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Season 1 Episode 2: The Making of American Art
The diversity, breadth, and ubiquity of New Deal arts projects reveal both the country's sense of what art was and how it should shape the American people. This episode examines cultural democracy, or the role of the arts in civic life and what art means for a nation. While the momentum and volume of New Deal production laid the foundation for a distinct artistic culture in the United States, questions remain as to the distinctiveness of a national arts tradition and Americanness Itself.
Oral History Interviews Featured
- Lee Hunt, circa 1964
- Boris Deutsch, 1964 June 1-5
- Mary Dill Henry,1964 May 12
- Opal Fleckenstein, 1965 November 19-20
- Maxine Albro and Parker Hall, 1964 July 27
- Dorothy Cravath, 1964 May 13-27
- Virginia Ewing, 1965 January 7
- E Boyd, 1964 October 8
- Phyllis Crawford, 1964 August 27
- Jay Du Von, 1964 November 7
- Erna Gunther, 1965 April 23
- Isamu Noguchi, 1973 November 7-1973 December 26
- Lorser Feitelson, 1964 May 12-June 9
- Jack Delano, 1965 June 12
- Barbara Bernstein, public art specialist, filmmaker, and creator of the New Deal Art Registry
- Gray Brechin, Gray Brechin, founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal
- Eto Otitigbe, artist, Brooklyn, New York
- Jane de Hart, “Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for Cultural Democracy,” 1975.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Conduct of Life,” 1860. https://lccn.loc.gov/03020722
- National Endowment for the Arts
- The Living New Deal
- The New Deal Art Registry
[Theme music plays]
Ben Gillespie: Welcome to Articulated. I'm Ben Gillespie.
Michelle Herman: And I'm Michelle Herman. Support for this podcast comes from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
This is part two of a four-part series on the New Deal era arts initiatives, which draws from the Archives of American Arts' collection of over 300 New Deal era Oral History interviews with the people who made the New Deal happen.
Ben Gillespie: In our previous episode, we covered the range and scope of the New Deal arts initiatives as well as their historical context and continued importance. We covered the Works Progress Administration (or WPA), the Federal Art Project (or FAP), the photography project from the Farm Settlement Administration (or FSA), and how these massive 1930s efforts totally reshaped cultural life in the United States.
If you haven’t listened to that episode and would like to get a better idea of New Deal history, you may want to go back and listen to episode 1.
Michelle Herman: The New Deal generated a huge amount of infrastructure. And in this episode, we're talking about the conceptual foundation of the arts initiatives: why create a body of public work, why spread it across the entire country, and what makes American art American or even art?
Ben Gillespie: One term that’s been frequently associated with the goals of New Deal art is “cultural democracy,” which Jane de Hart defined as the desire to “make the arts expressive of the spirit of the nation and accessible to its people” in her 1975 article “Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for Cultural Democracy.”
de Hart and other scholars have often pointed to Ralph Waldo Emerson as the first iteration of this idea in the US, drawing from his 1860 essay, “The Conduct of Life,” in which he opines that “the problem of civilization is” “how to give all access to the masterpieces of art and nature.” To Emerson, and to the architects of the New Deal, this meant public ownership and that federally funded art facilitated continuity between the makers, subjects, and viewers of art.
Public ownership also meant encouraging the appreciation of art through new art centers, educational initiatives, museums, and exhibitions. In these ways, New Deal art not only reflected but also transformed the nation.
Michelle Herman: Many call the New Deal an American Renaissance as the widespread cultivation of education, standard of living, and culture improved most aspects of life for nearly every citizen during the 1930s. It also meant the formation of an art market that valued American art, carving out a niche that competed with European aesthetic dominance. Both as Americans produced a massive body of work and as tastes shifted to recognize other modes of cultural production already present on the continent.
