WPA Projects–Art in the New Deal
A Review of Milton Meltzer’s Violins and Shovels and Roger Kennedy’s When Art Worked
Milton Meltzer was a historian and author born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Meltzer attended Columbia University, but was forced to drop out. He went on to work at CBS and Pfizer. Roger Kennedy has served in many important and honorable positions in the U.S. government, prominent banks, and universities. He has won the Silver Medal of the NY Film Critics.
BY ANKUR MEHTA
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”1 With these prophetic words, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt kicked off the New Deal—his program to revitalize the American economy and public mood through government spending and “work relief as opposed to cash relief.”2 The most significant of these works projects was the WPA—the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was constituted of a large variety of federally funded projects, such as the Federal Writers Project, Federal Theatre Project, and Federal Arts project. These Federal One projects constituted a major portion of the WPA projects. These Federal projects are covered in detail in Milton Meltzer’s Violins and Shovels: the WPA Arts Projects and Roger Kennedy’s When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy.
Milton Meltzer introduces the circumstances surrounding the Great Depression and relates the events of the New Deal in his book. Meltzer was a junior in high school when the Depression hit in 1931. At the time, 7 million people were out of work, and by Meltzer’s graduation, that number had grown to 15 million. After setting the stage of the depression, Meltzer describes the circumstances which caused the people in it so much pain. He blames the 1920s ideal, “A dollar down, a dollar forever,” for the debt crises which took place all over the nation.3 The rapid unchecked spending of the 1920s led to the inevitable cycle of debt—the major cause of defaults on loans when the economy went south. Meltzer then describes the sensational confidence in a brighter future that FDR brought when he took office in 1932. FDR and his advisors quickly and efficiently structured a New Deal, rebutting with “Hunger is not debatable” whenever faced with criticisms.4 After establishing the backdrop for the New Deal, Meltzer explains his experiences and observations as a New Dealer.
Meltzer was forced to drop out of college and support his family. He then joined the Federal Writer’s Project, a faction of the Works Progress Administration, giving him insight into the inner workings of WPA. He extensively covers the Federal One projects in his work. Meltzer began his work for the WPA as a writer for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). As a writer, Meltzer earned a relatively good salary of $23.86 a week—compared to the $2 he was earning while painting and selling shoes. He describes the spending and wages of the WPA in detail—with all of it adding up to “millions per hour.”5 Meltzer also describes the “Big Four” directors of the federal project—Sokoloff for Art, Flanagan for Theatre, Alsberg for writers, and Cahill for Art.6 He also describes the radical ideas and approaches attempted by the projects, such as “free, adult, uncensored theatre”—a revolutionary idea presented by Flanagan, the head of the FTP. However, due to censorship, many of the more liberal theatrical productions were not allowed to go on as they contained content considered unsuitable for audiences. Nonetheless, the federal theatre project was still able produced many quality works like Macbeth—a runaway success—as well as many quality people—an example being Howard Koch, the highly acclaimed writer of Casablanca.
In his book, Roger Kennedy provides the history and background to the formation of the New Deal programs. He cites the fact that Roosevelt asked that citizens be willing to make sacrifices and recognize their “sacred obligation with a unity of duty....art had a place in that unity of duty, in the front line of a ‘disciplined attack upon our common problems.’”7 He explains that “public support for the New Deal was rallied by art that summoned forth pride out of common experience. Often it illuminated common necessities, arousing awareness of suffering people and of suffering nature. The New Deal provided food, it provided work, and with the aid of art, it began to provide hope grounded in common purposes.”8 Art was a crucial element to the successful restoration of American confidence and Kennedy’s purpose is to show it. Art provided culture and cheap entertainment for a society riddled with fear and pain. Art offered an assortment of jobs, thereby ending the misery for hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Kennedy goes into depth on the New Deal Arts programs and provides visual representations of the various types of art created in the New Deal. He describes the vast successes of the programs in creating jobs and reestablishing confidence in America. For instance, “between 1933 and 1942, ten thousand artists ‘produced a staggering amount of work: 100,000 easel paintings, 18,000 sculptures, over 13,000 prints, and 4,000 murals, not to mention posters and photographs.’”9 These work projects also paid fairly well, on average $53 per month or as low as $23 a month in some southern states—as opposed to five to ten dollars a month -- if lucky -- doing hard labor. However, the projects did not pay as much as the prevailing union wage, attempting to encourage the artists to continue seeking work in the private sector. Kennedy also covers the details of the various other WPA Federal Projects and the lives of their directors—more importantly, he covers the most significant individual artists of these projects in great detail, such as Roy Stryker, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott.
