The American Artist: 1935
DURING the past decade the American artist has been fascinated by his own destiny. He has felt himself the champion in a fight against the vested interests of society; he has become the spokesman for a new order. Far more than in the statements of the contemporary pamphleteer, we find in his painting a spirit of prophecy, an enthusiasm for the Golden Day when art will be acknowledged as an unquestioned measure of public wealth — a universal medium of exchange, not altogether unlike gold, upon which may be built a credit structure for marketing the cultural values of our civilization, just as any other necessity of life.
If he has been carried away with his enthusiasm for a new Utopia, the artist is no less sincere because of it. Indeed, he has everything to gain in pushing this destiny to its fulfillment. Certainly he has nothing he can lose. The depression, which he predicted long before the learned college professors had the courage to do so, has given him assurance, for he has seen his ancient enemy in the market place reduced to his own economic insecurity. And, having felt the urge of want and even hunger very much longer than the average citizen, he has developed a habit of thought which is, in a sense, becoming academic. He is able to reason with detachment and to establish codes and patterns, not of artistic technique, but of artistic content and subject matter. He has developed an iconography of the American scene based upon social injustice and agrarian revolt. He is pushing the imagination away from the squalor of the cities to the replenishing verdure of our landscape, just as the Hudson River School protested against the Industrial Revolution and the panic of 1837.
It is this taste for preaching and for saving the world before he saves his own skin that distinguishes the artist of America from the modernist of Europe. The American, to be sure, acknowledges the realities of the present, but sees a hope for the future. He is as young as his art and has discovered a new formula for escape. But the European, alas, sees that there is no hope. The very forces of disaster that are rushing him headlong into another war have defeated the powers of creation that have given him a tradition of such technical perfection. Faced with military conflict and with social and economic anarchy, he has been treading water in the deep sea of scientific and æsthetic investigation.
The technical superiority of European painting, its cleverness, and its sophistication were the qualities that drove American workmanship from the market in the prosperity of the twenties. Only those survived who had financial independence or who imitated the successful School of Paris. But the interest that was aroused in art by French propaganda turned against Europe with the crash of the stock market in 1929. It was, perhaps, illtempered of us to remember the unpaid debts. Paris restaurants and luxuries became increasingly expensive, and French manners, never too good when the franc was at four cents, became intolerable with the devaluation of the dollar. The American collector began to patronize home industry; but he wanted an article as truly American as his former enthusiasms were French. There was a flurry of American painting shows in New York. The artist, who had been asked to tea parties for ten years simply in order to explain his hostess’s Picassos, was admitted on his own footing. He became the rage for about one season.
But of course the American painter did not speak French and he was not very handy with a teacup. When he made love he was a touch too serious, and, more often than not, when he came to town he had his wife along with him. And it is n’t nearly so much fun to buy a picture of an American farmyard (just like the one you came from yourself and hope your friends won’t find it out) as it is to buy an abstraction by a real Parisian; particularly if you can hire a gigolo from Fifty-seventh Street to tell you all about it. American art was dropped like a hot potato, and the artist was turned over either to government relief or to the Gibson Committee.
The artist, however, had tasted blood. He was not to be let down so easily. He knew he was above the racket of the art dealers and applied himself to the task of drawing the public’s attention to the very important and real vision that he saw before him. He was ‘fed up’ with the fickle rich and knew that their interest in art was as shallow as it was silly, and that their patronage could never be relied upon. He was convinced that he had something to say, something so big and so important that it would require a bigger language to say it in than he knew. That language was mural painting. The Mexicans had learned it a few years before and there was no reason to suppose that he could not do the same thing. He dumped his easel pictures in the dealers’ closets and looked around for wall space upon which to spread his ideas.
