When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, he saw a nation reeling from “a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” but contended that “the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself.” With a third of the nation unemployed and the gross domestic economic output also shrunk by a third, voters had given FDR and his Democratic Party a mandate: do something, fast. The New Deal, a bundle of federal agencies and programs, was the name for FDR’s plan. Based both on the ideas of his “brains trust” of advisors and his own talent for innovation, the New Deal failed to lift the country out of the Great Depression on its own. But it provided relief and hope to millions of Americans when both were in short supply. The New Deal recognized a wide variety of work as worthy of support, including that performed by artists and writers. And it funded educational programs and commissioned art that took culture to the people with images and stories that portrayed those people—the Common Man—as the heart of American democracy.
The Orange County Great Park Gallery in Irvine will be hosting Federal Art Project: American Design, curated by yours truly from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Collection. This exhibition features graphic art produced in support of New Deal initiatives. Bold, colorful, and direct, the posters advertised the activity and energy of a government determined to stare down “fear itself.”
Americans have always argued among themselves about how powerful they want their federal government to be. In the 1930s, the demand for active governance meant that for the first time, the United States supported the arts as a national enterprise. The New Deal always had its share of critics—more as the 1930s wore on—but its bold break with tradition makes the Depression era one of the most intriguing in U.S. history. At the same time, federal sponsorship of art signaled aesthetic retrenchment—a pulling away from modernist trends that had first unsettled and then inspired artists during the previous two decades. But this view has its limits. The Federal Art Project posters are indeed representational, speaking clearly to the Common Man, and yet I find their bold lines and colors and intriguing use of planes projecting an artistic exuberance that defies the Depression itself. Just as 1930s streamline moderne and art deco vaulted American design into a bold future, these posters signaled an optimism in the face of despair that is as unmistakable as Dorothy’s emergence from sepia into Technicolor in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. I hope you enjoy them and consider how the Federal Art Project might speak to our own times. The opening is December 2, 2018, from 1-3. The exhibition is up until February 10, 2019.