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Art and Images in Psychiatry
May 2012


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(5):445. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.104

One hundred years from now my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief. —Franklin D. Roosevelt to Henry Morgenthau Jr1(p13)

The real success . . . of aid to the creative ones among us, is in . . . what that does to the nation's mind . . . to coax the soul of America back to life. —Gutzon Borglum to Harry Hopkins, 19332(p21)

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed office as President of the United States on March 4, 1933, nearly a quarter of the nation's workforce, almost 13 million people, were out of work and had no hope of finding work. In some parts of the country, fully half of the workforce could not find jobs. Factories were idle and farmers' fields were plowed under. In New York City, the suicide rate rose from 13.7 per 100 000 in 1926 to 21.3 per 100 000 in 1932; the rate was 17.4 per 100 000 nationally.1(p15)

Ben Shahn (1898-1969). Unemployment, 1938. Tempera on paper. 34.6 × 42.3 cm. Private collection. Photo credit © Christie's Images, Bridgeman Art Library, New York, NY. Cover art © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

During his first 100 days, President Roosevelt established a “New Deal” that soon provided work for Americans. On March 21, 1933, he proposed the Emergency Conservation Work Act, widely known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. It became the most popular experiment of the New Deal, eventually employing more than 3 million people. Soon afterwards, there was a New Deal for artists too. Artist George Biddle had proposed the art project to the president. Biddle, inspired by the Mexican mural movement's vision of a socially conscious public art, had studied painting with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.3(p42,43)

The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), initiated in December 1933, funded artists to portray the American scene and produced 15 600 works of art.4 The 1935 Works Progress Administration (WPA) included the Federal Arts Project that employed more than 5000 artists who produced more than 200 000 works of art, many in public buildings. Other artists worked in community centers or taught art.

In 1937, photographers were employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). More than 80 000 documentary photographs were taken, showing the rest of the country the grinding poverty in rural America. The Federal Writers' Project allowed writers to provide first-person accounts of American life as it was lived in those trying times. The Federal Theater Project produced local and regional theater.

For President Roosevelt, the mission was to give Americans access to an abundant cultural life in the midst of hardship. Overall, the programs provided extraordinary evidence of American creativity. Yet the arts projects also sparked controversy. Some politicians believed these programs to be wasteful propaganda and wanted them ended. They objected to the New Deal social goals on political grounds.

Social realism refers to realistic works of art focused on the lives of the poor and deprived and was a pictorial criticism of the social environment that produced such deprivation during the Depression. In contrast, socialist realism,5 art as propaganda, practiced in the Soviet Union, China, and fascist countries, glorified the state and its leader and showed happy and contented workers.

Many politically active artists, intrigued by federal support for social realist art, joined the Depression-era arts programs. One of the most prominent was Ben Shahn (1898-1969), muralist, painter, and photographer. Shahn6 had come to national attention for his paintings about the trial, conviction, and execution of anarchists Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a cause célèbre at that time. Those paintings and Shahn's passion about the plight of unemployed people led Diego Rivera to hire Shahn as his assistant in early 1933, when Rivera received a commission to paint a mural for the Radio Corporation of America building in New York City.7,8 Shahn obliged Rivera by providing social realist photographs as models for the mural. One Rivera incorporated into the mural; it illustrated the maltreatment of workers by mounted police beating unarmed Depression protestors on nearby Wall Street; juxtaposing the abused protesters with debauched society ladies. Later, Shahn was adamant that Rivera not relent when Nelson Rockefeller asked him to remove his controversial portrait of Lenin from the mural.9 It was Shahn who penned Rivera's response to Nelson Rockefeller that included the fateful phrase that Rivera would rather see his mural destroyed than modified in any way.9

Shahn's painting Unemployment (cover), poignantly illustrates his social realist approach. Shahn depicts 6 men, down on their luck and unemployed, who stare out at the viewer. They stand upright trying to muster some dignity despite their sense of hopelessness. Some show desperation and fear, but others seem defiant. One man stands defiantly with his arms folded across his chest. Another man has a makeshift patch over his eye, making him appear more vulnerable. These men, coming from different walks of life and different social and economic backgrounds, are all in the same predicament, all victims of the Great Depression.

Throughout the Depression, Shahn's social activism never wavered. He further documented the Depression in his FSA photography8 and post office murals. The WPA ended, as did high rates of unemployment, with the onset of World War II and was largely forgotten. Its art legacy is the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent public institution established in 1965. In the end, the WPA's legacy is embodied in the New Deal's fundamental wisdom to treat unemployed people as a resource, not as statistics or as a commodity.4(p530) It is that legacy Ben Shahn and his fellow artists firmly embraced.

Wagner AP. 1934: A New Deal for Artists. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Art Museum; 2009
Kennedy RG. When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy. New York, NY; Rizzoli; 2009
Dickerman L, Indych-Lopez A. Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art; 2011
Taylor N. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA. New York, NY: Bantam Dell; 2008
Harris JC. Andrei Rublev's Old Testament Trinity.  Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(12):119322147840PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Anreus A. Ben Shahn and the Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. Jersey City, NJ: Jersey City Museum; 2001
Okrent D. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2003
Greenfeld H. Ben Shahn: An Artist's Life. New York, NY: Random House; 1998
Harris JC. Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads.  Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(4):337-338Google ScholarCrossref