It was a lucky strike for American art that Mr. Edward Bruce accompanied the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury to the London Economic Conference in 1933. For there Mr. Bruce (whose article, ‘Art and Democracy,’ appeared in the August 1935 Atlantic), who is not only an expert in currency matters but one of our leading painters as well, was able to lay the groundwork for government patronage of our artists. The President, upon his inauguration, had already received a letter from a mural enthusiast, George Biddle, calling attention to the government-subsidized mural school of Diego Rivera in Mexico City, and suggesting the possibilities for such a scheme in Washington. The President referred this letter to the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department, charged with all Federal buildings, and it fell into Secretary Roberts’s hands. By December of 1933 the Federal Relief Administrator, Mr. Hopkins, had made it possible for Mr. Bruce and Mr. Roberts to set up the Public Works of Art Project to give employment to approximately three thousand American artists. The project continued for six months, when artist relief was taken over by the several state agencies. Out of it has grown the permanent Bureau of Painting and Sculpture, presided over by Mr. Bruce in the Treasury Department, which supervises the selection of artists employed on all Federal Government work. Last month a further cloud of manna fell from heaven when Mr. Hopkins assigned twentyseven million dollars for the relief of artists, writers, musicians, and actors. Altogether one may estimate that about five thousand artists of all branches will be provided for this winter.
The already overburdened taxpayer may wonder at the wisdom of adding an army of artists to the public responsibility. But if one examines the accomplishment of the past two years in works of art alone the overwhelming evidence justifies the undertaking. But I am not interested in the works of art themselves. I am interested in the artist and the significance that government patronage has for him now and in the future. What is the philosophical and psychological effect upon the human material? Will it result in a more vigorous and sustained expression in ten years? These are the questions that matter, for we are dealing, after all, with art. One cannot judge these issues from a standpoint of political economy, as, for instance, one may with the ‘Quoddy project’ or the TVA. There are no yardsticks for culture, except, possibly, Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf, and political enthusiasms can have no place in their proper estimate.
When the Public Works of Art Project was initiated in New England, there was at first a general hesitation, however great their need, among artists to be included. This was attributable to a variety of reasons. There is, for instance, a tradition among the more successful painters to marry well, and, as one heard little of distress in those quarters, the better artists who needed assistance felt at first that application was an admission of failure. Out of three thousand applicants, the first quota of three hundred for New England was soon filled. The money had been appropriated by Congress for relief, and we were obliged to accept artists, irrespective of ability, in order of application. The talent was desperately poor, and those of us in the office began to think we were doing straight social service and no more.
Then our attention was drawn to Provincetown, where more than a dozen artists with national reputations, men of real attainment, were discovered in pitiable circumstances, reduced with their families to a few bags of potatoes for the winter and what odd fish they could salvage from the Portuguese fishermen. They were immediately given work in painting the history of the lighthouse services on Cape Cod. The moment it was learned that these men were working for the government, the entire point of view changed toward the project. Distinguished artists, who had sold nothing in several years and whose savings were exhausted, appeared, and they soon replaced the incompetents, who were transferred to other forms of relief work. Painters and sculptors were employed in the decoration of town halls, jails, hospitals, schoolhouses, and every kind of public building. Projects for the less talented were confined to poster campaigns for public health and similar avenues where they could do less permanent damage to the public taste.
Mr. Bruce has described how this work was carried on all over the United States, and the exhibition held at the Corcoran Gallery in May 1934 is ample proof that the government got more for its money in this experiment than it has, I believe, in any other form of public works. Be that as it may, there are certain observations which are inescapable, and chief among them is the effect that this enterprise has had on the artist’s morale. One might have feared that the assignment of specific tasks with regular hours and fixed wage scales might have interfered with his creative ability or injured his native sensibility. On the contrary, he thrived under it. He applied himself to painting or carving the American scene in his own terms. He knew where the next meal was coming from, so he was able to express himself as he chose. He did not have to imitate, as he had been doing, that last painting sold at a good price in the New York market (by someone with a slicker formula than his own). He was able to stand on his own feet, no longer crushed by isolation and uncertainty. He took his dinner pail to work and circulated among other men as an equal and as a citizen.
For the first time in our history the man in the street began to realize that the artist was a creature of his own flesh and blood, with the right to eat, and that he was not necessarily a freak or a parasite. In tiny villages of Vermont and New Hampshire, artists who had never before been included in the magic circle were invited to tilt their chairs back in the general store and swap stories with the selectmen. Maybe it was nonsense, the latter thought, and you can’t ever tell what the world is coming to; but these artistfellers were working for Uncle Sam and they guessed maybe there must be something in this art anyhow. At all events, in New England alone there have been applications by boards of selectmen, county officers, and minor officials for nearly a thousand different art projects, which are being gradually undertaken. But what is infinitely more significant is the fact that in the majority of these jobs, although the government is supplying the labor, the cost of materials and incidental expenses are borne voluntarily by the local authorities. I believe this is true of other parts of the country.
