Federal Art For Whose Sake?

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Whoever is appointed (or reappointed) to the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts by the incoming President in 1993, we can be sure of one thing: He or she will not find life easy. The battle over federal funding of artistic activities won’t end on inauguration day. Conservative public officials like Sen. Jesse Helms will continue to insist that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize works and exhibits offensive to their moral values. Members of the “creative community” will cling to the position that public support of uncensored art and artists is a hallmark of any civilized state. The debate will not die, because it touches on broad and perennial issues of what (and why) government “ought” to undertake and encourage at public expense.

Nearly sixty years ago, in a Depression-wracked United States, the federal government tried a large-scale, highvisibility program of endowing the visual arts, among others. It was shot down after a fairly short and stormy life, very ably chronicled some years ago by Richard D. McKinzie in his book The New Deal for Artists . It’s a good story.

In the 1930s the battle was not over subsidizing works that were sexually explicit, or homoerotic, or that challenged “traditional” family values or the position of white men at the center of the national historical drama. With extremely rare exceptions there were no such creations. The federal presence in the art of the thirties was need-driven. The artists on the national payroll were unemployed men and women drowning amid the debris of a shipwrecked economy. For many of them the primary questions to be addressed by creativity were framed by social conditions. In the message of their art, community and justice were of stronger concern than pure beauty and individual liberation. This view of things dismayed and outraged congressional conservatives, who denounced the idea of taxpayer subsidies to political heretics; they worried not about pornographers but about Reds.

There was another and related battle going on within the leadership of the art world itself. Some rebellious souls wanted to use government-sponsored decoration of public places as a means of breaking away from European traditions of high culture. They hoped that post-office murals and playground sculpture might create a distinctly American artistic idiom, understood and enjoyed by a mass audience. It was a vulnerable vision, whose authors were attacked from several directions.

The fight began in 1933 in the Treasury Department, which supervised the construction and decoration of federal public buildings, with the appearance there of an American artist, George Biddle, who proposed that the United States pay for some murals that would express American themes. Biddie was listened to because he had the recommendation of his friend and Harvard classmate Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also found the perfect executor of his idea in a Treasury officer named Edward Bruce, an expert on silver prices who had been a lawyer, a newspaper publisher, and a trading company executive as well as a passionate and exhibited painter. Bruce loved Biddle’s idea. He was sure, in a wonderful 1930-ish way, that traditional American materialism could be transformed by such a program. He believed, for example, that “if we can create the demand for beauty in our lives, our slums will go, … ugliness will be torn down and beauty will take its place.”

Pulling the right administrative levers, Bruce siphoned a flow of dollars from other public works programs into the channels of his purpose. He got a Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) set up to choose and oversee artists to adorn the walls of West Point and Annapolis, the Army Medical Museum, the Post Office and Justice Department Buildings in Washington, and public schools throughout the land.

By mid-1934, 3,749 PWAP artists (at around thirty-five dollars a week) had turned out 15,663 works, ranging from murals (the most visible products, but less than 3 percent of the total) to Indian blankets, watercolors, prints, sculptures, panels, mosaics, and tapestries, for display in any building supported wholly or partly by taxes. Most memorable of all the PWAP legacies were the murals in hundreds of local post offices that were the pride of their communities.

Bruce was neither artistically nor politically radical. He wanted accessible work that gave him “the same feeling I get when I smell a sound, fresh ear of corn.” Nevertheless he could not completely avoid controversy. One easel painting called The Fleet’s In , showing swabs and tarts carousing ashore, was denounced by an admiral as an insult to the Navy’s fine young men. Another well-publicized flap arose when the muralist of a monument to San Francisco firemen slipped in a portrait of a laborer engrossed in a copy of the Communist Western Worker . After PWAP’s initial appropriation expired, Bruce tried for a permanent division of fine arts within the Treasury Department but did not get it.

From 1935 on Bruce had to compete with the much better-known Federal Arts Project (FAP), a tiny part of a gigantic work-relief program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA’s chief goal was to give the unemployed jobs that would sustain their skills and self-confidence until private industry reabsorbed them. So the FAP could, with few exceptions, hire artists only on the basis of their jobless status rather than their talent.