The Topic

By whimsicalmama
4 Nov 2018

Government's Impact on American Culture


open this discussion with reference, not only to the brewing ire on the left for the defunding of the NEA but also to this news article I happened on in researching this thread. It is dated 2009 just after Obama’s inauguration and it pleads for Obama to establish a program in the fashion of the WPA to transfer the nation’s wealth to the artists who cannot seem to make a living for themselves in today’s markets.

We now have several generations of artists/faculty/grant recipients/perpetual students who actually believe that it is the concern of the government to make art happen.


his struck me that we have transformed the world of American art since the great depression from one of independent artists making their way in the private market, to a changed ethos that somehow it is big government’s duty to pay for the care and feeding of artists. The first mistake was the WPA and the idea that government should select the art of the nation. The second mistake was the repeat of that mistake with the creation of the NEA and NEH.

The Lantern Bearers, 1910.
--- Maxfield Parrish

We now have several generations of artists/faculty/grant recipients/perpetual students who actually believe that it is the concern of the government to make art happen. They have suckled at the government teat since the 30’s. The concept of art having meaning and value beyond the bubble of their inclusive and biased world is incomprehensible to them. The world of art sales is a large system of selling these products by claiming their heritage and worth by virtue of having someone claim their value and worth.

Madame X
--- John Singer Sargent,1884

That is not to say that there is not inherent value in what was the outcome of this program, but the swing from privately funded art to government support was significant just as the swing from private charities to the welfare state and has caused a change in values within our culture.

I have many samples of both the works of the artists on the WPA roles and also of our inherent original art that was developing that expressed the American ethos as it existed concurrently with the influence of European concepts of modern art and transitioning cultural values from Europe. I will offer them up spaced out so as to not overwhelm the thread with images.

"Threshing Wheat” (1938-1939)
--- Thomas Hart Benton

With the influx of Europeans into America at the turn of the previous century, those involved in the arts brought with them an essentially different vision of art based partly on their experiences before leaving their European homelands, and also their European ethos was more steeped in the rising socialism and social justice. Many were avowed Marxist and at least one had their work removed from a public building when they refused to sign a loyalty oath.

An Indian Paradise (Green River, Wyoming) 1911
--- Thomas Moran


America was their new homeland but even then they were not interested in assimilating into the current American artistic or social culture, but were more concerned with ‘transforming’ it with social justice causes express through their art.
There was a heavy presence of eastern Europeans in those newly arrived and this stands to reason what with the turmoil in that part of the world. Others were women, blacks and immigrants arriving on the west coast. Many identified with Marxism, socialism, workers movements and other social advocacy groups.
Since being new to the nation or usually existing on the outside of the art world of the time, many would not have made the contacts to survive in a now decimated art market and were willing to take the work offered through the WPA.
Those already sympathetic to the appeal of socialism saw the proof of the evils of capitalism in the despair of the 30’s and much of that worldview was present in the works they produced through these programs. There is a definitely different tone to this work that goes beyond just the general despair of the times. Keep in mind that Hollywood was being requested to create a lighter more positive mood via their movies. This is when all those Fred Astaire happy dancing movies were being made just as an example.

Stone City Iowa - 1930
--- Grant Wood


hat we see in most of the works of these WPA artists is the theme of the value of the common worker, which is a good thing, but there is a dark undertone to it if you look at many of the murals, as if these workers were suffering through this depression singularly because the evils of capitalism. The undercurrent of social justice runs through much of the WPA works and even more in the works that produced after the end of the program.

When you compare it with the positive ‘american exceptionalism’ world view that can be seen in the original American art already in existence, you can feel the change of vision completely.

U.S. Navy And What it Offers
--- Joseph Christian Leyendecker 1917

When I began following the careers of these artists post WPA it appears there were some whose participation in the arts ended with the program, a few very talented ones moved on to successful private work but the majority were either already well established within the nexus of the Art Institute of Chicago,

The Chicago Art Student League, The NY Art Student League, The American Artists School and other such progressive arts associations and found employment with either these institutions, universities, or other such progressive foundations. It appears that it was a rather inclusive association of artists with similar artistic and world views. The end result of this is a preponderance of this art ethos transforming what had been, until this time, an independent and oppositional nascent art ethos of American Art.

Addendum: Paintings and Artists before WPA:

On the Southern Plains ... 1907
--- Frederic Remington

Snap the Whip 1872
--- Winslow Homer

Looking Up the Yosemite Valley 1863-75
--- Albert Bierstadt

Christmas Time , 1864
--- Eastman Johnson

Kindred Spirits 1849
--- Asher Durand

Lackawanna Valley 1855
--- George Inness

Dance of the Haymakers, 1845
--- William Sidney Mount

Artists who were the WPA workers:

Daniel Celentano, Festival, 1934

Gottlieb, Harry (1895-1992) - 1934 Filling the Ice House

Leon Bibel Exiled 1939

Lily Furedi Going to Work 1934

Rancho de Vallecitos, c.1920
--- Jozef Bakos