- Historic Sites
History And The Imagination
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
The PBS version, no doubt because of the problems of condensation, suffers from structural difficulties. The survey covers both the arts projects of the Works Progress Administration and the photographic division of the Farm Security Administration. The organization is discursive, and no clear story line emerges until the programs get into political trouble and are finally shut down. The narration, delivered by Orson Welles, himself a veteran of the Federal Theater Project, is pretty good, though sometimes careless. Francis Biddie, for example, is described as “Roosevelt’s first Attorney General” when he was his fourth and last. And it does seem hard to spend an hour and a half on the WPA and never mention the name of Harry Hopkins.
Still, the combination of contemporaneous footage with testimony from survivors is once again effective. The New Deal for Artists vividly shows the way the federal projects stimulated a movement for the artistic repossession of the American scene. As the painter Aaron Bohrod puts it, “The American artist was finally looking at his own country for his subject matter“—a quest expressed in post office murals, in the WPA guidebooks, in the Theater Project’s Living Newspaper , and in the wonderful photographs taken by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others for the FSA. And if the film overstates somewhat the contribution of the projects to America’s artistic future, it quite properly emphasizes the abundance of talent enabled—by the government- to develop on its own lines during the Great Depression—from Ben Shahn and Jackson Pollock through Orson Welles and John Houseman to Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow.
The arts projects fell victim in part to the regressive politics of the Dies Committee on Un-American Activities. But there were problems involved in the demise that the film only suggests. Congressional primitivism and bureaucratic timidity certainly hampered artists and writers; but some artists and writers were in fact engaged in political manipulations of their own. Bernarda Bryson-Shahn, Ben Shahn’s widow and a veteran herself of the Arts Project, has some realistic memories of the role of the Communist Party. Moreover, the massive re-employment engendered by the defense boom at the end of the thirties doomed the relief projects in any case. The New Deal for Artists could have been better still—probably is in the complete version—but it is already a good deal better than nothing.
It is not easy to make historical documentaries. The labor of research is intimidating—digging through archives, screening old newsreels, tracking down and interviewing survivors. Jon Else spent nearly four years on The Day After Trinity . Connie Field conducted seven hundred survey interviews and one hundred in-depth taped interviews for Rosie the Riveter . Wieland Schulz-Keil interviewed fiftyfive veterans of the arts programs. The historian is bound to wonder what happens to the interview material not used in the final cuts. (In these three cases an appropriate repository would be the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park.) And the citizen is bound to wonder whether we can expect many more films like these in the future. Trinity and Rosie had limited theater release; The New Deal for Artists exists only on television. Americans cannot count on Germans to finance more films about American history. Both Trinity and Rosie received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities; Trinity was, in addition, a beneficiary of the National Endowment for the Arts. Foundations and corporations also contributed in both cases. One wonders what will happen to projects like these in the age of Reagan.