As you will have gathered from some of my previous posts (like this one and this one) and from my radio silence in the last few days: I am very busy writing a chapter – two actually – about Roosevelt’s and later agents’ memory-making during and about the New Deal.
The New Deal was Roosevelt’s domestic collection of programs to battle the economic, financial and social crisis during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It encompassed an extremely wide range of programs, but particularly a number of programs that created work for the nearly 25% of Americans who were unemployed. Many of the concrete products of these programs remain visible in the American landscape, in the shape of infrastructure (roads, bridges, electric power plants) and public buildings (post offices, schools). The New Deal also included programs to provide work projects for unemployed artists and writers (creative writers, but also journalists, academics). One popular kind of artwork that the New Deal remains famous for is the post office mural. New Deal agencies like the Federal Art Project and the Fine Art Section commissioned thousands of mural paintings between 1933 and 1942. Many political leaders remain associated with particularly impressive buildings they have created, and the New Deal with its huge scope and nationwide presence left an enormous mark on the American landscape. While few of those New Deal buildings and artworks explicitly portray Roosevelt or refer to him the association remains inescapable. None of the many artists in the New Deal’s service were explicitly (or implicitly) asked to blow Roosevelt’s trumpet, but the government as patron of course exerted influence on the artistic products.
Most evidence of how this worked precisely is textual. However, to give an impression of what kind of architecture and art the New Deal programs typically produced, I would like to close-read some of these buildings and post office murals. Not something I have much experience with, so perhaps you can help? What strikes me so far is that many of these paintings portray historical scenes or nostalgic images of an America that may have existed in cultural memory more than in real life. Means of transport, people and rural and industrial landscapes seem to be favored, as well as a kind of style that reminds me of social realism. The buildings are consistently referred to as neocolonial (red brick, small windows?), but are also very different from each other. If you have other, more sophisticated views on a particular painting/building, please let me know! Thanks in any case for thinking about it!
“Neo-colonial style” New Deal Post Offices in Venice (California), Athens (Pennsylvania) and Blackshear (Georgia)