Skip to main content


Federal Art For Whose Sake?

June 2024
5min read

Whoever is appointed (or reappointed) to the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts by the incoming President in 1993, we can be sure of one thing: He or she will not find life easy. The battle over federal funding of artistic activities won’t end on inauguration day. Conservative public officials like Sen. Jesse Helms will continue to insist that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize works and exhibits offensive to their moral values. Members of the “creative community” will cling to the position that public support of uncensored art and artists is a hallmark of any civilized state. The debate will not die, because it touches on broad and perennial issues of what (and why) government “ought” to undertake and encourage at public expense.

Nearly sixty years ago, in a Depression-wracked United States, the federal government tried a large-scale, highvisibility program of endowing the visual arts, among others. It was shot down after a fairly short and stormy life, very ably chronicled some years ago by Richard D. McKinzie in his book The New Deal for Artists . It’s a good story.

In the 1930s the battle was not over subsidizing works that were sexually explicit, or homoerotic, or that challenged “traditional” family values or the position of white men at the center of the national historical drama. With extremely rare exceptions there were no such creations. The federal presence in the art of the thirties was need-driven. The artists on the national payroll were unemployed men and women drowning amid the debris of a shipwrecked economy. For many of them the primary questions to be addressed by creativity were framed by social conditions. In the message of their art, community and justice were of stronger concern than pure beauty and individual liberation. This view of things dismayed and outraged congressional conservatives, who denounced the idea of taxpayer subsidies to political heretics; they worried not about pornographers but about Reds.

There was another and related battle going on within the leadership of the art world itself. Some rebellious souls wanted to use government-sponsored decoration of public places as a means of breaking away from European traditions of high culture. They hoped that post-office murals and playground sculpture might create a distinctly American artistic idiom, understood and enjoyed by a mass audience. It was a vulnerable vision, whose authors were attacked from several directions.

The fight began in 1933 in the Treasury Department, which supervised the construction and decoration of federal public buildings, with the appearance there of an American artist, George Biddle, who proposed that the United States pay for some murals that would express American themes. Biddie was listened to because he had the recommendation of his friend and Harvard classmate Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also found the perfect executor of his idea in a Treasury officer named Edward Bruce, an expert on silver prices who had been a lawyer, a newspaper publisher, and a trading company executive as well as a passionate and exhibited painter. Bruce loved Biddle’s idea. He was sure, in a wonderful 1930-ish way, that traditional American materialism could be transformed by such a program. He believed, for example, that “if we can create the demand for beauty in our lives, our slums will go, … ugliness will be torn down and beauty will take its place.”

Pulling the right administrative levers, Bruce siphoned a flow of dollars from other public works programs into the channels of his purpose. He got a Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) set up to choose and oversee artists to adorn the walls of West Point and Annapolis, the Army Medical Museum, the Post Office and Justice Department Buildings in Washington, and public schools throughout the land.

By mid-1934, 3,749 PWAP artists (at around thirty-five dollars a week) had turned out 15,663 works, ranging from murals (the most visible products, but less than 3 percent of the total) to Indian blankets, watercolors, prints, sculptures, panels, mosaics, and tapestries, for display in any building supported wholly or partly by taxes. Most memorable of all the PWAP legacies were the murals in hundreds of local post offices that were the pride of their communities.

Bruce was neither artistically nor politically radical. He wanted accessible work that gave him “the same feeling I get when I smell a sound, fresh ear of corn.” Nevertheless he could not completely avoid controversy. One easel painting called The Fleet’s In , showing swabs and tarts carousing ashore, was denounced by an admiral as an insult to the Navy’s fine young men. Another well-publicized flap arose when the muralist of a monument to San Francisco firemen slipped in a portrait of a laborer engrossed in a copy of the Communist Western Worker . After PWAP’s initial appropriation expired, Bruce tried for a permanent division of fine arts within the Treasury Department but did not get it.

