The Roosevelt administration saw that creating jobs was crucial to the nation’s economic recovery and vital in restoring national morale. The New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) poured funding into construction projects and other work relief programs, employing a fifth of the U.S. workforce at its peak. To document and promote these programs, the New Deal deployed the media of posters, pamphlets, newsreels, and photographs-greatly expanding the visibility of the programs to a broad American audience and, in the process, providing employment for many writers, artists, and photographers.
With the twin goals of documentation and persuasion in mind, let’s look at several types of visual media produced for certain New Deal programs.
These three posters promoting the WPA were created by artists employed by the Federal Art Project. Each presents stylized, iconographic or symbolic figures that were readily discernible to Americans in the 1930s.
Using these images in the classroom, we might first ask students if they can identify what type of labor each figure represents. What do these types of labor have in common-and what don’t they share? Why does the first poster emphasize unity: are there inherent conflicts between these types of labor that the poster is trying to resolve? Do any of these figures represent modern industrial labor-people who work in factories, on assembly lines, with advanced technology? If not, why aren’t they included? What, then, is the vision of America conveyed in these posters?
Amidst other concerns, many Americans worried about the social and psychological impact of the Depression on young people coming of age during the 1930s. With few prospects for independence or a clear vision of their own future, it was feared that demoralization would infect a generation of Americans. One response was the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed young men (and a smaller number of women) to relieve the massive unemployment among the nation’s youth while at the same time setting them to work to save America’s long-neglected and deteriorating natural environment
Although one is a drawing and the other a photograph, these two visual documents about the CCC have a number of similarities. What kind of work is each image representing? What message about the CCC is being conveyed? And how is that message being conveyed (in terms of design, the way the figures are shown, etc.)?
Photography blurs the line between visual evidence that tries to document events and circumstances and visual evidence that tries to persuade (a point well observed in Joseph Entin’s comment to my last post). To whom are these two images addressed? Do students see a different viewer response to each visual image?
Have students figure out what’s going on in this picture, which actually provides evidence for three layers of WPA funding-the construction workers themselves, the artist sketching them, and the photographer documenting both activities. Students can also observe the racial politics at work.
The New Deal’s Treasury Section of Fine Arts commissioned artists to paint murals in public buildings across the country. It renewed older legislation that provided for the use of a percentage of construction funds for decoration. In practice, this meant that most murals and sculptures commissioned under the program were modest projects designed for the hundreds of small post offices built during the period. The Section also supervised the decoration of monumental buildings that went up all over Washington, DC, to accommodate the thousands of workers employed to carry out the expanding operations of the federal government. Treasury Section projects sometimes drew conflict because of the visibility of public art. Program administrators were self-consciously committed to a democratic and accessible art; they encouraged artists to choose subjects that would present local history and contemporary activities that would represent local communities of viewers. As subsequent controversies demonstrated, this sometimes proved a fraught enterprise.
Seymour Fogel’s “Security of the Family” was part of a mural series commissioned by the Treasury Section and used in the decoration of the Social Security Administration building (now Health and Human Services). Teachers might ask students to describe the style of the figures and shapes, to think about how this mural relates to the purposes of the building it decorates, and to consider what each figure’s action contributes to the mural’s implied narrative. The mural’s portrayal of the family can be the occasion, too, for asking what’s left out of other common images of labor. Women are rarely shown except in traditional family roles-a kind of negative evidence that could open discussion of conflict over women’s paid work during the period.