Friday, July 15, 2016

A Federal Project

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Various posters
created for the WPA
Federal Art Project

I always get nervous when the Federal government decides to get involved in my life. I get even more nervous when the intrusion involves art.

There are plenty of federally-funded arts programs kicking around today. If an artist feels the need to get help, say, in a public project involving education and art, chances are there are funds lurking behind a ream of paperwork to make the idea a reality. Of course, chances are you will also be forced to be inclusive to a fault, and be supportive of ideologies and agendas that would otherwise annoy the heck out of you. That’s Federal government for you.

Once upon a time, however, there was a massive project created by Uncle Sam to shore up the art community when buying bread was trouble enough, let alone considering art for the wall. During the Great Depression, the WPA created the Federal Art Project. The program ran from 1935-1943. Its uncreative, monochromatic title hid behind it a godsend for approximately 10,000 artists and artisans across the U.S., providing them with work, commissions, and the encouragement that someone actually cared for their interests during the leanest of times.

In spite of the program being designed by the Federal government, there were very few strings attached. There was no stipulation on style or approach. Abstract art, though not yet economically attractive to most artists, and therefore somewhat rare, was as permissible as representational art. Browsing through examples from the project, it’s easy to see influence from the Arts and Crafts movement, regionalists, ala Thomas Hart Benton, and even Mexican muralists.

Where did this artwork find itself? Everywhere. School hallways suddenly sprouted murals, painted by funded artists. Zoo posters, travel posters, health posters all showcased the talent of project artists. Pieces destined for government spaces were created by the same.

The project employed so many artists that some familiar, artsy-fartsy names ended up on the roster years before they made names for themselves. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joseph Stella, Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson, and even, hmm, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera all benefited from the Federal Art Project. That's Federal government for you.

For my part, I enjoy the flavor of pieces that had little to do with future movers and shakers in the art world. The pieces were created during a time that was less hip and more Howdy Doody in spirit, and that is what makes the artwork so genuine and charming. Then again, perhaps the “retro” label will make them even more attractive than they already are.

“The Bauxite Mines” Mural by Julius Woeltz. 1942. (U.S. Post Office, Benton, Arkansas)

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