Meltzer and Kennedy both focus on and are major proponents of the New Deal arts programs. Though both relate a detailed account of the Depression and New Deal, Kennedy takes a more thorough look into the lives and works of significant people in the New Deal arts programs. Both agree with FDR’s viewpoint that “the New Deal provided food, it provided work, and with the aid of art, it began to provide hope grounded in common purposes.” 10 A key difference in the two works lies in the historiography of the works. Whereas Milton Meltzer experienced the New Deal and the WPA first hand, Kennedy relies on pure research to assimilate his work. Kennedy’s work, published in 2009, could also be significantly influenced by modern perspectives of the New Deal and the fact that few who experienced the New Deal as adults remain today. However, both authors are part of the Historical School of Economics, as they both believe that history and culture both are great influences on the economy. They both laud the genius of FDR to institute a program which would stimulate the economy through a revitalization of the history and culture of the United States.
Violins and Shovels is critically claimed as “a first-rate piece of reporting on the outlet of New Deal WPA.”11 It is praised as “the only in depth treatment of the subject available” at the time it was released.12 Meltzer is lauded for the first hand experiences he instills in his work and his in depth analysis of the WPA projects and the lives of their directors.
When Art Worked is also critically acclaimed. Kennedy is praised for coming “forward to remind us the crucial role of art…a way in which people makes sense of their problems…of re-imagining the common good.”13 The book is called a “sumptuous immersion in the…countless…artifacts of public culture sponsored” by the New Deal.14 Kennedy’s subject is “actionable art.” He looked at every piece of art from the period, from minor murals to the creation of “hiking trails and public amenities.”15 He believes that “the art created help[ed] express the ‘peoplehood’ of Americans and the constructive role that government could play to alleviate misery…to unleash the creative energy of artists to change our image of ourselves and mobilize public support for public policies to protect our commons.”16
Both of these works were strong in the presentation of their ideas. Violins and Shovels was strong because Meltzer provided a personal experience with the subject and When Art Worked was strong because it gave a more thorough explanation as well as visual representations of the various types of art created during the New Deal. The main weakness of Meltzer’s work was not that it didn’t have enough factual support, but rather that it was outshone factually by Kennedy’s factual behemoth with its vast illustrations and detailed descriptions of the people of the New Deal. However, Kennedy’s work was outshone by Meltzer’s work in that Meltzer provided a first-hand experience with the subject and time period, in comparison to Kennedy, who took a rather objective, impersonal look at the subject. These two works complement each other well and as a wise man once said, “what one cannot do, the other will fulfill.”17
According to Meltzer, America in the 1930s was on the brink of disaster. However, FDR and his New Deal saved America from falling and eventually helped build the Superpower status we enjoy today. Meltzer’s family started the depression in a position unlike most others. His family “didn’t go broke,” they “started broke.”18 He viewed the early 1930s as a time when the rich, top five percent of income, kept their fortunes and remained prosperous and where the poor, on the other hand, were forced to work hours on end to receive menial salaries, even for the most dangerous jobs. Around him, the world as he knew it came crumbling down. Violence erupted everywhere, and the economy and confidence in America dwindled almost to the point of rebellion. What little the people had—“health, pride, and self respect”—was eliminated by the Depression and lack of support under the Hoover administration. However, all of this changed for Meltzer. Due to his father’s death, he dropped out of Columbia and began working for the Federal Writer’s Project. Meltzer would go on to become rather prosperous later on in life solely due to the opportunity given to him by the Federal Writer’s Project.
The 1930s, according to Roger Kennedy, were a time when art was “in the front line of a ‘disciplined attack upon our common problems.’” He believes that art was crucial to the reestablishment of faith and trust in America. That the art has the capacity to speak for people, and is thus an effective tool in teaching people the history of a certain time period. Contrary to modern social critics of the New Deal art programs, Kennedy actively supports the New Deal policies towards art. He supports the notion that the New Deal arts programs were in fact not pointless wastes of government spending but rather essential pieces to rebuilding the broken puzzle of American confidence.
