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A Lesson from the Great Depression
I was listening to a radio program which featured a discussion on what will happen after the “Great Recession”. The conversation specifically focused on California ‘s Silicon Valley. Several of the commentators spoke about how pivotal Silicon Valley is, not only to California ‘s recovery, but to the entire country ‘s. “Silicon Valley will once again lead the nation in technology and innovation!” Silicon Valley will pave the way for a technological Renaissance in America!” “Venture capital will return to the Silicon Valley because that is where the future of America ‘s recovery lies!” Only one person commented, in a rather sobering way, that we need to proceed with care. We are on the brink of creating a new world, a global community. To think that the recession is going to end and our country, or any other, will be back to business as usual is nonsense. He reminded all who were listening that we have the unique opportunity to fashion not only a new financial operating system for ourselves, but a cultural rebirth as well. A much needed cultural rebirth that balances the importance of the humanities and arts with the creation of technology and industry.
My mind cheered with silent applause. The man was dead on. We will not emerge from this recession to resume the same consumptive behavior that resulted in our current financial crisis. Our focus as a society on materialistic, techno toys that are obsolete in three months is not what is going to revitalize the human race. A cultural elevation requires more than an iPhone. It requires the arts. They are called the humanities because they are what makes us human. Now, more than any other time in recent history, they are desperately needed to restore value and substance to our disposable, replaceable and transient world.
During the Depression, along with restoring a collapsed economy, the United States government recognized the need for a “national unity”. The government viewed the economically devastated public as “a people without a unifying central culture”. Back then, it was as important to the government to cultivate a unified American society as it was to return the country to economic stability. Eleanor Roosevelt brilliantly understood the need to develop a national sense of esteem and identity, and pressured her husband to take action. Between 1933 and 1934, the Public Works of Art Project One was initiated by the government to create murals on public buildings. It employed 3700 artists and resulted in over 15,000 works of art. The Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration- or WPA- was created in 1935. It employed over 5000 artists and produced 225,000 works of art for the American public. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willim de Kooning and Diego Rivera were among those employed as muralists during the depression. Regionalism, art that depicted specific national regions, became popular through artists such as Grant Wood and Edward Hopper. Artists, writers and musicians were paid to create. Visual artists had complete freedom over their subject matter and medium unless they were being commissioned to create a mural. Divisions within the Project One included a teaching project which employed artists to teach classes at neighborhood houses or community centers. Over two million students attended W.P.A. art classes during the eight years of the program.
In the 1940 ‘s when the W.P.A. programs ended, thousands of pieces of art were warehoused, lost or sold. The United States government is currently in the process of trying to retrieve works created through WPA programs. Many of the murals that had been painted in public libraries, hospitals, post offices, or other public buildings, were painted over or demolished. Some work still remains such as Gutzon Borglum ‘s iconic national sculpture at Mt. Rushmore. Twenty-five years after the WPA ended, the National Endowment for the Arts was created to continue to support and encourage artistic development and cultivate our national culture.
As important as it was to support the arts during the worst financial crisis in American history, it is equally as important to do so now. One of the major factors in the development of creating a “national unity” during the Depression was to prevent a sense of disenfranchisement and despair in the youth during that time. It was essential to instill a sense of hope in the upcoming generation, so that they would believe they could attain a quality life. It is for this very same reason that we need to keep the arts alive and healthy today in classrooms, community centers, businesses and industry. It is the arts that provides our youth and our people with a venue for creative contribution; a way to make sense of a world that has become increasingly complex and difficult. Our art is our way. Technology and innovation have their place, but they are not what esteems us as a society. It is the arts that have been our cultural heritage and will serve as our legacy to the generations of tomorrow.