Art Of The New Deal: How Artists Helped Redefine America During The Depression

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tags: New Deal, Arts, Federal Artists Project

The Great Depression challenged Americans not just with horrifically high unemployment, but ideological divides not utterly unlike the ones we face today. Today, poll after poll show the country deeply split on major issues. Racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise. Back then, the labor movement was burgeoning; so was membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Rampant anti-Semitism informed powerful public figures such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, and millions of people listened as Father Charles Coughlin railed against immigrants and in favor of fascism in his weekly radio broadcasts. Meanwhile, black people were excluded from segregated soup kitchens as African American unemployment hovered around 50 percent.

When the Roosevelt administration rolled out tens of millions of dollars during the New Deal to fund artists, musicians, writers and actors, its mission was more than just job creation. It wanted to create a version of American culture that everyone could rally behind. Music, art classes, posters, plays and photography funded by the federal government were supposed to unite a nation in turmoil.

Working for the Farm Security Administration, photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans took empathetic photos of rural white sharecroppers. Gordon Parks documented the resilient faces of Washington, D.C.'s black working class.

Composer Aaron Copland was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to write Quiet City for the Group Theatre in 1939. Painter Jackson Pollock was stealing food from pushcarts before he was hired by the WPA's famed murals division. And writer Ralph Ellison used language from the oral histories he recorded for the WPA in Harlem in his later groundbreaking novel The Invisible Man.

Read entire article at WFAE

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