Barbara Bernstein is the founder of the Registry of New Deal Art and the filmmaker behind Silver Lining, a short documentary that covers WPA murals in Illinois. We spoke with her about the intentions behind those initiatives:
Barbara Bernstein: I've always felt that the New Deal art projects had three goals, and I think they accomplished all of them, and the first was to put artists to work and the second was to decorate the public environment and the third, which they didn't talk about much, but I think it was their real agenda, was to change the role of art in American life, to make it less aristocratic, less European, less intimidating, and to sort of make art a part of your daily life. And you know a mural in your school can sure do that. And a nice thing about the Federal art project was, you know, it hired artists by the month. It paid them a salary, and if they weren't working on a mural, they would make posters or help make a diorama for a museum. They were just sort of artists for hire. Any job that came up they would just send somebody out to do it. And the New Deal deal was that if the institution would pay for the materials, the government would supply the talent. So imagine if we had that today would be amazing.
Ben Gillespie: Those words echo the sentiment of Lee Hunt, former director of the Des Moines Art Center, in his 1965 oral history, as he describes the optimism and challenges faced by the underlying spirit of the New Deal.
Lee Hunt: An effort to expand local horizons by bringing in something foreign but nonetheless relevant to the passing scene, an effort to also aid local people who were artists, and then teaching children, seeding children, giving them opportunities that they'd never really indulged in before...all of this is quite mystifying, a kind of patchwork quilt throughout the United States but nonetheless all of it adding to the sum and substance of our understanding about our art; however, you know, I don't know how to measure it but I'm sure it's there.
And idea became they couldn't compete, but they could play with the creative aspects of America, the creative mind, and massage them into a sharing of experience, a general kind of camaraderie among all them where you'd think they would be at each other's throat when it came to talk about style, you know they would be, or who was going to hang what where, but nonetheless the total effort is a sharpening of technique, keeping the technique alive, creating opportunity for people to continue in that to which they had really dedicated themselves without trying to go into some bypass like making roads. Imagine. It's incredible. I think we stumbled through it in a way.
And out of this kind of self-limitation because you are part of a group comes this almost explosive expression of individuality with the war. It's an exciting period to me . There's no book anywhere that indicates the substance of what the devil this atmosphere really was like and what kind of seeds it really planted.
Michelle Herman: The blossoming of the American arts under the New Deal was readily apparent to artists like Boris Deutsch, a Russian-born painter who created murals for the WPA in New Mexico and California. In his 1964 interview with Betty Hoag, he insisted on the vital importance of the New Deal as a generative reflection of American life:
Boris Deutsch: I have seen the talent here in this country: it is unbelievable. I think it could only flourish in a country where there is a democracy like we have in this country under the free system of government. This has proved itself to be correct because it has flowered out, it has spread out after the terrific, enormous workshop Federal Art Project throughout the country. And the public became interested in it too.
Betty Hoag: Do you think that the Projects had anything to do with public interest?
Boris Deutsch: It was the nucleus of the very essence of the seed so to speak of it was this, under the Roosevelt administration, which gave the terrific push to the cause of the artists. All the arts: music, drama, painting, and sculpture.
Ben Gillespie: These oral histories, collected some 30 years after the New Deal, give a sense of how powerful those arts initiatives were and how they continued to drive American culture. 1964 was a precipitous moment in the US, just before the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, when painter Mary Dill Henry considered the fresh energy a new federal arts project might generate:
Mary Dill Henry: Yes, I had hopes when Kennedy was president–a man who is interested in the culture of our country–would somehow inaugurate a scheme for artists and not only artists but writers, musicians, anybody who is giving his life and all of his time to an art, you know, is a man who's not going to make any money as it is now an I think that if the government could somehow see fit to subsidize artists so that creators of all sorts who could use their artwork for the good of the people and use the art, the murals in public buildings and use the music for public symphonies and concerts
and theater playwrights to use their work for public performances in the theater, it’d be a terribly rich renaissance in American art and I hoped it somehow could salvage this and go on, but it didn't happen this way, but we all felt at that time that this was would create a great blossoming of art all over the country and bring out a great surge of cultural benefits
Michelle Herman: The seeds sown by the New Deal have such deep roots now that it is hard to understand just what a massive shift they represented for everyday life in the United States, but they forever changed the cultural soil and climate. Not only by saving artists from starvation, but by creating lasting works, educational centers, and a national appreciation for human expression. We spoke with Richard Walker, Executive Director of the Living New Deal and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley about the seismic shifts.
