New Deal arts projects were guided by two novel assumptions: artists were workers and art was cultural labor worthy of government support. That commitment was demonstrated most dramatically in the Federal Art Project (FAP), a relief program for depression-era artists. Some painters and sculptors continued working in their studios with the assistance of relief checks and the occasional supervision of WPA administrators—their work was placed in libraries, schools, and other public buildings. FAP also sponsored hundreds of murals and sculptures designed for municipal buildings and public spaces. FAP’s Community Art Centers worked to create new audiences for art by bringing art education and exhibitions to neighborhoods and communities with little access to galleries and museums. These essays by FAP employees Thaddeus Clapp and Lawrence A. Jones lauded programs that brought “art within reach” for people in Massachusetts and affirmed the democratic possibilities of a project that reached across class and racial lines in New Orleans.
Art Within Reach
A work of art exists for man. This simple truth, which must be the basis of any democratic esthetic, too often has been lost in a welter of finespun rationalizations as to the value of art. Also lost is the simple fact that art is of value to man and to society because of the intense delight it offers. Art for expression, art for uplift, art for art’s sake, all the reasons, conscious and unconscious, that are given to justify the artist or to make morally acceptable an interest in art only becloud the basic value of art.
Works of art and an appreciation of art were part of the normal environment of the citizens of Greece. In the Middle Ages works of art were perhaps closer to the lives of the people as a whole than they were even in Greece, for the people came in contact with them under the favorable conditions. Painting and sculpture were used to adorn the interiors of churches into which people withdrew from the activity of the world for short periods. In these quiet interiors they had the opportunity to look at objects of art while there for purposes of devotion or instruction.
It is neither possible nor desirable to return to the past. It is possible, however, once more to bring art to the vast population of our country, and by so doing to straighten out the confusion caused by the widespread feeling that the appreciation of art is the expression of a superior culture which, combined with the time taken to acquire it, becomes a manifestation of conspicuous consumption. Schoolrooms, auditoriums, libraries, and settlement houses can take the place once held by the churches as repositories for works of art and can reach a broader public than can be reached by the churches today, some of which have doctrinal objections to the use of painting and sculpture in their edifices.
Museums through their galleries and extension activities reach a wide public, but they are limited in scope by geographical considerations. Whole sections of the country have no museums or galleries, and it must be remembered that there are thousands of people in each of our large cities who live too far from the museums and galleries to be able to walk to them and who cannot afford the carfare to ride to them. No matter how important lectures on art and demonstrations of technique may be, an understanding of art is impossible without close contact with original objects. It has been our experience that only too often lectures merely cause people to look at works of art with their ears instead of their eyes. On the other hand, pictures placed in rooms where people gather either for social purposes or for study or for meetings gradually attract attention and are really looked at. The paintings, sculptures, and craft objects producedunder the patronage of the government and belonging to the people of this country and not to any group or institution have an advantage for widespread exhibition purposes over objects owned by museums. These works of art are out of the market and hence have no price value. It is obvious that a museum cannot place an original painting for which it has paid thousands of dollars, from either public or private funds, in schoolrooms, libraries, or settlement houses. Government-owned pictures, often painted by men represented in contemporary museum collections, can be widely exhibited without risk of tremendous monetary loss, because the investment involved is only the cost of the labor and the materials used. The very fact that these pictures do not have dramatic monetary value should in itself help to make people realize that “Art has no relation to age, rarity, or price,” but rather that a work of art has its own intrinsic value that lies in the delight that it offers man.
For an understanding and appreciation of art, next in importance to the easy availability of art is instruction in its practical problems. Much of the pseudo-mysticism surrounding “Art” disappears the minute a person learns through experience that the primary concern of a painter or sculptor, as of any manual worker, must be with the technical problems involved in the work. The prudent man soon learns not to worry about individual expression or profundity in the practice of art. These two elements, which raise workmanship to the level of art, depend entirely on the personality of the worker. His job is to find articulate expression for these qualities, which means that he must be able to handle his tools and materials with ease and sureness. The art classes conducted by the Art Projects reach thousands of people, who, having faced the technical problems involved in painting or sculpture, study original works of art with a new and healthy interest and derive relaxation and pleasure from participation in art studies. This does not mean, however, that people who have no inclination to work in the techniques of art are barred from art appreciation, any more than people are barred from an interest in music or in sports because they are not active participants.
If the thesis that art exists for man is true, then it is man’s right to enjoy it. In any program attempting to restore that right to the millions of people in this country, there can be no condescension. Art cannot be taken to the people, nor can such a program be carried out in the spirit of social uplift or social service work. There are thousands of publicly owned works of art in this country; there are millions of people to see and enjoy these works of art. The whole problem of making works of art available is one of distribution.
