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Posters of the WPA.

The democratic vision of the WPA posters. Art For Our Sake

In the final months of the Reagan era it is refreshing to be reminded of a time when the public interest was taken seriously. The common suffering of the Great Depression brought the nation together as nothing else short of war has ever done. Plainly, neither Franklin Roosevelt nor his lieutenants knew where they were going, but they were willing to try anything that might advance the common good.

When the experimentation of the early New Deal failed to reduce unemployment, necessity dictated that something dramatic be done before Roosevelt faced the voters again in 1936. The creation in 1935 of a massive work relief program, the Works Progress Administration, met the president's political needs and the social, economic, and psychological needs of the jobless.

One of the goals of WPA administrator Harry Hopkins was to give people jobs appropriate to their skills, talents, and experience. The most controversial idea was to create projects for artists. Using taxpayers' money to pay people to paint, act, write, play music, or dance seemed, to many conservatives, the ultimate boon-doggle. What was worse, many projects began turning out socially conscious art. The government, it seemed, was using the tax money of the well-to-do to spread propaganda against these same successful Americans. Roosevelt, of course, was fully supportive of the free enterprise system but saw the task of bringing high culture to the public as a worthy mission.

In recent years interest in the cultural programs of the WPA has soared. But one fascinating division of the WPA Federal Art Projects has remained shrouded in obscurity. The Poster Division produced some two million posters for government agencies. When the project was scrapped during World War II, so were most of the posters. But small caches survived, and about two thousand posters still exist(*). Approximately three hundred of them have been beautifully reproduced in a book edited by Christopher DeNoon. They are, as DeNoon says, "a significant part of our national art heritage....They deserve to be seen again."

American stuff

The posters deal with a whole range of New Deal social concerns: public health, Indian culture, education, wildlife conservation, public housing, and many others. Underlying both the posters and the New Deal approach is the idea of responsibility. For instance, posters address previously taboo subjects such as venereal disease. One poster done by Foster Humfreville and Alex Kallenberg for the New York City Corrections Department warns that "shame may be fatal." Although several other WPA posters do not blanch at the word syphilis, this one is circumspect: "If you fear you have contracted a disease don't let false shame destroy health and happiness. Consult a reputable physician." The design is considerably more daring, showing a phallus-shaped human figure with his hands covering his face.

Posters depicting ethnic minorities show a genuine democratic understanding. To treat American Indian art with respect, as does a series of eight posters designed for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, was to move toward a more egalitarian cultural order. Another poster that merits specific attention is Cleo Sara's illustration advertising the Illinois Writers Project book, Cavalcade of the American Negro. It shows a black man holding a broken chain in an upraised fist, foreshadowing an image that would become commonplace three decades later. Equally unusual: more than two-fifths of the artists were women.

The WPA's democratic vision can also be seen in posters that depict manual labor as a dignified pursuit. One poster by Albert M. Bender in Chicago shows a happy woman wiping a dish; another, designed for the Civilian Conservation Corps, features a strong and smiling man wielding a hoe. That same democratic vision is evident in the posters executed for the U.S. Travel Bureau, which urges Americans not simply to "See America" but to resee and rethink America, to take pride in its varied ethnic and racial cultures. They show Americans in clothing that ranges from colonial shoe buckles to feathered Indian headdresses, living in dwellings as diverse as adobe mud and Manhattan tower. Like the Federal Writers Project's fascination with "American Stuff," these travel posters amounted not to a virulent strain of nationalism but to a celebration of a diverse and democratic people.

While the Poster Division was certainly innovative, it was never the hotbed of communism that Rep. Martin Dies's congressional committee insisted most WPA arts projects were. Communists were not excluded, but they were not dominant. Often enough, to be sure, the posters were socially conscious, but this was, after all, the Depression era. There was, in fact, considerable controversy in the division between those who believed that art must serve a socially significant cause and those who championed art for art's sake.

The importance of the posters was artistic as well as political. The Poster Division artists took up the modernist influences emanating from Europe and infused them with the two major thrusts of American art in the thirties--social consciousness and "American Scene" regionalism and agrarianism. The result contained elements of surrealism, naturalism, cubism, collage, and other trends of modern art. The posters provided the bridge by which many forms of modern art became acceptable to the American public after World War II.

Despite fears that government patronage might stifle creativity, the opposite seems more nearly to have been the case throughout the WPA arts projects. Art is usually a solitary undertaking, but the Poster Division encouraged joint ventures that were in many instances notable successes, like the Humfreville-Kallenberg collaboration that produced the syphilis poster. It appears that creativity was actually enhanced by federal sponsorship.

One reason was the experimental nature of the New Deal government itself. Another was the creativity of Richard Floethe, the administrator of the Poster Division in New York. He demanded quality but provided the widest possible latitude for expression. Perhaps the most important reason for innovation was that government sponsorship lifted commercial constraints. There was no need to worry about whether a highly unusual design might hurt sales.

Posters of the WPA is not without flaws. It is, for instance, not always reliable on dates and other small points of history. But this amounts to only a minor drawback in a volume that deserves wide exposure. (*)Posters of the WPA. Christopher DeNoon, ed. The Wheatley Press in association with University of Washington Press, $39.95.
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Author:McElvaine, Robert S.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1988
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