Richard Walker: It's not: "well, we employed some artists and we were just nice about it." No, it was an investment in the public good in the idea of public art to raise the level of American cultural life, public cultural life that average Americans could have access to, and you have to remember, I think with popular media today in the age of movies and TV and widespread travel. Millions and millions, 10s of millions of Americans every year in normal times go to museums. They see beautiful documentaries. They get glimpses of art, great art and museums through films and so on. You can get glimpses. They're all the Egyptian art or whatever, but at the time, even museums were not widely visited by your average working-class or rural farm American, small Town American farmer, and they were the majority. And they didn't have access to that kind of art. So to put it into post offices or into the local City Hall or courthouse that was there was a huge act of expanding access art to the general public and in the belief that it would both enlighten them and simply make life better. You know what a strange idea. Oh, government should, just, you know, be involved in the pursuit of happiness.
Ben Gillespie: The government’s responsibility and role in encouraging the growth of the arts was viewed as a means to combat financial, cultural, and spiritual poverty. In making artists available and their creations accessible, the artists and administrators of the New Deal envisioned new values and ways of life in the United States.
Gray Brechin, founder and project scholar at the Living New Deal, told us about the organizing pillars of the Roosevelt administration.
Gray Brechin: Franklin Roosevelt said that great art is the possession of all people and when he enunciated the Four Freedoms in 1941, he added to the freedom of speech and the Freedom of religion. The First Amendment freedom from want and freedom from fear. But in all of those, he said afterward that they should be true, everywhere in the world, that is that all people should be entitled to those four freedoms and the first of those freedoms is freedom of speech and art is freedom of speech and so everyone should be entitled to art. And I think that the New Deal was getting at that. Not only in putting art in public places where people can see it. Post offices, for example in courthouses, etc, schools, but also that it was establishing art centers all over the United States where people could learn how to do art as active participants. And then with the Federal Music Project and the Federal Theater Project, millions of Americans saw performances–not only of repertory plays and music, etc., but even new works as well that were being commissioned by the government. So I think that that's a model for the future that with greater government patronage, in fact, we might begin to realize what the new dealers hoped for, which is an American renaissance and a renaissance of arts like Florence
experienced but one which is uniquely American, that's what they were trying to do. And you see it, for example, in San Francisco’s Coit Tower, where 28 artists worked on a whole series of murals which are a panoramic portrait of the United States in the Great Depression, and it reminds me of murals I have seen...frescoes in Italy for example, and that was very intentional.
So, with government patronage, in fact, we'll not only have more visual arts–hopefully, music and theater as well–but scholarship record preservation. And I think the United States and other nations can only profit from that, where art becomes the possession of everyone, not just as spectators, but as active participants in it, and that is essential for the development of the full human being. The New Dealers had this idea–It was a holistic vision–that arts are essential for the development of the total human being for a healthy human being.
Michelle Herman: While the impetus and money for the new deal came from a single source, individual projects were allowed to take on all kinds of shapes and reflected a huge range of influences. This flexibility benefited from the strengths of local art scenes while fostering new styles and regional idiosyncrasies. Barbara Bernstein, founder of the New Deal Art Registry and public art specialist at The Living New Deal, told us about how that diversity still impresses her.
Barbara Bernstein: What has surprised me most is the variety of subject matter and style. I think there's a cliche that when you think about WPA art, you think about this sort of social realist canvas of, you know, strong workers striding across the canvas, doing jobs. There is certainly plenty of that, but there is for a government-sponsored art...it's amazing the leeway that these artists had. There's Cubism, there's abstract expressionism, and there's, you know, beautiful little flowery things. It's absolutely not monolithic at all, and I think the fact that a government-run program was able to tolerate so much individuality and diversity really speaks for the kind of people that they were able to hire as administrators. So whenever people tell me, you know, “Oh yeah, yeah, WPA art” thinking that it's one thing, I show them a bunch of murals and I say, you know, these were all paid for by the government. Some of them have full frontal nudes; it's kind of amazing and some of them are odd historical events that you never would know about unless you had done research. So I would say that’s what surprised me most.
