The engine of the arts in the ‘30s was not escapism, as we sometimes imagine, but speed, energy and movement at a time of economic stagnation and social malaise.Morris Dickstein
Arts programs have always had to fight for funding and support in times of financial difficulty. Stories of schools reducing their arts programs in favor of sports or STEM are all over the news, and they aren’t new. The benefits of a thriving artistic program are less tangible than those of an engineering certification course or a football team. The instinct to dismiss the arts as frivolous is understandable, though misguided.
Luckily, President Franklin Roosevelt resisted this instinct. As Kenneth Bindas writes, “On September 8, 1935, Roosevelt allocated $27,315,217 for the risky task of employing the nation’s artists and inherently rediscovering and defining American culture.” FDR, and Harry Hopkins, the head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), recognized the benefits of patronizing the nation’s artists during the economic crisis.
The Federal Arts Projects would not only provide employment for thousands of struggling artists. It was also intended to support the burgeoning idea of a new American culture. Michael Denning refers to this as a new “cultural front,” writing that, “Along with 1848, 1886, and 1968, 1934 is an emblem of insurgency, upheaval, and hope.” He further notes:
The heart of this cultural front was a new generation of plebeian artists and intellectuals who had grown up in the immigrant and black working-class neighborhoods of the modernist metropolis.Michael Denning
The implication here is that Depression-era art was produced by and for the working class, rather than the wealthy elites. It seems obvious that it is incredibly important to give a voice to underrepresented populations, which was exactly what Denning’s new generation of artists intended to do. The arts further became a vehicle through which to foster social change. Denning writes that the cultural front was “…the extraordinary flowering of arts, entertainment, and thought based on the broad social movement that came to be known as the Popular Front.”
Although this was not necessarily the goal of the federal government in creating the Federal Arts Projects, Bindas writes, “While the individual directors understood that the Federal Arts Projects’ primary task was employment, they also saw the larger, more culturally and politically complex task of defining cultural identity.”
Dan DiPiero argues that this pattern of cultural change was repeated with the 2008 recession. He writes:
My argument here is that this music–specifically in its insistence on a party’s ceaselessness–represents almost the complete opposite of its expressed sentiments: that is, rather than rapturous or celebratory moods, [post-crash party music] reflects widespread existential and economic anxiety that is shared among the entire millennial generation, but which was acutely present for the classes that graduated college between 2008 and 2012.Dan DiPiero
Here we see again that the arts are not a frivolous distraction, but rather both a reflection of the contemporary culture as well as a vehicle for influencing it.