The quality of the work has been surprisingly high, and, more than that, American painting for the first time has demonstrated a regional flavor: the work in the South is unmistakably Southern; New York painting represents the urban influences of the great city; there is a salty ruggedness to the New England painting; that from the Southwest and West has the vigor of the plainsmen. Five years ago, all American painting looked like the pictures in the Carnegie International exhibition of the year before. To-day the Woodstock coterie, who for years have set the fashion for art in the New York galleries, are being given a run for their money. The work that is pouring into Washington from comparatively unknown artists in remote corners of the country is in nine cases out of ten more spontaneous and less self-conscious than the work that one sees by the élite in the larger exhibitions. It may lack their finish and polish, which are, after all, only the fruits of industry, but it is honest in workmanship and much more honestly conceived.
There is, one must admit, beside the good an appalling amount of rubbish that has been produced under government supervision. But then whitewash is still pretty cheap and extraordinarily effective. It is the penalty that one must expect to pay. Yet, even if every mural produced by the government in the past two years were to be erased to-morrow, it would be impossible to wipe out the good that this programme has done for American art. We may not see its full benefits for another ten or fifteen years, until, perhaps, the children who have been watching these very artists at their work grow up and become voters. It is these young men and women who will provide the patronage of the future to which the artist is looking forward so confidently. Theirs will be a patronage so simple and so normal that they may hardly realize they are providing it; from it may emerge the beginnings of a national and natural art — an art no longer under the domination of the neo-intellectuals of Greenwich Village.
But, however successful such government subvention of art may be, we must not look upon it as the only future of American artists. By far the greater number of our creative population must look to industry to provide a permanent means of livelihood. Of a possible five thousand artists who are now enjoying Federal support only a scant five hundred are really worthy of being professionally employed by the Bureau of Painting and Sculpture. There is no more reason, after all, for the government to employ bad artists than to employ unqualified engineers to build highways and bridges, or commission incompetent officers in its armed forces. Mr. Bruce, who was as bewildered two years ago as were all of us who gave our services on his committees, has recognized this necessity of knowing where relief should end and art begin. Thus he has opened competitions to reputable artists for government contracts. They will receive, not relief, but a reasonable and self-respecting wage. They must, however, and quite rightly, choose their assistants from the artist’s relief rolls.
There is every reason to hope that this may become a normal procedure for the future. Mural painting has been brought down in price to approximately twenty dollars per square foot, the average wall decoration costing between one and two thousand dollars. Perhaps the taxpayer may argue that this is too high, but let him reflect that in the good old days of Republican economy the Treasury Department paid well over fifty dollars per square foot. Important contracts ran into six figures. And for what? Mr. Gilbert White’s bedtime story on the fruits of abundance, veiled in cheesecloth, in the new home of the Department of Agriculture in Washington.
If a solution has been found for the five hundred or so best qualified artists of this country, the emergency problems of the vast majority still remain as desperate as they were two years ago.
This is particularly true of the artisan class, who, though they may refer to themselves with the glorious word ‘artist,’ have never worn long hair and velvet jackets, but are and have been always honest and anonymous workmen. They are the stonecutters and wood carvers employed in the building trades, plaster workers and modelers who have devoted their lives to working from architects’ drawings and making paneling, cornices, and other decorative elements that have no subject matter and little inventive quality. Not only is there to-day an almost complete cessation of activity in the building trades, but what little building there is is modernistic in design and conception. Cornices and mouldings have been eliminated; the contemporary taste demands plain wall surfaces made effective with flat color and interesting synthetic surface materials that are turned out in mass production; thus a whole category of skilled labor has been wiped out — men unfitted by disposition and training for any other means of livelihood.
Another class who have suffered terribly in the past few years are the socalled ‘commercial artists,’ illustrators, fashion designers, and advertising layout men. Their plight, again, is twofold; the magazines and daily press are carrying fewer pages of advertising than they did five years ago, because, in addition to the reduced advertising budgets of our larger industries, radio advertising has increased, according to official figures, over 65 per cent. Jazz singers, vaudeville entertainers, and dance orchestras now proclaim the facts of life to an avid public. The commercial artist is being pushed to the wall.