Ben Gillespie: That sentiment was also voiced in 1965 by painter and ceramist Opal Fleckenstein, who was trained at a WPA Art Center in Spokane, Washington before becoming a WPA-employed artist:
Opal Fleckenstein: I had just come to Spokane, I had been living here just a very short time when I began to hear about the Art Center, that the WPA was going to open an Art Center in Spokane. I was very excited about it because I had had little opportunity to study art. I had attended the University of Washington one summer and had seen the things that they were doing there. Walter Isaacs was head of the department, and it was quite a shock to me to find out about Cubist things. I'm afraid that the work I was doing at that time was pretty conservative. It was competent but conservative. I was in the habit of doing pretty little still-lifes and kind of romantic landscapes, and I had even done some copy work although I was very dissatisfied with this sort of thing.
But then I had attended the University of Washington one summer and found out that I knew almost nothing about painting. After I had come home I had studied some about Van Gogh and Gauguin and there wasn't much in the Coeur d'Alene library where I was living at that time. Then as soon as I came to Spokane I began to read in the papers about the opening of the Art Center, the WPA Art Project in Spokane.
I wasn't convinced
that I really wanted to do modern painting. I think that my students and colleagues would be probably rather surprised at this now because my painting is certainly known as anywhere from abstract to non-objective, and perhaps because I knew what it meant to be a copyist and how deadly that kind of work was, I have been even more vehement in my advocation of modern creative kind of thinking.
I was skeptical about the WPA. I just didn't really believe that they would give people a chance to paint the way they wanted to and to do things that I was so anxious to learn.
Michelle Herman: In order to realize this variety of projects, WPA administrators often had to bring in external experts to train artists in new techniques. While the European masters and avant-garde were noticeable influences, so to were the Mexican muralists, especially Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, whose poignant and evocative innovations in fresco were cited and copied across public art projects as American artists re-imagined public art’s ' power to depict and engage. Painter and muralist Maxine Albro had studied in Rivera's workshop before joining the WPA and she describes the training she received on the job as she worked to craft a mosaic.
Maxine Albro: That was over the entrance of the State College and that was a WPA project. I was supposed to do the designing and, never having done any mosaics before, and in fact, none of us had, they had to find an Italian mosaic setter who came and taught us how to do it. Now all of this mosaic–there was no glass used in it, it was all marble from Italy–and these pieces of marble would come, and the Italian would show us how to break them up with our hammers on blocks of iron.
It was very interesting. I think there were about eight people working and I drew the design first and then we got to work learning how to make the different things that were in the design such as the people and the animals and the flowers. We had to learn how to cut them.
Ben Gillespie: Painter Dorothy Cravath echoed the import of Rivera and the newness of the mural as a form in the US during her 1965 interview as she responds to a question about the significance of the WPA projects to the artists themselves:
Dorothy Cravath: What they meant was that we could do what we wanted to do and be paid for it, which hadn't been the case up to then. All the artists were just madly enthusiastic, of course, because up to this time no one bought art. They went to museums to look at art once in a while, but it wouldn't occur to anybody except a few collectors and patrons of the arts to buy anything. And as to murals, nobody had ever seen them. As a matter of fact, quite a number of the artists, including myself, had never seen any murals until we started doing them. The first we saw was Diego Rivera's murals at the art school, and that was the big school for the rest of us. We watched him like hawks and observed all the steps of making a mural by a very good technician and then we went and did likewise, as much as we could.
Ben Gillespie: She goes on to describe how the WPA altered the American aesthetic experience.
Dorothy Cravath: I think it was terrifically important because it gave a great many artists the subsidy that they needed to make a real start. And it also was important because it educated the public. People began to think that possibly walls of buildings needed murals or could stand murals, and it hadn't occurred to them before. I think most of the American public felt that all real painting had been done in the Renaissance and stopped there. After the WPA they observed that it could be done. Whether they liked it or not, they got used to seeing it.
Michelle Herman: Many interviewees, or narrators, celebrated these two streams of new deal benefits: the means to live and hope for the nation's future. By providing direct support for artists to participate in and contribute to their communities, the new deal arts initiatives made new lives available for its participants and their beneficiaries.
