Skip to main content

       The scare and struggle surrounding a person’s livelihood has become common denominator in this country.  Workers simple and schooled, both with equal pride, have faced significant questions about the integrity of their professions, let alone the viability of their chosen occupations.  First it was the auto workers and bankers looking for some sign-- newfound public appreciation, government help actually spurring sales, confidence in the market, or perhaps just the blinking exit to another arena to save the remnants of the family pocketbook (or to save face).  
    One group of professionals has continually weathered this kind of storm, however.  The nation’s artists.  As to whether it makes it any easier to ride out, when many have now been suffering, remains to be seen.  But due to their strong sense of identity (and the fact that they are used to being poor), they will come out the other end intact-- more than can be said of the other occupations.  
    Artists as workers  is a concept still un-embraced, despite FDR’s inclusionary attempts with the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s.  Artists almost flourished for a small time then.  Notice the talk is of artists, here-- not so much art organizations.  (Much could be written, with artist testimony, on the questionable tangible support of arts organizations on the nation’s actual individual artists, and this author is working on such an account.)  But the definition here includes and is not limited to the very individual musicians, theatre artists, filmmakers, painters, writers, sculptors, poets, dancers, storytellers, photographers, composers, performers and illustrators (and especially the independent ones, creating new, not derivative, work).
    Like the nation’s recent unemployed or underemployed, creative artists are constantly searching for work, looking for viable opportunities for their skills, remaking their roles to fit current needs, and struggling to make ends meet.  
    Some of the more successful ones are simply blessed with being more resilient and lucky.  All those with genuine talent, though, and with an accumulated body of work (albeit little money) have an integrity that can not be swayed externally from their already fragile position.  All deserve a better lasting situation in our American society.


    The most visible products to come out of the WPA were the bridges and public park structures that many Americans are familiar with, so much in evidence still to this day.  But the WPA had many subdivisions, one of which was the Public Works of Art Project, or Federal Arts Project.  Its subdivisions were the Theatre Project, the Writers Project, and the Mural and Easel Projects.  Produced in cities all across America were new works for the stage, writing both creative and to chronicle, and easel paintings, lithographic prints, posters, watercolors, murals and sculpture, plus more.  
    Works were made for and distributed to public schools, libraries, planetariums, city and county buildings, housing authorities, garden markets, post offices, park structures, and other tax-supported institutions.  It was indeed a ‘shovel-ready’ project (or rather brush and pen) that utilized talent to meet need. Governing bodies other than the WPA partially funded the work.  City and state governments and colleges were on board with the creative-economic collaboration.  Private recipients included hotels, homes for the elderly and banks.  
    Associated with the Federal Art Project were the Museum Extension Projects, which employed (as described by program material of the time) “research-workers, draftsmen, artists, sculptors, photographers, model-makers, and other men and women from the professional and technical groups.”  Just a bit of material produced:  “models of historic locomotives, frontier forts, historic buildings and mankind’s homes the world over, all built from scale drawings based on authentic research; plastic replicas of fruits and vegetables, reptiles, and topographic relief maps; costume color-plates; dioramas; and puppets and puppet play scripts and properties.”  
    The major uses of the products were as instructional aids, but also for cultural and beautification purpose, with so many public and even private institutions benefitting.  Early American reproduction items were produced, to be included in both the Index of American Design and a book on Americana sponsored by the Library of Congress.  Historical societies employed writers’ summary essays, as well as theatre artists’ conveyances, of items cataloged in their collections.  The value of such vast creative output was deemed a necessity in the realm of public education and cultural betterment for all of society.
    Though likely much of the work produced for schools hasn’t survived the touch of youth, time itself hasn’t dimmed direct evidence that the WPA’s Art Project positively affected our nation.  Arts project output can be witnessed in natural history museum collections display, and in murals and canvas still visible in public structures of every city-- nostalgic momentos of a brief time when public policy actually addressed artists’ dire need for work.  
    The Great Depression was devastating to most people, and yet ironically, creative artists found themselves considered for the first time with their inclusion in President Roosevelt’s project linking viable work with skillful individuals in need.  The economic downslide actually helped-- for once, a means by which creative workers could earn a living with their abilities!
    FDR’s programs were intended to give not a handout, but an opportunity (previously unconsidered) to employ workers.  Homer St. Gaudens, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, wrote in 1941 that the previous decade was one in which approx. 4,000 artists “were certainly in the submerged social strata.  There was appropriated [with the WPA] a sizable sum with which artists, 90% of whom were to be on relief rolls, were [instead] employed at wages of from $69 to $103 a month.”  (The American Artist and His Times, NY:  Dodd, Mead & Co.)
    Artists not only earned money for their basic livelihood, but gained a new sense of outward respect.  Through the ages, they have either embraced self-worth or risked insanity.  Now at least in the U.S. government’s eyes, artistic ability was finally seen as a viable part of society.  Un-legislated individual viewpoints would prove much harder to change.