Here is the crux of the emergency and one to which Mr. Hopkins and his newly appointed Art Director should attend. Mr. Holger Cahill has not only an alert sympathy for minor artists, which he has demonstrated in his studies of American folk art, but a long experience with the artist’s economic status. Although of course his immediate charge is to see that both artist and artisan should have bread to eat, he should look to the future. Otherwise his portion of the twenty-seven million dollars appropriated by Congress will be devoted to just another wasteful effort to bail out the sea with a bucket.
What is needed is a programme of rehabilitation and education. It is absurd for the government to employ wood carvers and wrought-iron workers to make handmade grilles for stamp windows in our post offices, as they are now doing on relief wages, when one may buy much better looking machinemade grilles for one tenth of the cost. There should be systematic training given to these craftsmen which will enable them to be absorbed by industry as designers for machine-made products. There should be classes supervised by successful engineer-designers who have found out what industry requires, and who may thus aid in orienting this great body of intelligent and willing workers away from the path of destructive obsolescence and give them a new hope for permanent employment.
Sales charts have proved beyond doubt that a good-looking manufactured product is better received than an ugly one, and the time is not far off when every industry will have its corps of stylists and designers in its regular employ. If Mr. Hopkins wishes to build something solid for the future, let him begin here and not dribble out a dole to permit incompetent artists to paint, ad infinitum, silly little pictures of the New Deal.
No movement such as this can exist without a large and carefully organized opposition. It would not be healthy if it did. The gulf that separates those that have government relief or government commissions from those who are less fortunate is as great as that which separates the millionaire and the factory worker. We should take care that our walls are not covered with a sort of undigested Communism and sociology. The professional sourbellies of the John Reed Clubs in our large cities, and the parlor pinks in the upper intellectual brackets, who have never held anything more than a shaving brush in their lives, are firmly convinced that the world in general — and the United States in particular — owes them a living. They are devoting their lives to portraying the cause of social injustice. They have acquired a curious pseudo-European technique which they consider an international style, freed, they say, from the revolting and pampered nationalism encouraged by the government. But let no one fear that they are a determining voice in the direction of American art, because nothing is more like flat champagne than the Marxian platitude when it is encased in its gilt frame and hung on the plush-covered wall of a Fifth Avenue establishment. Their output, too, is comparatively limited, for when they are not picketing they are preaching, and when they are not preaching they are waiting in the outer offices of the relief agencies with letters of introduction from their local Congressmen.
It would seem that the immediate future of American art is to be concerned more with content than with form. Is this not inevitably so, and is it not in retrospect a characteristic of our literature as well as of our art? We are a young people with many observations and convictions that our masters in Europe, to whom we have given such ardent lip service, cannot have. Form is important, and so is technique; but, if the message is sufficiently strong, they follow as automatic corollaries. The purist who has been brought up in the liberal French tradition will not agree with this; indeed, he will be horrified at such a doctrine. But it is incontrovertibly true of the great art of the past, where content has always been more impressive than the statement.
For fifty years and more the artist has sought to provide both elements in his work. The genius has, of course, succeeded. But we are living in times of disillusion. The younger generation have found the liberalism of the post-war years as hollow as the Victorian pattern of decorum. They look to leadership, be it in Fascism, Communism, State Capitalism such as we seem headed for, or even the Church. Whichever way our civilization may take, the artist prefers to be the prophet and commentator rather than the inventor. He asks only for the patronage that may enable him to play his part as a member of a new and very exciting society.
We have all heard of the American Renaissance. It has been for nearly a century the most constant and violent threat that our artists have had to fear. The town criers are busy right now proclaiming our independence from Europe and that American art has come into its own. Mr. Thomas Craven has elected himself the Vasari of this gilded epoch, and in a recent article nominated five artists, Thomas Benton, John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, Charles Burchfield, Reginald Marsh, as the Olympians who will carry the torch of American liberty to still dizzier heights. These men are all competent and interesting painters, persons to be watched with curiosity and enthusiasm. But even Mr. Craven can hardly see here the stuff of which the great renewal of the Medici was made.
There may sometime be an American Renaissance, but none of us alive to-day will live to share in it. It will come only at the end of a century of consistent patronage — a hundred years in which the artist shall have the chance to work out this problem of his destiny. Then it may creep upon us unaware, not arrive, like a golden wedding, as a reward for constancy.