Virginia Ewing, whose husband Vernon hunter was the director of the WPA in New Mexico. Spoke about the communal nature of the heart of the project and its lasting personal impacts in her 1965 oral history.
Virginia Ewing: Well, I think the major accomplishment of the project was the purpose for which it was started, which was to enable artists to make a contribution to society as artists. And I think the project was a great stimulus to art in this country; it brought an experience of art to a great many small communities who might never have had it otherwise–for instance a little community in Melrose, New Mexico, which had an art Gallery. Most of the people in that town had never seen a painting before and they were tremendously enthused about this Gallery. They worked so hard; it was a favorite community project they were very excited about and got a great deal from it.
I do feel that that whole art project nationally created an interest in the world of Art in this country that might not have been otherwise.
Ben Gillespie: The artists of the WPA and FSA collated and synthesized countless influences while creating staggering new bodies of work, but there was also interest in the works that were already made in the US. The Index of American Design set out to create an archive of images and likenesses of American craft and folk art from before the outset of the 20th century; while photography was available, the Index trained artists to make precise drawings to better capture textures and nuance of color.
Across 34 states and over seven years, the Index artists produced close to 20,000 watercolor facsimiles of American decorative arts, furniture, costumes, glassware, and ceramics.
E Boyd was an artist and writer employed by the Index in New Mexico whose faithful reproductions of artifacts, particularly Santos, or sculptures of important figures in Catholicism, were a substantial contribution to the study of Latin American art. Boyd addresses laying the groundwork for a broader appreciation of non-academic art in a 1964 oral history:
E. Boyd: These were–as I mentioned apropos of the index drawing–these were all sorts of original works by artists from various areas of the United States, and–of course–they were classified in a sensible way, such as print exhibits or regional folk exhibits they do have folk art in other parts of the United States and they certainly had a wide region over which they traveled and the main idea I think, was to show what the art project was doing and also to show one area what other areas were doing and what they had in other areas because up until that time, except for the Pennsylvania German material in the east, very little attention had been paid to any folk art of the United States by anyone.
Ben Gillespie: Just as the other projects, though, the Index’s staff debated its proper criteria and focus.
In her 1964 oral history, Phyllis Crawford offered her thoughts on the motives and challenges faced by her and other Index administrators:
Phyllis Crawford: Well, I think our main difficulty in New York City was a fundamental split between our concept of the Index and the concept of the Index held by representatives from the Washington office, mainly Cook Glassgold and Mildred Holzhauer. They, like Ruth Reeves, always looked upon the Index of American Design as a collection of beautiful renderings of what we consider beautiful today–actually, what Cook Glassgold, Mildred Holzhauer, and Ruth Reeves thought was beautiful. We had one quarrel once. I remember words got quite heated because Helen McKearin, who is the one of the–by now because her father is dead, the authority on American Glass–and one of the authorities on American Ceramics. She had had one of her artists do a superb rendering of a piece of Bennington pottery
and Mildred Holzhauer and Cook Glassgold were for throwing the thing out. They said it was ugly. She said, "This is a superb example of the taste of the period. At that time it was considered beautiful. You can't say that in the next decade it won't be considered beautiful again.” “It’s ugly, it’s ugly,” they said. “We don’t want it.”
We were from the very beginning aiming towards a series of portfolios– one on each subject that we were covering. In other words, you would have gathered from the entire United States a portfolio that gave you a pretty good notion of wood carving, of furniture, of costume, from the beginnings as far back as we could find the actual objects, up to the end of the 19th century.
Michelle Herman: The retrospective and introspective nature of the index led many to a first-time appreciation of the native culture that had existed in the United States long before it became a nation and had continued despite marginalization and frequent existential threats. Jay Du Von, an administrator for the Federal Writer's Program, described his own growing sense of the arts' power and importance in his 1964 oral history.
Jay Du Von: So I think it was this searching down this vein of American culture, the kind of civilization that had been created here and trying to make us more conscious of it, cognizant of it. It wasn't really as dull and drab a country as we might think it was. Terrific history, Indian background. We interviewed the Indians a lot. The states were particularly keen about that, some of them where there were still reservations within the state. Or where Indian history had played a prominent part in the development of the state, they would go off pretty hard on a tack toward the Indians.