An art project is one of the instruments that can be used in solving the problem of the distribution of works of art. The state headquarters of a project serves a manifold purpose, and an understanding of the operation of an art project in relation to the public can be gained by visiting one. The operation of such a project can be made clear by comparing it to two types of manufacturing enterprise. If the project headquarters is large, it will have, in addition to the administrative offices, storage rooms where paintings, sculpture, and handicrafts are kept available for allocation or exhibitions, as well as studios or workshops in which carpenters, cabinetmakers, mural painters, photographers, woodcarvers, sculptors, and stone cutters produce goods for distribution. Here works of art can be seen in process of production under a system that must resemble that of the factories which existed in the Middle Ages in the cities of Northern Europe for the production of altar pieces and images, or the great decorating houses or stained-glass studios of the present day. Apart from the work done under this system of group production, a great deal of work is produced in the studios of the individual artists or (in the case of mural painters) in the place of ultimate destination, in much the same way that manufacturing was done under the cottage system in the early development of the textile, shoe, and garment industries in this country. In the light of the romantic theories only too often applied to the production of works of art, it is very amusing to find in the New England Art Projects an exact parallel to the two types of manufacturing which prevailed in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the textile industry of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The works of art, or (for the sake of the comparison) the goods produced by the workers on the projects, are shipped out to institutions that have ordered them, or in the case of work that has not been contracted for, are put on display in a small gallery or showroom. Here the works may be seen not only by other artists on the Project, but by scores of school teachers, town officials, and members of organizations which are interested in raising money to turn over to towns or to tax-supported institutions for the purchase of works of art. Backing up the display and allocation of works of art is the usual machinery involved in business transactions. Apart from offices where invoices, bills of lading, and collection bills and accounts are made out, the project headquarters must have a supply room from which the artists draw the raw materials to be turned into finished products. Information services, ranging from material on early Americana (which is being studied and recorded by the Index of American Design), through the technical behavior of artists' materials or the feasibility of restoring or cleaning old paintings, to help in selecting pictures for given locations or advice to prospective students on where to study almost any phase of practical art, are also to be found at Project headquarters. Meetings of the faculty of the teaching division, meetings of supervisors to determine policy, tours and discussion groups, as well as a constant procession of workers and members of the general public who come to the Project headquarters for one reason or another, add to the daily bustle and excitement in the midst of which thousands of works of art are produced and distributed throughout each state, and from one state to another throughout the nation.
By means of our activities the Art Projects have been able to reach the millions. We have reached a vast public that knows nothing about art in terms of dinner-table conversation. We have found through experience that the quickest response to widely varying types of painting, ranging from the most conservative to the most modern, comes from people who have not been limited by the arbitrary preconceptions of what makes good painting which are too often exacted as a sort of price paid for a more polite cultural background. It is encouraging indeed to see a farmer who has never before seen an oil painting become so excited by a picture in an exhibition that he goes out and brings in all his friends to look at it; or to have a group of people in a settlement house “discover” an artist several months before the critics recognize the artist’s work. For the artist this has meant increased dignity in the social structure. He is no longer an exotic, but an individual functioning freely within a society that has a place for him, no longer in an ivory tower, but in contact with his time and his people.
The New Orleans WPA/FAP
Lawrence A. Jones
My efforts to secure an art education have taken me, in the capacity of a waiter, to many American cities large and small, where I have had ample opportunity to watch the cultural progress of my people. Both as an artist and as a citizen, therefore, I feel that I can speak with knowledge on the subject of the Negro artist and what Uncle Sam is doing for him and his community.
As a high school student in Lynchburg, Virginia (1930–34), I found it impossible to secure an art education. The public schools did not offer this important course, nor did the college for Negroes. I did, however, receive criticism and encouragement from sympathetic white artists of my community. At that time there was no art program in Lynchburg giving classes to the public, so my friends advised me to pack up and go elsewhere.
My train fare to Chicago was generously contributed by appreciative Negro citizens of Lynchburg and Mrs. Bessie Lamb Woolfolk of the United Charities. In Chicago, Jane Addams gave me a job as a waiter at Hull House, and there I earned enough money to keep me going. A scholarship at the Art Institute gave me the education I had set out to get at any cost. After four years of study in Chicago, I came to Dillard University in New Orleans to serve as assistant in the Department of Fine Arts. I took some academic work at the same time toward my degree. In my second year at Dillard I won second prize in a national exhibition of Negro art. When my work at Dillard came to an end, I sought and found employment on the WPA Federal Art Project in Louisiana.
This new connection gave me a vivid realization of my social responsibility toward the underprivileged, and in New Orleans I have since followed the example of many of my race who in the North have been taking an active part in WPA/FAP art work for many years. Believing as I do that the appreciation of art cultivates in man a sincere regard for the contributions of his fellow men, regardless of race or creed, I am trying through my own painting and art teaching to create a more democratic America.
On the New Orleans art project we teach art to poor children whose undirected energy might otherwise lead to delinquency. This energy I try to divert into creative work through finger painting and simple crafts; I have been very successful with maladjusted children and general rowdies. On our project there are four artists who serve the community in specific sections of New Orleans. My colleagues are Harold Pierce, Myron Lechay, Leonard Scott, and Joseph Williams. We all feel that we have a dual duty as creative artists and as teachers. Our art classes are held in all the poorer sections of the city—for adults at night and for children on Saturdays. They have brought an enthusiastic response from the children especially, who come with lunches, prepared to wear out the teacher completely. Among our adult students are many public-school teachers.
My colleagues and I know that our work is essential both for our own development and for that of the community. We think that the country as a whole may well use New Orleans as an example of what the WPA/FAP can do for the cultural advancement of the Negro.
Source: Available in Francis V. O’Connor, Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 204–6, 198–99.
See Also:Painting the American Scene: Artists Assess the Federal Art Project
Looking for America: The Index of American Design