Federal Art For Whose Sake?


That suited the FAP’s director, fortytwo-year-old Holger Cahill. Like Bruce, he was no run-of-the-mill arts administrator. He had in his time been a farm hand, merchant sailor, cowboy, hobo, and reporter, before rising to a full-time career as a museum curator. His specialty was primitive and folk art, and he hoped for the creation of American works that would speak to “the mass of people.” He didn’t want Picassos as much as good, middle level craftsmen.

Since the entire WPA was a lightning rod for Roosevelt enemies, Cahill was prepared to “have a ‘dead cat’” thrown at him every few minutes. But he could hardly have anticipated the special problems of his task. In each state there was a politically appointed administrator to appease. There were individual project directors who were local art celebrities, puffed by self-importance into total inability to work with others. The working artists themselves had trouble conforming to time-clock-punching under general WPA regulations, and unions, too, had their say about work rules and grievances.

Besides, the FAP had a perilously narrow political base for a program that began life under a cloud of skepticism. Professional artists were heavily concentrated in a couple of dozen cities containing less than a quarter of the general populace. New York alone enrolled 44.5 percent of all FAP workers and—unfortunately for the public relations of the project—a strong core of radical activists. When heavy cuts were made in the program late in 1937, a number of organized artists about to be fired staged a sitin at FAP headquarters. A battle with police ensued; 219 were arrested and injured in the melee. Further reductions in 1937 triggered new sit-downs in New York, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. None of these events helped Cahill win friends on Capitol Hill.

Jesse Helms is worried about subsidizing pornographers; his 1930s counterparts didn’t want to underwrite Reds.

Yet in spite of all the drawbacks, the output was formidable. The creative department of the FAP, which included less than half its workers, turned out 2,566 murals, 17,744 pieces of sculpture, and 108,099 canvases. Less publicized was the FAP’s educational work through workshops, exhibitions, and classes in hundreds of community art centers. Only a small part of the entire population came to them, but many who did were lastingly affected, especially the housewives, manual workers, blacks, hill folk, and other people who were getting that kind of art exposure for the first and often only time in their lives.

In fact, left-wing artists were a tiny minority. Far more representative of the bulk of the FAP’s work was the Index of American Design , a catalogue of American functional but decorative objects, from sugar bowls and tavern signs to cigar-store Indians. Or the prizewinning nonpolitical paintings by FAP artists on the way to great careers — Marsden Hartley, Ivan Albright, Jackson Pollock.

It was no use. The federal arts projects were all under continuous fire that grew heavier during a voter shift to the right in 1938. That spring a bill to make them permanent fell before gales of laughter in Congress. Next came the House Committee on Un-American Activities under Rep. Martin Dies, hoping to brand the whole Roosevelt administration as Communist-tinged. The Dies “investigation” laid the groundwork for a final, mortal assault in 1939. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations denounced the whole arts undertaking as wasteful and unproductive.

When the roll was called, the programs were gutted by an overwhelming vote of 321 to 23. They were transferred to a new agency, since the WPA itself was not renewed, under heavy restrictions. Shorn and humiliated, the FAP struggled on in the lengthening shadow of war. The War Department became a sponsor and set the dwindling number of arts workers to making posters, models, and camouflage kits before the FAP was officially terminated in 1943.

Twenty-two years later another Congress, in an expansive New Frontier mood, created the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. That was the second round of debate on whether subsidizing the visual arts is in the public interest—the debate that Cahill and Bruce had lost in 1939. The NEA was their posthumous vindication. The current battle is still a third round. Eventually there is sure to be another, and it will be shaped, as always, by the concerns and the culture of the historical moment in which it occurs.