Ben Gillespie: And this nascent curiosity and respect for Native culture led to scholarly, curatorial, and artistic breakthroughs, though critical language lagged with respect to Native art, often resorting to terms such as 'primitive.' In her 1965 oral history, Anthropologist Erna Gunther, who taught at the University of Washington and directed the Washington State Museum where she oversaw WPA exhibitions, discusses the trajectory shift in the nation’s aesthetic regime due to the project.
Erna Gunther: I did try to get them to use in their displays things that were made by Indians. For instance, there was a note here that I had from an extension worker in Toppenish. We were dealing with each other about showing some Yakima things and showing them as art, not showing them as things that, that the casuals souvenir hunter buys.
And this was to many people, a strange idea. And you know before the middle of 1940s, no art gallery art museum, would show a collection of Indian art, and today every well-set-up schedule has some primitive art show over a period say of two years, they would have at least one good primitive art show. And I think that this plugging of Indian art and other primitive arts has really begun to touch the aesthetic taste. For instance, there are so many collectors today of Northwest Coast Indian art. We have this fine show of New Guinea here at the art museum right now, and these are things which an art museum 20, 25 years ago would not have touched.
Dorothy Bestor: And, And you think the Federal Art Project really had a good heart.
Erna Gunther: It had a part in it, it all had a part in changing the popular taste. Today I never hesitate to say to people, "This is a piece of Northwest Coast art; this is not just something that an Indian made. This is a piece of art." And it is reasonably accepted.
And it's really very surprising too, to find people who have had baskets tucked away in the attic. Cause something like that. And suddenly they find them shown in museums. So they bring them out of the attic. Now they have a piece of art.
Dorothy Bestor: Yeah.
Erna Gunther: So I think we can do a great deal to help channel the interests and the tastes of people
with big projects of this sort. And sometimes with smaller ones within communities, but here was a national movement.
Michelle Herman: The spirit of recognizing the art that was already being made in the US and stewarding it has developed towards the idea of cultural sovereignty in recent years. We spoke with Eto Otitigbe, an artist in Brooklyn, New York, about what it means to respect and nurture these stories in public art today.
Eto Otitigbe: “Cultural sovereignty” is a term I learned when reading about the ways that indigenous cultures in North America propose how we can approach them or how their cultural practices can be understood. It really is rooted in the fact that you know it it is up to the group who's kind of originating these stories or these practices to say well this is the culture, this is the artwork, this is the particular history that we're telling, and this is how it needs to be told. This is how it should be told for, you know, whatever reasons. It's really linked to, you know, belief systems within the group of people and not necessarily concerned with Western academic structures of thought and feeling like it needs to be siloed or packaged in that way. So I think that you know when you have an organization like the Canada Council for the Arts that embraces that right, it kind of blows things open and allows so many more voices to come to the table, transform the table, you know, transform the story.
Ben Gillespie: At the confluences of new and old art and of the many people who make up America, the New Deal encountered several frictions between traditional notions of the solitary artistic genius and the collective corps of workers.
Virginia Ewing, who worked with her husband on the WPA in New Mexico, described one such experience when asked about the diversity of artists involved in the project in conversation with Sylvia Loomis:
Sylvia Loomis: Were there many Indians employed on the projects?
Virginia Ewing: I don't know how many, I know there were some because I remember so much about José Rey Toledo and Vernon talked about him so much he was so interested in him and there were uh there were many Indians.
Sylvia Loomis: did they do really creative work?
Virginia Ewing: yes they did
Sylvia Loomis: they weren’t just helpers?
Virginia Ewing: oh no they did creative work whenever they were able to and he was very anxious to keep them doing their own creative work and not make them do things that were uh not creative. However, it is very difficult because at that time—well for instance José Rey Toledo was a Jemez Indian uh had great difficulty with the pueblo because they—because the Indians do not approve of the individual artist–doing work under his own name and at one time he told Vernon about the old ladies having put cornmeal all around his house—it was a very bad thing they were keeping his evil spirits within his own little sphere they didn’t want to get out to the rest of the pueblo.