From 1935 on Bruce had to compete with the much better-known Federal Arts Project (FAP), a tiny part of a gigantic work-relief program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA’s chief goal was to give the unemployed jobs that would sustain their skills and self-confidence until private industry reabsorbed them. So the FAP could, with few exceptions, hire artists only on the basis of their jobless status rather than their talent.

That suited the FAP’s director, fortytwo-year-old Holger Cahill. Like Bruce, he was no run-of-the-mill arts administrator. He had in his time been a farm hand, merchant sailor, cowboy, hobo, and reporter, before rising to a full-time career as a museum curator. His specialty was primitive and folk art, and he hoped for the creation of American works that would speak to “the mass of people.” He didn’t want Picassos as much as good, middle level craftsmen.

Since the entire WPA was a lightning rod for Roosevelt enemies, Cahill was prepared to “have a ‘dead cat’” thrown at him every few minutes. But he could hardly have anticipated the special problems of his task. In each state there was a politically appointed administrator to appease. There were individual project directors who were local art celebrities, puffed by self-importance into total inability to work with others. The working artists themselves had trouble conforming to time-clock-punching under general WPA regulations, and unions, too, had their say about work rules and grievances.

Besides, the FAP had a perilously narrow political base for a program that began life under a cloud of skepticism. Professional artists were heavily concentrated in a couple of dozen cities containing less than a quarter of the general populace. New York alone enrolled 44.5 percent of all FAP workers and—unfortunately for the public relations of the project—a strong core of radical activists. When heavy cuts were made in the program late in 1937, a number of organized artists about to be fired staged a sitin at FAP headquarters. A battle with police ensued; 219 were arrested and injured in the melee. Further reductions in 1937 triggered new sit-downs in New York, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. None of these events helped Cahill win friends on Capitol Hill.

Jesse Helms is worried about subsidizing pornographers; his 1930s counterparts didn’t want to underwrite Reds.

Yet in spite of all the drawbacks, the output was formidable. The creative department of the FAP, which included less than half its workers, turned out 2,566 murals, 17,744 pieces of sculpture, and 108,099 canvases. Less publicized was the FAP’s educational work through workshops, exhibitions, and classes in hundreds of community art centers. Only a small part of the entire population came to them, but many who did were lastingly affected, especially the housewives, manual workers, blacks, hill folk, and other people who were getting that kind of art exposure for the first and often only time in their lives.

In fact, left-wing artists were a tiny minority. Far more representative of the bulk of the FAP’s work was the Index of American Design , a catalogue of American functional but decorative objects, from sugar bowls and tavern signs to cigar-store Indians. Or the prizewinning nonpolitical paintings by FAP artists on the way to great careers — Marsden Hartley, Ivan Albright, Jackson Pollock.

It was no use. The federal arts projects were all under continuous fire that grew heavier during a voter shift to the right in 1938. That spring a bill to make them permanent fell before gales of laughter in Congress. Next came the House Committee on Un-American Activities under Rep. Martin Dies, hoping to brand the whole Roosevelt administration as Communist-tinged. The Dies “investigation” laid the groundwork for a final, mortal assault in 1939. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations denounced the whole arts undertaking as wasteful and unproductive.

When the roll was called, the programs were gutted by an overwhelming vote of 321 to 23. They were transferred to a new agency, since the WPA itself was not renewed, under heavy restrictions. Shorn and humiliated, the FAP struggled on in the lengthening shadow of war. The War Department became a sponsor and set the dwindling number of arts workers to making posters, models, and camouflage kits before the FAP was officially terminated in 1943.

Twenty-two years later another Congress, in an expansive New Frontier mood, created the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. That was the second round of debate on whether subsidizing the visual arts is in the public interest—the debate that Cahill and Bruce had lost in 1939. The NEA was their posthumous vindication. The current battle is still a third round. Eventually there is sure to be another, and it will be shaped, as always, by the concerns and the culture of the historical moment in which it occurs.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.