The 1930s New Deal Arts programs were essential to restructuring the American economy and rebuilding American confidence. Though the effort required massive funding, the arts programs were worth the expenditure. For instance, had FDR chosen not to do anything about the millions out of work, rebellion would ensue. The situation had degraded to the extent at which a fascist or communist rebellion seemed imminent. FDR is arguably the main reason rebellion was thwarted. After taking office, FDR took a well planned and systematic approach to successfully quash fears of rebellion. His New Deal programs primarily employed young men, and assigned them to various tasks. By doing this, FDR effectively provided aid to the workers—eliminating the need for rebellion—without allowing America’s youth to rot away, relying solely on government support. The 1930s were a time when America emerged as a strong nation, able to take on the toughest of circumstances and prevail even when there was little more than an ounce of hope. The New Deal provided every need conceivable—it “provided food, it provided work” and most importantly, it provided the hope for a brighter future.18
The 1930s marked a major turning point in the politics, economics, and culture of America. This period in time symbolized a shift in American politics back to a focus on domestic policies and isolationism. FDR effectively handled the domestic situation because he made it his primary priority. Had he chosen to shift his focus to the events occurring in Europe, FDR may have been able to stop World War II from becoming the large conflict it did but America wouldn’t have gained the stable base to become the strongly connected and patriotic country it is today. FDR’s domestic policies, deemed The New Deal, of the 1930s significantly stimulated the economy. Though it was eventually World War II in the 1940s that brought the American economy to superpower status, the base for that economy was shaped by the New Deal of the 1930s. Through programs like Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, FDR effectively stabilized the savings and loan crises of the 1930s. Through programs like the Agricultural Adjustment Act, FDR provided direct relief to the farmers, the main way to stabilize inflation. Through other programs like the Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps, FDR put people to work and helped get money flowing again. Of these programs, the last few were exceptionally important to the culture of the 1930s, and eventually the culture of today. FDR created arts and works programs to “[affirm] the national covenant” and “create public works…that might counteract ‘fear itself.’” The New Deal was able to reassure American unity and confidence in America as well as create a national identity through art. The New Deal created art that everyone could relate to—bonding Americans together in hard times, forming a national unity that would last for many decades.
The America of today exists only because the New Deal of the 1930s saved the country from collapsing into a state of chaos and rebellion. Had it not been enacted, America—a beacon of democracy and capitalism—would have likely fallen under the influence of communism or fascism—both of which were prominent at the time. The New Deal established work and progress. It not only offered financial support, but it also created jobs that constructively built America’s enormous infrastructure—from parks to reserves, trails to roads, and water to clean water. Along with the structural infrastructure, the New Deal established a vast cultural infrastructure—employing hundreds of thousands of artists, musicians, and writers. Perhaps the most significant benefit of these projects was the fact that they employed people primarily to do what they were trained to do—rather than just busy work. And because of the strict guidelines established, the workers and their fields were transforming significantly. For instance, by “instilling discipline” in its artists through guidelines and deadlines, Cahill’s Federal Arts Project were able to enhance the artist’s skills by introducing them to new methods to add to their creativity. Because of this era of American art and ingenuity, Americans today enjoy many new styles of art and products—such as scotch tape, radar, what was defined as HDTV, Air Mail, color movies, frozen food, the Volkswagon Beetle, and most importantly, Nuclear fission. Because of the singular, unified, American identity created through American art and ingenuity, America pulled through its toughest times and emerged stronger than ever.
The 1930s were a time of change in America. Change which brought about such radical ideas as “free, uncensored, adult theatre” and the Living Newspaper. Change which would pull America through her valleys and take her to her peak. Change which would strengthen American patriotism and unity. Change which would pull her from the depression all the way through civil rights and Vietnam. Change which would never allow her to be affected again as she had been in the early depression. That change was the facilitation of the New Deal and the restructuring and rebuilding of America as we know it.
1: Meltzer, Milton. Violins and Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects. New York: Delacorte Press, 1976. 11.
Ankur Mehta is a junior at Irvine High. He is a history enthusiast whose pastimes include watching the History Channel and Military Channel. He enoys planes, cars, music, art, and drama. He particularly enjoys history and science and is currently exploring his career options in those fields.
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