Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Art and Society

The decade of the 1930s was the worst of times which, paradoxically, tapped into some of our best American resources. Millions of unemployed were put to work building dams, bridges and tunnels. Rural electrification was undertaken along with agricultural measures yielding hybrid vegetation along with erosion and flood control.

The Works Projects Administration (W.P.A.) lasted eight years. In addition to laborious   projects concerning infra-structure, thousands of playwrights, dancers, photographers and painters were also supported.

The Federal Art Project was the visual arts arm of the program lasting from 1935-1943. During that brief time 200,000 works are said to have been produced including paintings, murals and posters. Most were representational, interpreting both the plight and hope of society. Never before or since has public art reached such significance in our history. They hung in hospitals, libraries and schools.

Some of our finest names came out of this program: Photographers Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange did enduring work. The painters included Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Romare Beardon, Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley, Louise Nevelson, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Raphael Soyer, Grant Wood, Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner and Maurice Merlin.

Our friend, Peter, invited us to the opening of his father, Maurice Merlin’s body of Depression Era work, now on exhibition at (of all places) the Huntington Library. He worked in a range of media including silkscreen, lithographs, woodcuts, posters and paintings. He captured the despair, loneliness and desolation in rural settings of the mid-west with its despoiled landscape as well as the grime and grit of urban Detroit. Yet the faces contained a certain vitality and dignity. This chapter of our heritage is recalled and revealed in the surround of Merlin’s oeuvre. We are shown fallow farms and city scenes of shuttered factories, men turned away seeking employment and picket lines.

One of the pieces shows a black woman and child with the ghostly image of a hooded Klansman. The woman was the widow of Dr. Earl Little who was murdered by the Black Legion, a paramilitary offshoot of the KKK operating in Michigan and Ohio. Dr. Little was the father of Malcolm X and the rest is history.

Extending a subsistence wage to artists nurtures an essential community for our culture and provides them with an opportunity to reach their public. Last evening we watched the documentary film, Searching for Sugar Man, about the singer Sixto Rodriguez who wrote and performed his poetic songs in the Motown of the 60s. His two albums got no traction except, unbeknownst to him, in South Africa, where his voice was an anthem for those struggling to end Apartheid. He received no royalties for four decades living in meager quarters.

There must be thousands of such artists whose success is subject to the whims of the marketplace with promotion and distribution a matter of chance. The Federal Arts Project was one brief moment in time when art and society were aligned. Of course artists require oxygen to create without any arbiter over their shoulder but we tend to ignore the power of money as an agency of suppression with its bent toward commercialism which can make or break an artist. Rodriguez’ story illustrates what a heavy price we pay in our money-based culture.

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