During the Great Depression, artists and intellectuals—like others who were down-and-out—turned to the federal government to demand work and a livable wage. In a brief flowering of public art, the New Deal funded thousands of needy and meritorious artists to decorate, document, entertain, and teach the nation. Working through Federal Project Number One under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, which included the Federal Theatre Project, Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, and Federal Writers’ Project as well as the Treasury’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (renamed the Section of Fine Arts) and Roy Stryker’s Historical Section, which operated under the Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration, and then the Office of War Information, the artists produced hundreds of thousands of works of art to entertain millions of Americans. The arts projects democratized the artists receiving public support, the citizens creating and experiencing original works of art, creative styles, and artistic subjects. They drew attention to previously neglected publics, including formerly enslaved people, Native Americans, migrant workers, and the working class. But art administrators also limited artists’ autonomy. They rejected nudity and overt politics, maintained racial segregation, and upheld racial and gendered discrimination. Political realignment, budget cuts, decentralization, congressional hearings, and loyalty oaths further constrained artists. In 1939, Congress terminated the Theatre Project and reorganized the other art projects. Congress defunded most of the remaining art projects in 1943, almost two years after the United States entered World War II. Despite a relatively short life and enduring controversies, New Deal art remains an important example of how robust public patronage can stimulate the arts and society.
Wendy L. Wall
The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state. The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy. Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”