Many of the images we have seen so far reflect contemporary use of visual images to call viewers to action. Documentary photography often served the purpose of exposé, confronting viewers with images of poverty as an appeal to conscience. Graphics, prints, and posters too were often designed and distributed to encourage change or present the positive effects of New Deal programs. Radical artists, writers, and playwrights rejected the modernist ideal of “art for art’s sake” to use their creative imaginations for political purposes-to use “art as a weapon” in political struggles.
At the same time, New Deal era visual culture also includes a commitment to use art to reassure people in an anxious time and to place before them images of hope and solace. Much of the public art of the period did exactly that, in particular the work of the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, which commissioned murals and sculpture for public buildings. Section projects were most commonly small town post offices, but also included court houses and the monumental public buildings that housed the great expansion of government workers who administered New Deal programs. The Federal Art Project, part of the Works Progress Administration, also supervised public art in municipal auditoriums, public schools, veterans’ hospitals, prisons, and city halls built during the period.
Post office murals and sculpture often relied on common conventions of composition. What do these three have in common? What kind of work is shown? New Deal era depictions of paid work usually focus on male figures, often in poses emphasizing strength and skill. Women workers are much less commonly represented, and these images seldom show men and women working together.
Many examples of public art and theater reveal artists and playwrights in search of a usable past-exploring historical themes that might offer reassurance and encouragement. One very common subject is the American frontier.
Notice the similar compositions in these representations of frontier life, and the way men’s and women’s activities are shown. The frontier has rich and enduring associations for American popular culture. What do you think New Deal era viewers might have found inspiring in this history?
The Civil War was another common historical subject. With its story of national division, enduring bitterness, and staggering bloodshed, this might seem an unlikely choice. As you view these images, consider what themes are suggested in them.
What in the figure’s pose suggests these qualities? How does this youthful Lincoln compare with more well known representations?
A statue of young Lincoln, by Louis Slobodkin and also done during this period, in the Department of the Interior. A copy was later made by the Justice and Law Enforcement Center of the City-County Building in Lincoln, Nebraska, where it is called “The Rail Joiner.” Slobodkin’s figure also stands with one knee bent and head tilted down.
What does this convey?
Compare the figure in this Federal Theatre Project poster to the one in Hansen’s sculpture.
Why do you think the young Lincoln might have appealed to Americans of the 1930s?