Privatizing the Commons: The Commodification of New Deal Public Art
By Lincoln Cushing January 6, 2009
Privatizing the Commons: The Commodification of New Deal Public Art
By Lincoln Cushing January 6, 2009
Privatizing the Commons: The Commodification of New Deal Public Art
By Lincoln Cushing January 6, 2009

With the United States economy spiraling down the drain, there's been a renewed interest in the New Deal projects of the 1930s and 1940s as potential models of how to once again make big government good government.

Poster by Richard Halls, New York City WPA Federal Art Project, 1937.

Among the various campaigns of that period, several involved the cultural sphere and resulted in a dramatic change in the nature of the arts in this country. Patronage largesse from nobility or the church has historically fueled the production of fine art, with the subject and medium tailored to suit the donor. The deliberately public nature of WPA was a grand experiment, not just in putting artists to work, but in the democratization of the arts themselves. Fine artists worked alongside communities all over the country, reimaging the iconography of the egalitarian principles that this country believes it was founded upon. The process was participatory and inclusive, the results free to the public.

The main arts agency during this period was the Federal Art Project (FAP), a program within the Works Progress Administration that lasted from 1935 to 1943. The primary goal of the FAP was to provide jobs for unemployed artists. Work done by the WPA artists was available for allocation to tax-supported and partially tax-supported institutions. Each state had its own director and administrative staff. This was a relief program and 90 percent (later 75 percent) of the artists had to come from the relief rolls.

The works not only explored new subjects—“social viewpoint” art was formally given public prominence—they adopted new techniques. Printmaking, and particularly screenprinting, became accepted by fine artists. Prior to the FAP, screenprinting had been an obscure commercial art form. But in 1939 the Silk Screen Unit of WPA/FAP was created to promote public interest in this new medium. New York artist and FAP activist Elizabeth Olds became a passionate advocate:

Since Currier and Ives there has been no comparable development…The mass production capacity of these multiple original works of art in color, with their unique artistic qualities as pictures… requires a new exhibition and distribution program in order that this Democratic Art may be made available to a large audience and buying public. (excerpted from Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York)

“Peligro (Danger),” screenprint, circa 1946, Irene Delano.

Many communities can trace their art roots to FAP/WPA. This includes Puerto Rico, which has a rich printmaking tradition born of this period. This public health poster was done by Irene Delano, founder of the Graphic Arts Workshop of the Puerto Rico's Public Parks and Recreation Commission. Another director at the time was Edwin Rosskam, who had previously worked in a similar program under the WPA's Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information.

One venue for public art was the new Post Office facilities being built by the U.S. Department of Treasury. Postal murals and sculpture were produced under the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. They commissioned approximately 1,200 murals and 300 sculptures between 1934 and 1943. About 1,000 murals and 200 sculptures remain in postal facilities today.

So, what has happened to all of this wonderful art, paid for in full by tax dollars?

Well, some of it is freely accessible. The Library of Congress has produced a remarkable on-line access tool, “By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943,” which offers free high-resolution images of over 900 original posters. Of the 2,000 WPA posters known to exist, the Library of Congress's collection is the largest. These striking silkscreen, lithograph and woodcut posters were designed to publicize health and safety programs; cultural programs including art exhibitions, theatrical and musical performances; travel and tourism; educational programs; and community activities in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Printers making serigraph posters for New York City WPA Federal Art Project, 1940. (National Archives)

In an effort to deepen this archive, the WPA Living Archive was formed to take on the task of searching for and identifying posters not already held at the Library of Congress. The group claims that it has already doubled the number of posters thought to exist. (Although it was due to launch by September 2008, the archive is not yet available online.)

But much of the WPA art has become commodified and is at best a profit center, at worst raw material for private speculation.

A flood of products based on WPA imagery is now available, most of it simply in the form of digital reproductions. One notable exception is Ranger Doug's Enterprises, run by former Parks Service employees, offering high-quality screenprints—both original WPA designs and new ones—on public parks themes. They also donate part of their sales to WPA interpretive programs.

Although the graphic images themselves, having been commissioned with public funds, are in the public domain, the prints are worth quite a bit of money on the art market.

WPA posters on auction at the Swann Galleries, in New York: (from left) “Wash Day,” Lester Beall, 1937 (estimate $20,000-30,000); “Frontiers of American Art” exhibition poster, designer unknown, 1939 (estimate $4,000-6,000).

Additionally, the images, in part due to their ready availability through the Library of Congress site, have become free fodder for designers. When such works are used without attribution, we disrespect our community and contribute to our own visual illiteracy. Such generic appropriation is common, from poster and stencil artist Shepard Fairey (see his “Greetings from Iraq”) to a recent illustration in The New York Times Sunday Book Review.

 (Left) Illustration by Chris Gash, New York Times Sunday Book Review, 2008; (right) poster by Harry Herzog, NY FAP, circa 1937.

And that venerable public institution, the United States Post Office, is now a “quasi-governmental agency.” All of those murals? Taking reproduction-quality photos is prohibited without prior arrangement, and even though the images should be in the public domain, they are not. All uses require filling out an application and paying a $25 fee; commercial uses are charged a sliding scale royalty.

We all benefited from the WPA/FAP. I myself was lucky enough to get work through CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Assistance) in 1979, the tiny “ghost of WPA” that was the lifeblood of many community arts groups until axed by Reagan. Perhaps it's time to bring something like that back. But until then, let's honor the “public” in public art and resist commodifying these blossoms of cultural expression.

Tags Article Voice