Art for the People: Conveying the Profundity of Government Support for the Arts Liz Goldner
Oceanside Museum of Art, Oceanside, California Continuing through November 5, 2023
A great art exhibition can provide us with a magnanimous view of life and society. And when that show adds a strong political statement to aesthetic command, it becomes profound. “Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection” accomplishes both objectives. Its 46 paintings, from the late 1920s through the1940s, are of laborers, the downtrodden, the marginalized, the homeless, and even those traumatized by war and the bomb. Most of the narrative images, infused with simplicity, power and accessibility, were painted by artists who lived through the travails of that era. With a number of powerful images as foundation, this exhibition makes a strong statement about the importance of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the FDR years.
Harry Sternberg, “Woman and War,” 1940, oil on panel, 48 x 32”
The WPA (1935-1943), created by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, put millions of Americans to work, building schools, hospitals, roads, and other public works. The project also employed tens of thousands of artists, actors, musicians, and writers through the “Federal Project Number One” program. It financed approximately 2,500 murals, 18,800 pieces of sculpture, and 108,000 easel works. (Of the 15 million unemployed victims of the Depression, nearly 10,000 were artists.)
The artistic output from the WPA was vast and enduring. Many murals from that era still occupy their walls around the country. The prints, crafts, sculpture and humanistic Social Realist paintings, depicting Depression-era society also remain to document the period — as they do in “Art for the People”, with a well curated selection.
Philip Evergood “New Death,” 1947, oil on canvas, 37 x 32”
Among the dozens of paintings in “Art for the People,” several stand out. Harry Sternberg’s “Woman and War” features a startled nude woman in a bombed-out home, with books thrown about, a crowd of disjointed screaming mouths, and raised fists. Philip Evergood’s surreal “New Death” is one of the early depictions of the destructive power of the atomic bomb, with skulls scattered and spidery abstract brush strokes, representing chaos and devastation. Nils Gren’s “Silent Men” shows two dispirited men communing in a café. And Louis Ribak’s “Hooverville on Tenth Street” depicts a homeless encampment in New York City with people striving to live normally: socializing, reading newspapers, and hanging laundry.
Today, no artistic endowments even approach the WPA in scale or execution. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), initiated by Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, differs from the WPA, as it was created not for unemployed artists, but rather for celebration of the artistic spirit. And the NEA has historically experienced significant budget reductions, mainly during Republican administrations, and during times of economic recession. According to the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, the NEA and the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) each received a 10% cut for the 2022/23 fiscal year. Various other, mostly private grants programs are available to artists and art venues. But none are nearly as significant as was, and still is, the WPA.
As Michael Hiltzik wrote in the Los Angeles Times in September 2023, “The WPA art of the 1930s aimed to shine a spotlight on all the ways that American reality fell short of the American ideal. The culture warriors of today want to erase that reality entirely … Today’s partisan assault on cultural expression aims to depict the very existence of artistic insight as a danger to society itself. It’s a uniquely philistine movement, but its political consequences are its most troubling aspect.”
Nils Gren, “Silent Men,” 1938, oil on canvas, 24 x 29”
Yet we still see artworks addressing migrants laboring under the sun to feed all of us, of people cowering in fear when confronted by gun toting white supremacists and other woke topics. Many artists today feel compelled to address these controversial subjects. For example, Jorg Dubin relates that after being invited by the Laguna Beach Arts Commission in 2020 to submit edgy and brave work, he proposed two paintings. These were “Unity,” featuring five kneeling protestors with their colors proceeding from black to brown to white, and “The Orange Stand,” depicting a white police officer threatening a black protestor, with several cops in riot gear. When both pieces were rejected, he submitted “Black Lives Matter,” a sculptural work of a raised arm and fist, symbolic of the Black Lives Matter movement. After this third piece was also rejected, he installed it in front of his studio.
Among many other racially and socially conscious artists is Allison Saar, who references black female identity and the African diaspora in her work. Narsiso Martinez paints portraits of undocumented farmworkers on discarded fruit boxes, finding direct inspiration in 1930s Social Realism. Others are addressing many of our dire problems conceptually. Some of the more well-known include Sanford Biggers, Mark Bradford, Tristan Eaton, and Lari Pittman.
Louis Ribak, “Hooverville on East Tenth Street,” c. 1940, oil on canvas, 20 x 30”
The Hammer Museum’s upcoming “Made in L.A. 2023” mines participating artists’ creativity to address the divisive, dismaying world we inhabit today. However, “Art for the People” features work from a more egalitarian social and political era, when issues of social injustice were widely and seriously addressed. It provides a foundation and backdrop for the proactive art being created today.