Art for Hard Times
No New Deal but a reawakened solidarity
By Pat Clifford
Growing unemployment, tent cities and foreclosures … One starts to wonder if it is 1929, not 2009. Is it enough to make you hum a few bars of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Some politically engaged artists believe it’s time to do a whole lot more.
California-based artist and printmaker Art Hazelwood thinks that the conditions demand a resurgence of relevant, political art. Hazelwood is the curator of an exhibit called “Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present,” on display at the California Historical Society in San Francisco through August 15. This exhibit brings together the work of visual artists dealing with poverty and homelessness in the hopes of encouraging this type of work now and in the future.
This past year has seen a presidential administration that professes a new era of federal responsibility. Major programs to stimulate the economy and shore up the financial industry are being rolled out. Is this a new New Deal? Not quite. Remember, the New Deal not only included public works projects such as the Work Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, but also a host of legislation such as the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Labor Relations Act, which molded the business environment for years to come.
The new shopping cart
The old New Deal also cultivated a cadre of significant artists. Starting in 1933 artists were employed by the Public Works of Art Project. This effort was eventually subsumed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to engage artists in printmaking, public murals and documentary photography. Many artists rose to prominence in this era, including Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans. Unfortunately for the Tri-State, 80 percent of WPA art commissions in Ohio went to the Cleveland area. The most prominent in Cincinnati are the murals in Lunken Airport by William Harry Gothard.
But the WPA was not just about employing artists, of course. It was also about molding public opinion in support of the New Deal.
“Roosevelt and those running the WPA were trying to get public support behind the New Deal to justify all they were building,” says Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
Political art is increasingly important, according to Hazelwood.
“It brings a message and speaks to people who are in the struggle,” he says. “An image can be powerful in giving support to those people. That is no small thing in itself.”
Many of the works included in the exhibit are posters meant to be used in organizing campaigns. These are important tools, Boden says.
“That’s what people put on their wall,” he says.
Even so, artists sometimes lapse into caricature or stereotype when they are trying to represent a class of people. When it comes to homeless people, that often means tragic or “pathetic” images meant to pull on the viewer’s heartstrings.
“I think this partly is due to lack of a political framework for the artists to work in,” Hazelwood says. “They don’t really know the issues. In many cases, homelessness is an issue that has not been connected to the mainstream left movements. Artists don’t know how to think about it, so they go for the easy pathos, which is what people see thrown at them from the aid agencies. Empowerment is a difficult image to portray unless you know the issues.”
This becomes problematic for Boden.
“You’re not going to hire bums and yokels to build your public school or pay them prevailing wage,” he says. “It’s hard to do that if you’re defining everyone who’s homeless as chronically dysfunctional.”
Hazelwood notes that one recurring image in the exhibit is that of a shopping cart.
“It’s an ironic image to use, since what the shopping cart initially stood for was the basket of plenty, of American abundance, even super-abundance,” he says.
This image of abundance is turned on its head, providing a critique to the type of society that leaves large numbers of its citizens living on the street.
The new Okies
Though the spending associated with World War II is widely credited with lifting the country out of the Great Depression, the New Deal programs provided a safety net for the poor. This safety net was gradually dismantled throughout the past two decades. Boden has fought this roll back, committing over 20 years of his life to activism on behalf of the poor and homeless.
“A couple of years ago we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the New Deal,” he says. “Back then the issue was with the aggressive anti-Okie laws. You know: ‘If you’re looking for a job, don’t stop here.’ Now we would call them ‘anti-homeless’ laws.”
Is there a current generation of new New Deal artists working hard to document inequality and promote systemic change? One shouldn’t look to the federal government nowadays.
“Government has gotten out of the business altogether,” Hazelwood says. “The artists employed by different federal agencies in the Depression served different functions but they were employed, and that did two things. It gave them solidarity, and it allowed them to look to the government programs in a positive light.”
This solidarity must be formed in other ways.
“Now artists are divided from each other by competition, from solidarity with issues of poverty, in many cases by wealth, and from any sense that the government is helping by the reality of the lack of government action,” Hazelwood says. “As a result, artists today are more likely to take an activist role against the government’s lack of action. Artists who do get involved are often connected through homeless rights organizations.”
Despite these difficulties, Boden feels an urgent need to connect serious artists to the struggle for economic equality.
“We need to start identifying issues and give those messages to serious artists,” he says. “When the artwork is serious, it’s amazing how much it resonates.”
Although more related to street art than to the legacy of the New Deal, Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster of Barack Obama effectively joined contemporary art to a political program at the highest levels.
However, those who are being portrayed must be the ones to frame the debate. One might wonder, with all the baggage the term “homeless” implies, is it time to reconsider the term itself? Just as the term “hobo” has become antiquated, in the future will the term “homeless” mark the poverty of a particular historic moment?
“I believe that terms of identification have to come from the people they refer to,” Hazelwood says. “If people who are homeless feel the need to choose a name that describes them in a more empowering way, that is great. Taking ownership of your name is important.”