National Review

Artists on the Dole
National Review

Lasting only from December 1933 until June 1934, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) temporarily put “unemployed” artists to work decorating public buildings and civic spaces across the country. Over its seven-month existence, the program employed 3,700 artists, spent $1,312,000, and generated some 15,000 works of art before being folded into the Emergency Work Relief Program.

“1934: A New Deal for Artists” displays 56 of the PWAP’s products in honor of the 75th anniversary of the program — which conveniently coincides with the latest round of economic troubles (“the worst since the Great Depression”) and the Obama administration’s massive federal intervention.

The artists represented in the exhibition — who were largely unknown before the PWAP began and mostly remained so after it ended — were relative neophytes; some of them were actually amateurs. Accordingly, the collection, which depicts their vision of Depression-era American life — bleak urban scenes and rural landscapes, workers, factories, farms, and so forth — is low on originality.

“1934: A New Deal for Artists” was likely planned and staged to show the wonderful things that occur when the federal government gets into the art business — or any business. But instead of making a convincing argument that American artistry benefited from partnering with Washington, the show inadvertently makes the case that federally subsidized art — like so many government products — tends to be depressing, joyless, unoriginal, and extremely ideological.