress/Projects Administration
    • 5,000 artists employed; created 108,000 easel paintings, 17,000 sculptures, 2500 murals, and other works
  • Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), 1937-1943
    • Funded by the Farm Security Administration
    • 270,000 photographs taken of American farms to document need for governmental programs

The University of Kentucky Art Museum holds 150 New Deal artworks selected by Edward Rannells in 1943 from the Federal Art Project clearinghouse in Chicago, IL.

Sources:

Fowler, Harriet W. New Deal Art: WPA Works at the University of Kentucky. Lexington: U of Kentucky Art Museum, 1985. Print. (N8838 .F680 1985)

Excellence or Relief?

A challenge for New Deal Art programs in general was to balance the requirement for "quality art" with the role of providing relief for destitute artists.  "Quality art" was defined by the white program administrators and did not include certain kinds of art and usually did not extend to artists of color.

When the Civil Works Administration was founded in 1933, "artist" was one of the 100 professional and white-collar job classifications for relief funding.  Harry Hopkins was the chief administrator.  He designated over $1 million to funding what became the PWAP in December 1933.  Hopkins thought of the program as a relief project for artists who needed money.

Edward Bruce, PWAP's national director, thought of the program as a way to embellish federal and state buildings with "quality" art.  There were variable rates of pay, depending on the artists' "quality."  In addition, only realistic, representational art and artists were funded.  Abstractionists or nonrepresentational art were not given work or were subjected to censorship by PWAP administrators.  According to Bruce, the representation of the "American scene" should not include anything "experimental, unconventional, or possibly titillating" (Harris, p. 25).  This emphasis on the American scene as defined by Bruce discouraged other artists who worked differently and was thus inconsistent with the aim of providing every artist with relief work.

In addition, the hiring practices of New Deal art programs for artists of color was poor.  "Only in New York City and Chicago were African American cultural workers able to make sizeable inroads, and even then only following major demonstrations and picketing by local groups of unionized artists.  Yet, any of those African American visual artists and writers who did attain WPA employment have described its significance as nothing less than a godsend" (Morgan, p. 14)  Along with a regular paycheck, participation in the WPA programs established an increased sense of community among Black cultural workers.  Many were also involved in leftist political groups that included protests against mural censorship, demands for racial equality, affirmation of support for trade unions, support for passage of the federal anti lynching bill, and a shared sense of class consciousness with other unionized workers.  Also, the WPA programs provided supplies.  Artists could explore working in different mediums, especially relating to printing and the mass production of art.

Charles Alston, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff are African American artists who all painted their first murals funded by New Deal art programs.

Sources:

Contreras, Belisario R. Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art. Lewisburg : London: Bucknell University Press ; Associated University Presses, 1983. (N8838 .C6 1983)

Harris, Jonathan. Federal Art and National Culture : The Politics of Identity in New Deal America. Cambridge Studies in American Visual Culture. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. (N8838 .H37 1995)

Morgan, Stacy I. Rethinking Social Realism : African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. (NX504 .M67 2004)