Sylvia Loomis: I didn't realize this was as recent as this
Virginia Ewing: Oh yes they were strongly against it.
Michelle Herman: In his 1973 interview with Paul Cummings, celebrated sculptor Isamu Noguchi sifted through those ideas in the context of what it means to make a distinctly American art. Though an artist coming into his own during the 1930s, Noguchi was never selected for the PWAP or the WPA, which he attributed to having offended Audrey McMahon, director of the WPA for the New York region, when he made a sculpted likeness of her head in an application for the project. Despite never working for the New Deal Arts Initiatives, Noguchi was witness to their transformation of the American cultural scene.
Isamu Noguchi: Well, for one with a background like myself the question of identity is very uncertain. And I think it’s only in art that it was ever possible for me to find any identity at all.
Paul Cummings: In what way, do you think?
Isamu Noguchi: Well, after all, it is only in the arts that a person who does not belong
with any social contacts, you see, could find a viewpoint on life which is free of social contacts. One can be an artist and alone, for instance. An artist’s life is really a lonely life. It is only when he is lonely that he can really produce.
You know, people who idea of what it was like to be American, like Leger, for instance...he thought to be American was to be like a machine, that is, the people became like machines. And so he came over here and he was rather non-plussed.
There was, I think, a kind of inhibition against free expression. I may be wrong. I mean, for instance, even somebody like Stuart Davis had to have laid down very strict limits as to what he could do and what he couldn’t do. And since, in a way people were trying to find within themselves their own ancestry, that is to say, there were the Americans on the WPA, of course, were that, in order to be Americans rather than European, one of the guidelines was that you had to use American subject matter like, say, the Hudson River School. And prior to that, you had John Sloan and all that. And, as for the influence of Stieglitz and Marin and Demuth and O’Keeffe and all that crowd, that was a kind of non-proletarian offshoot which didn’t seem to jibe with the vigor of the American drive toward an identity.
The American identity as art was very, very dubious. I mean it was hung up on all sorts of social questions and sort of the questions of the location, the land, this, that, and the other. They were thrashing about, you know
Ben Gillespie: These questions of national tradition and distinction were fraught topics for some observers, but the creative act itself was more present to Holger Cahill, Director of the Federal Art Project. In his 1964 oral history, Lorsen Feitelson, an accomplished painter who served as a supervisor for the FAP in Los Angeles, gives insight into the concepts behind the project based on an arts movement Cahill founded in his youth:
Lorser Feitelson: His movement proposed to return to the arts a comparable simplicity, to cut away the superstructure of our cultural refinements and discover the basic and most direct form of human expression.
He was active as a young person in the art world. He’s always had a curiosity about the artist beyond any national classification, just “man as a creative being.” This, I think, is the key to Cahill. He’ s interested in the creative act. And from the ethical or moral point of view, if man could just be interested in man’s creative contributions, what a wonderful world this would be!
Ben Gillespie: While it proved a fruitful ground for American painting and sculpture, the New Deal also primed the rise of photography as a fine art and medium of documentary. Through its emotional candor and intimacy, FSA photography set the tone for the future of the form. Famed photographer Jack Delano made his mark in the project, and he celebrated the contagious energy and focus of the project's director, Roy Stryker.
Delano traveled far and wide during the FSA. A native of Ukraine, his circuitous journey came to a rest in Puerto Rico, which enchanted him as well as his wife during a project assignment. His 1965 oral history surveys the lessons gleaned from that extensive travel:
Jack Delano: that's one of the things that I loved about Roy and one of the things I got most from him was a feeling about the United States, about America. This enthusiasm and love for the detail and the deeper meaning of everything American was something that he must have transmitted to everybody. He certainly did to me. In preparing for an assignment he not only gave us books to read, and all kinds of other things, but would talk and talk and talk in great detail about what you will find up there,
and what you must look for, and there is a certain drugstore on such and such a corner which has a certain thing in the window which you must be sure to find, and so on. And he almost always would end up in saying, "But, of course, if you don't find any of these things, you do what you want to anyway."