    Former NEA Chair Jane Alexander spoke in support of the arts’ inclusion in President Obama’s economic stimulus package, on the heels of protestation by Lousiana Governor Jindal and others deriding what they did not want to understand.  She of course well knew the increased stigmatization of the arts that took place in modern-day America at the time of Reagan’s de-funding of the NEA.  Her words were significant, stressing the need and value of the country’s artistic output.  For though FDR was mindful of the economic suffering of artists in addition to blue-collar workers, possibly enabling the general public to better understand their plight, any public good will would be soon enough squashed (as the Federal Arts Program would hit political pressure and the economy bowed to war).  
    The opportunity now in 2011, as we are still trying to pull ourselves out of the recent Great Recession, is for the work of artists to take a new place in the economy.  Discussing the benefits of WPA-like support for creative workers is called for.  As well, when business and industry pick themselves up and dust off, they will need to take on Edgar J. Kaufmann’s courageous call for art in commerce.  He who utilized art’s beautification in his Pittsburgh department stores, as well as commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build the masterpiece Fallingwater home, put out a call to muralists in a 1930 store pamphlet, and noted, “the fact that today we are the richest of nations places on us the added responsibility of giving greater momentum to cultural development than it has ever received from any people.  Business and industry must accept a share of the responsibility which opportunity imposes.”
    But let’s face it-- most skills bring money in good times.  Creative work has never, really.  Dancers, writers, composers, painters, actors and more struggle every day to make a living.  Creative artists, like all people, need work in order to survive.  It is a terrible predicament to be good at something, to know you have a unique ability to do something that not everyone can, to even recognize that those abilities could creatively transform problems into solutions and certainly should have a place in our society--  but to see little prospect of work.  
    All artists need opportunity to earn money utilizing their talent, doing what they do best.  (This should be as much the American Dream as home ownership).  That opportunity can be in so many forms, including (the very overlooked) schools and institutions hiring professional artists en masse for residencies; people hiring live musicians, esp. those writing original work (not simply derivative top 40 pop); community businesses adorning their walls not with usual-fare ‘doctor’s office prints’ but the work of local painters; performers and sculptors being commissioned to create for public and private enterprise; and grants and fellowships being awarded to individual artists who have a body of quality work to show the world, with more waiting in the wings.     
    In order for there to be work for artists, some subsidy may need to happen.  In our land of plenty (should we be able to call it that anymore), it is certainly a shame that artistic ability has never garnered better wage.  We have found our way around tremendous problems (and now stare at more daunting ones), and yet we have never tackled the idea that cultural work is indeed still work.  That creative workers shouldn’t be always expected to live in poverty due to the (lack of) valuation of their skill.  
    For sure, artists will get through, however narrowly, this slump intact.  But they have always needed more than that just to get by, far beyond the here and now of common economic suffering.  It is rather simple, really.  Artists need to be employed-- with consideration given to the full meaning of that word.  Something with lasting impact is called for.  Whether it be the jump-start of a Federal Program (as is also called for in construction workers rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure), or just a long-deserved recognition from the rest of the country that pairs them to viable related employment opportunity.  For indeed artists are workers.

Originally posted to lisamilesviolin on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 03:32 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Cradle Will Rock (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    x, marina

    Anyone interested in this topic should check out the movie Cradle Will Rock, directed by Tim Robbins/t chronicles the production of the leftist labor musical "The Cradle Will Rock," funded by the Federal Theater Project - before it was shut down as too controversial.

  •  Thank you for this. I think it is important. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    drawingporno, x, marina

    Unfortunately, the American people are far away from recognizing such a civil, enlightened concept.

    My son is about two semesters from degrees in graphic design and art history.  He is talented and bright and so much of his work reflects messages in subtle and not so subtle ways about the state of our nation and our culture.  

    He is a great fan of much of the art of the 1930s.  I sent your article to him, as I'm sure he will enjoy it.

    banned from "democratic" underground for asking uncomfortable questions

    by Saint Jimmy on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 04:11:57 PM PDT

  •  We are visiting Timberline Lodge at (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    drawingporno, x, marina

    Mount Hood In Oregon soon.  It was built as a WPA project between 1936 and 38 and is furnished with wonderful art and textiles made by artist at the time under the same program.

    I have looked forward to this trip for some time.  As a weaver, I am particularly interested in the textiles, but I just know that there will be plenty more to enjoy.

  •  Art was important w/ the WPA (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    x, marina, JamieG from Md

    I had the good fortune to see some of it in a WPA-era building in my town that houses a large auditorium/performance space and part of our state archives/rare books (all of Ben Franklin's written works and originals of documents written/signed by William Penn).  Anyway, I happened to walk out on a rather unassuming balcony and the adjacent office-holder instructed me to look up.  There was some beautiful tile work that did not look the worse for wear despite its 70+ years.  We need another WPA and we need public art with it!

    Thanks for the diary.

    "And the moral of the story is, when the first goat comes along, you gotta tear its head off, have sex with the neckhole, and then mail the carcass back to its brothers and say, "Any of you other goat motherf^ckers want to put a hoof on my bridge?"

    by CitizenScientist on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 06:23:35 PM PDT

  •  Great diary! (0+ / 0-)

    And if it puts anyone in the mood to support artists, check out the creative people in the Kos Katalogue:!

    Shop Liberally this holiday season at Kos Katalog

    by JamieG from Md on Tue Aug 23, 2011 at 05:32:47 AM PDT

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site