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16: Social Visions- The Arts in the Depression years, 1929-1941

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    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    "There is a crisis in art as deep, if not as obvious, as the economic crisis. The shock of the crash has tumbled the ivory towers. Artists are beginning to realize that they are a group possessing interests in common with other groups, and not the isolated individualists they once pictured themselves. The present period demands a new art, not necessarily new in form, but new in expression."1

    The stock market crash of 1929 brought on a profound crisis in America. The hopes after World War I for a prosperous way of life based on industrial mechanization suffered a major setback when the massive overproduction of consumer goods resulted in falling wages and widespread unemployment. The free fall of financial markets dislodged faith in capitalism, and the ensuing economic collapse, known as the Great Depression, was interpreted by some as the death throes of an ailing system. Many citizens sought collective solutions at both the community and the national level. During the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, an emergency policy of governmental intervention known as the New Deal was instituted to create jobs and restart the economy. Throughout these years of crisis, a range of government agencies employed artists in public works projects. As a result, mural projects and documentary photography achieved new prominence among the arts. The conviction that art drew its vitality not from aesthetic concerns but from links with popular beliefs, traditions, and ideals was a catalytic force in the 1930s.

    Also motivating the movement toward collective solutions was the admiration among the political left for the utopian ideals of Communism in the Soviet Union. From 1937 on, the culture of the "Democratic Front"-a broad alliance of Communists and others on the political left and center united to stem the rising tide of fascism in Europe and the United States-sought to revive principles of social justice and democracy associated with the foundation of the republic, but seemingly lost with the growth of private wealth and power. They sought to reignite faith in the future by valuing communal over individual forms of experience.

    Social crisis propelled protest and activism, pitting wage earning working people against the monopolistic powers of business allied to elected officials. Protests took the form of labor strikes and demonstrations. Artists mobilized as well, forming unions and clubs, and debating the role of art in social transformation. Driven by their anger as well as by their ideals, artists sought to communicate to the broad masses of ordinary Americans.

    New sources of influence continued to enter American art in these years, most prominently from Mexico. In the 1920s, following a decade of revolution, a reform government in Mexico launched a public mural program to instill pride in the nation's indigenous heritage. The example of Mexico stimulated American artists as well in their search for an epic, politically engaged public art. Throughout the 1930s, the politics of style were widely debated, as artists considered the implications of Social Realism versus abstraction, of "traditionalist" versus modernist forms. Such choices carried broader implications for the role of the arts in society.

    While some in the 1930s saw the solution to the nation's crisis in a reenergized social conscience and mass mobilization, others envisioned technocratic solutions devised and administered by experts invested with governing authority. Commercial interests sought to use the "arts of persuasion" to encourage consumer fantasies of the good life through world's fairs, consumer advertising, marketing and display, and industrial design. Streamlining-a style of product design associated with the new figure of the industrial designer-joined other strategies in promoting the consumption required to keep pace with industrial production. The various actors of the 1930s had different purposes and goals in mind, ranging from a "people's culture" of collective expression to new corporate and media forms of "manufactured consent." Despite these differences- collectivist or technocratic, communitarian or corporate- all located in the realm of the visual a power to persuade the public and compel social change.

    Thumbnail: BEN SHAHN, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931-2. Tempera on canvas, 84½ x 48 in (214.6 x 121.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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