December 8, 2023
You all are in trouble, because I am home tonight from ten weeks on the road and am taking the night for myself, writing about one of the Very Cool Things I learned in my travels. I expect there will be more stories along these lines in the next several weeks.
Ninety years ago today, on Friday, December 8, 1933, in the first year of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, the Advisory Committee to the Treasury on Fine Arts met for four hours in Washington, D.C., with museum directors from all over the country and leaders from the art world. For the past nine months, the administration had been building a “New Deal” for the American people, using the government to help ordinary Americans in the midst of the Great Depression.
Together with the Democrats in Congress, the administration had launched the Civilian Conservation Corps that put young men to work planting trees, fighting fires, and maintaining wilderness trails. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided work and cash relief for unemployed workers; the Agricultural Adjustment Administration boosted farm prices by reducing agricultural surpluses, while the Farm Credit Act made it easier for farmers to borrow. The Civil Works Administration put more than 4 million unemployed Americans to work building 44,000 miles of new roads, 1,000 miles of new water mains, and building or improving 4,000 schools.
Now it was time to help artists. Inspired by the 1920s public art movement in Mexico in which young artists were paid to decorate public buildings, FDR’s former classmate George Biddle suggested to the president that artists could be hired to “paint murals depicting the social ideals of the new administration and contemporary life on the walls of public buildings.”
This idea dovetailed with the goal of the administration to tap into the skills of ordinary Americans in rebuilding the country by making sure people had work. After all, FERA administrator Harry L. Hopkins said, artists needed “to eat just like other people.” He promised $1,039,000 to be disbursed by the Treasury “for the purpose of alleviating the distress of the American artists” while decorating public property with world-class art.
At the Washington, D.C., meeting, the attendees discussed how to “carry…forward the world of encouraging the fine arts as a function of the Federal Government.” Their first speaker was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who “expressed her sympathy with the idea of the Government’s employing artists,” and all the other speakers followed suit. The following Monday, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) opened its doors, and artists lined up outside government offices to apply. By Saturday, December 16, artists were receiving checks. When the project ended four months later, 3,749 artists had been on the payroll, producing more than 15,000 paintings, sculptures, and public murals.
The pilot project for the PWAP was Coit Tower in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood, located in the city’s Pioneer Park. The 210-foot Art Deco tower of unpainted concrete had been completed and dedicated in honor of volunteer firefighters on October 8, 1933 (perhaps not coincidentally, the date of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871). When the building was finished, it had 3,691 square feet of blank concrete wall space.
By January 1934, thanks to the PWAP, twenty-six San Francisco artists and nineteen of their assistants were transforming that blank space into frescoes and murals depicting California life. Several of the artists had worked in Mexico with muralist Diego Rivera as part of the socially conscious mural movement of 1920s Mexico and adopted his techniques, creating frescoes in which the colors became part of the wall as they dried. To keep the colors at Coit Tower uniform, one artist-assistant ground the color pigments for all the different frescoes.
But while they admired Rivera’s art, the New Deal artists, for the most part, focused not on revolution, as he did, but on the possibilities of the country’s new approach to government. Roosevelt was backing artists, and they backed him, painting not about revolution but about restoring healthy social and economic conditions in the United States.
By the time the PWAP got under way, the exciting artistic experiments of the early twentieth century that had brought Picasso’s cubism, for example, had begun to seem foreign and alienating, and artists had begun to turn toward representational art in a national style. The government’s requirement that the public art be about the “American scene” in American style for American people built on that shift. Artists in the PWAP painted either as “Regionalists,” who painted rural America, or “Social Realists,” who painted the cities. The Regionalists tended to celebrate the nation, while Social Realists—most of whom came from New York City—tended to critique it, but both groups found intelligence, power, and beauty in the ordinary people and the ordinary scenes they painted.
Coit Tower showed San Francisco’s people: striking workers, farmers, cowboys, travelers reading newspapers, news stenographers, chauffeurs, a rich man being held up at gunpoint, car accidents. People of color and women were underrepresented but not entirely ignored in this celebration of the possibilities of American life under the administration's new policies (one mural had an oil can in a corner to illustrate the government oiling the machinery of the economy for the mechanics in the next panel).
The murals in Coit Tower, and the PWAP that supported them, were such a roaring success that the federal government would shortly launch four more projects to fund artists (including writers), most famously under the Works Progress Administration that operated from 1935 to 1942. Although to a modern eye, many of the fine artists’ depictions of Indigenous Americans and racial and gender minorities are eye-poppingly racist, these colorful presentations of the lives and histories of ordinary Americans that decorated libraries, schools, courthouses, bathhouses, and post offices, honoring community and hard work—and, in the edgier paintings, jabbing at stockbrokers, bankers, and industrialists—celebrated a hopeful, new, progressive America.
For many Americans, who had never had access to fine art and were astonished to see fine art in local buildings, the medium was its own message: they realized their neighbors had talent they had never imagined.
President Joe Biden has deliberately echoed FDR’s policies of the New Deal in his economic program, promising to build the economy from the middle out and the bottom up, even as Republicans have insisted the only way to build the economy is to concentrate wealth on the “supply side” by cutting taxes. Today, there was more evidence that Biden’s policies are paying off for ordinary Americans. The November jobs report showed the economy added almost 200,000 more jobs in November, making the total since Biden took office more than 14 million, while the unemployment rate has stayed below 4% for 22 months in a row and wage growth is strong.
As Harvard professor Jason Furman notes, the U.S. is now 2 million jobs and 2 million employed above the pre-pandemic projections of the Congressional Budget Office. Dan Shafer of The Recombobulation Area observed, “If these numbers were happening during a Republican presidency, the usual business community folks would be celebrating in the streets. But when there’s a D next to the president’s name, it’s tumbleweeds.” Today, on the Fox News Channel, personality Maria Bartiromo noted that “the economy is a lot stronger than anyone understands.”
The president also echoed the New Deal’s promotion of internal improvements today when he announced an investment of $8.2 billion in new funding for ten major passenger rail projects across the country to deliver the nation’s first high-speed rail projects. High-speed rail between California and Nevada, serving more than 11 million people annually; Los Angeles and San Francisco; and the Eastern Corridor, will create tens of thousands of union jobs, build communities, and promote climate-friendly transportation options.
In a speech in Las Vegas, Nevada, announcing the rail plan, Biden called out his predecessor, who “always talked about infrastructure week. Four years of infrastructure week, but it failed. He failed,” Biden said. “On my watch, instead of having infrastructure week, America is having infrastructure decade.”
“Trump just talks the talk. We walk the walk,” he said. “Look. He likes to say America is a failing nation. Frankly, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I see shovels in the ground, cranes in the sky, people hard at work rebuilding America together.”
[Image of Coit Tower painting of striking workers, taken while I was in San Francisco.]
Steven M. Gelber, “Working to Prosperity: California’s New Deal Murals,” California History 58 (Summer 1979): 98-127.