New Deal Muralists: "not in harmony with existing conditions"

from: McKinzie, Richard D. The New Deal for Artists (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973)

Fletcher Martin's Mine Rescue, a mural proposed for the Kellogg, Idaho, Post Office, but rejected by local businessmen.

Edward Bruce's Section of Fine Arts labored from 1934 to 1943 at the threefold task of commissioning art which satisfied the government and public, the artists who produced it, and its own quality standard. If the unit occasionally failed in its first two objects, rarely did it in the third. The Section staff knew the kind of art it wanted, made it clear to artists, and handled the commissions in a manner that gave some control if the work went wrong. In its attempt to establish an image at once dynamic and dignified, dynamism often came to mean winning favorable publicity, and dignity came to mean avoiding bad publicity. The influence of the Section on art, then, was one of caution. Still, considering the problems of obtaining funds for decorating federal buildings and the deliberate process of acquiring the decorations, the Section placed before the nation an impressive amount of mural, sculptural, and other art.

The heart of the Section's plan for dispensing art in public buildings was the competition. Before World War II smothered it, 15,426 artists submitted 40,426 sketches in 190 competitions.[note 1] Each competition concerned decoration of a specific building chosen by the Section for its mural and sculpture spaces and the size of its financial reservation for art. Typically the Section requested "some expert" in the vicinity of the building to chair a competition committee consisting of the architect of the building and one to three people, often suggested by the Section. The amount of the prize varied since it depended on the difference between the appropriation and the actual cost, but the Section tried to obtain reservations to provide muralists about $20 per square foot and sculptors a comparably modest amount. Artists learned of the competitions from the Committee members, local newspapers, and the Section Bulletin. The competition committees, or juries, sent interested artists theme suggestions and blueprints of the building. Most competitions were "invited" (open to artists selected by the Section) or were limited to artists born or residing in a locale, state, or region. Less than 15 of the 190 were national competitions.

The same critics who demanded that art conform to architecture branded Section art "lightweight stuff," based on casual and trifling conceptions unworthy of wall space. They saw in the "banal sentimentality" of post office "illustrations" failure to conceive mural painting as a noble, scholarly art. The symbolism of antiquity, not the fads of the 1930s, made for timelessness. And they believed that important buildings demanded important art. When Treasury art went to the White House these critics protested that nothing less than acknowledged masterpieces should hang in the White House, "no painting less important, for instance, than Whistler's 'Mother.'" Presumably art in buildings in Washington and small towns across America need be relative to the importance of the agency occupying the structure. Despite these adverse judgments, most critics praised the Section for bringing art out of the studio, the museum, and the pink tea salon and bringing it into the postoffice. They approved competitions as a democratic device for breaking what one called "the stranglehold of the romantic-escape school ... on officialdom." By discouraging artists' attempts to capture eternal verities in noble allegories, they believed, the government stimulated murals more alive, easier to live with, more understandable. Still other critics supported the Section's contention that its easels for hospitals, ship art, and monumental decorations represented a faithful cross section of contemporary standards, resulting, depending on one's view--in something for everyone or aesthetic Babel.[note46]

General public reaction, so far as it existed, varied widely. Many vociferous laymen considered art frivolous during the economic emergency, Absorbing energy which should be channeled into productive tasks--on the plow handles or in the ditches. Professional New Deal haters, decrying the boondoggle in the arts, lumped Section artists with the WPA cultural employees and dismissed them as "sorry daubers, spavined dancers, ham actors, and radical scriveners" luxuriating on the dole. Bruce admitted that nine out of ten people, if they had heard of the Section, thought it was simply a branch of the relief organization. That so few people understood the distinction between the Section's emphasis on art and the WPA's emphasis on relief in large part resulted from the Section's aversion to publicity, especially if it involved controversy. Practices such as asking commissioned artists not to grant interviews unless authorized, Olin Dows reflected 30 years later, were quite wrong. Better that the Section be talked about, even unfavorably, than be ignored, as it was by most people.[note 47]

Infrequently the people who lived with the art rallied to protest. The sensitivity 0f the Section to criticism usually brought change. Residents of Port Washington, New York objected to the artist Paul Cadmus's designs for the local post office showing the resort town's summer people engaged in youthful sports, and especially to a girl clad in shorts in a yachting panel. Cadmus, on Section orders, reworked his design and put pajamas on the "hot stuff" in the yachting panel. Westward on the prairie, the Cheyenne Indians pitched a tepee on the lawn of the Watongo, Oklahoma, Post Office until the artist Edith Mahier changed the Indian ponies in her mural which Chief Red Bird said resembled oversized swans and Indian children who looked like cornmeal bloated pigs. The artist Joseph Vorst repainted the post office mural in Paris, Arkansas, when local civic groups objected that the lone farmer pushing an antiquated plow in the first mural failed to reflect the progressive nature of the community. In the mining community of Kellogg, Idaho, Local 18 of the Mine Workers and Smelt Workers praised Fletcher Martin's dramatic design, "Mine Rescue", as distinctly appropriate for the post office while local industrialists rejected it as not in harmony with existing conditions. The industrialists carried and Martin eventually installed a noncontroversial scene of purely local interest. In Maryland the director of Glendale Children's Tuberculosis Sanitarium ordered receiving room walls whitewashed after the artist Bernice Cross had decorated them with scenes from Mother Goose. The director considered the work "unsuitable to the dignity of a public institution."[note 48]

In Washington, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes easily ranked as the most vociferous among laymen demanding influence over the art they saw daily. Ickes, who knew what he liked but not why, insisted on personally approving each decorative design for his department's new building. When the Section presented him the work of the 17 artists and sculptors the Secretary accepted 7 and rejected 10. Branded "a complete Tzar" by the Section, Ickes even supervised the execution of designs he accepted. And when the Secretary, whom everyone knew could and would cancel the project if defied, asked for a spoonbill or an egret in a swamp scene, or structural support in a construction scene, or "more American faces" on workmen in the panels, the Section beseeched the artists to oblige.[note 49]

When artists turned up in local post offices after Pearl Harbor a discouraging number of communities shouted down the Section's argument that art enobled, raised morale, and helped men to maintain some perspective during war. From Mobile, Alabama; Yakima, Washington; Orofina, Idaho; and Riverton, New Jersey, came protests that the war threatened to bankrupt the country and that spending money on nonessential murals undermined the morale of the citizens whom the government had asked to sacrifice and economize. It mattered not to postmasters, Granges, and Chambers of Commerce that the decorations resuited from 1939 or 1940 appropriations. The government should set examples in economy and divert money from nonessentials to defense projects.


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