I felt that I was part of an organization which was basically interested in the cultural values of America, which had nothing to do with politics but had to do with the American tradition, with the bad things, the good things, the difficulties, the problems, the joys and inspirations and everything that went with it. And it could be a tight little Jewish community someplace in Colchester, which we covered, including the synagogues and everything that went with it, or it could be a horse show at a county fair in New Hampshire somewhere. It was all part of what was making the United States and what the United States had come from, and this was the exciting thing for us. Through these travels and the photographs, I got to love the United States more than I could have in any other way.
Ben Gillespie: But that's not to say that Jack or his wife Irene could distill any criteria by which to distinguish Americanness, here they are with the interviewer, Richard Doud:
Richard Doud: I mean is there anything that you could say is typically American about Americans? I don't . . . I doubt that there is, but I just wondered if you . . . ?
Irene Delano: I think you have to think about it a great deal to figure it out.
Jack Delano: I don't think there is. I wouldn't say that there is.
Irene Delano: You don't? Oh, I think that when you are living outside of the United States, as we are here, you have a different . . . you think of Americans as a kind of people. Of course, it's not true–from every part of the country they have different characteristics–but there are qualities that are American qualities. Very definitely so.
Jack Delano: I don’t know, I don’t know.
Ben Gillespie: The New Deal plowed, seeded, fertilized, and harvested the fields for the arts in America, as distinct its fruits and farmers were, and even as its heirlooms evolved and diverged. Erna Gunther, the anthropologist in Seattle, frames these historical cycles in her 1965 oral history with Dorothy Bestor:
Erna Gunther: I always tell this little story. I was driving down to California and I stopped at a small town to get some gasoline and there was a woman ahead of me in a car which a little boy and she had finished her purchase and she called to her youngster, "C'mon, we're going along." And he walked over and he said, "Mother, we haven't seen the museum." "Oh," she said and she turned to the gas attendant, and she said, "And where's your museum?" He said, "Museum?" She said, "Yes, where is your museum here in town?" "We haven't got any museum," he answered. And the little boy turned around and looked at this man and said, "You mean you haven't got a museum?" I mean with this emphasis, what have you if you haven't that? This is very interesting. This would not have happened 20 years ago. And of course, the museum movement is not all in art but it links with art, whether it's a historical museum or a natural history museum or an anthropological museum, it is a museum. And many people go there with the idea they should have everything. Well, most museums, small museums, shouldn't, even if they do, but it is a place the public goes to for education. You know, this is a very curious comparison, but I think the museum has taken the place of what was the great education in medieval times, the cathedral.
Dorothy Bestor: That's a very good point.
Erna Gunther: People went to the cathedral for services, they went to the cathedral for religious inspiration. But look at the art in the cathedral; they enjoyed that. They came out of rather poor living conditions, and this was their one great inspiration. And I think every time I go into some of the great cathedrals in Europe, especially when you go into the cathedral in a place like Toledo in Spain and you see this community which really hasn't changed very much, and you think what does this cathedral mean to these women who still go to the well to get water, who carry everything on their heads? Perhaps today the cathedral doesn't mean as much as it did to them once, but when you consider that some of these cathedrals that are built up on hills and people carried the stones up there
on their backs and everybody did it, everybody contributed to it, this was an important building and it housed their art. This housed their inspiration, it was their dramatic entertainment, and you just sort of wish you could get an institution today that would knit a community together this way.
[Theme music plays through outro]
Michelle Herman: This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman from the Smithsonian Archives of American art.
Audio engineering is by Hannah Hethmon of Better Lemon Creative Audio.
With music compositions by Viet Cuong that were performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble, conducted by Harlan Parker.
Special thanks to Kyrie Blackman, Evan Blackwell, Laura Foose, Mikala Jones, Cassandra Leon, Misty Lizarraga, Tiffany Nall, Mimi Tarter, Osimiri Sprowal, and Tabara Sy for their research contributions.
The Archives of American art at the Smithsonian Institution is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from individuals like you to sustain our ongoing operations and special programs like Articulated. To support our work, please visit our website at aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.