Friday, May 25, 2012

Macdonald-Wright's Takedown of 1930s WPA Art

The New Deal era WPA art project and similar government-sponsored employment schemes for artists long ago became something of a sacred matter for many art historians and art followers in general. A number of artists who had reputations at the time or later gained fame participated in the projects. Examples include Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock (a link to names is here). Many of these projects involved murals on walls of public buildings; an example is shown in the image above (by Jacob Elshin, University Station post office, Seattle - 1939).

Like most other government spending programs of the Great Depression, the arts programs were criticized at the time as wasteful uses of taxpayer money. But that criticism melted away once World War 2 started and the arts programs began to be terminated.

Since I call this blog "Art Contrarian" I thought I might as well present a strongly contrarian view of the art programs that I recently stumbled across. It's a view by an insider who had responsibility for projects in southern California.

That insider was Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) who was one of the first painters to paint in a purely abstract manner. I recently posted about him here. Information about and views of one of Macdonald-Wright's own murals can be found here.

Macdonald-Wright has his say in an oral history interview: the link is
here. You might not agree with his point of view, but he has a strong one and it's pretty entertaining, given the usual solemnity when the subject of art is introduced. I need to add that quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, 1964 Apr. 13-Sept. 16, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The SM in the transcript is Macdonald-Wright and BH is Betty Lochrie Hogue, the interviewer. Extracts follow, but note the final exchange:

* * * * *

BH: Do you think that this Project did any good for painting in California at the time?

SM: I think it set back art all over the United States a hundred and fifty years.

BH: You do, really?

SM: I do! I think it was absolutely the worst thing that could possibly have happened.

BH: Why?

SM: Because they got five thousand and one hundred useless, untalented people in the place who went in saying they were artists, and nobody cared because what they wanted to do was to give money away. They had over 5,000 people, and when the Project ended in -- what was it, 1940? I guess it was about 1940 more or less, those people kept right on painting. And vast numbers of those people that you see exhibiting in galleries now are the same people. That's what's the matter with art....

There were competent artists, as I say, in this thing. I had some extremely competent artists here. This Feitelson was one of them, for instance. He's one of the finest draftsmen we have in the country. And the man who was the head of the mosaic department, Albert King, is more than competent. We had very competent men as far as that's concerned. And I immediately made them heads of departments so as to give them a little time to do some of their own work, something of that kind. But the general run of those people would have been better off if they'd starved to death as far as art is concerned. Eddie Cahill, who was the National Director at that time, said to me years afterward . . . . I happened to be back in New York, I think it was in 1955 when I was on my to Paris. I was having dinner with him, and he said, "Well, Stanton, now that this is all over, and it's all over for a long time, fifteen years, what is your real opinion of the Project?" Of course, he was a man who was dedicated to it, he was a sociologically-inclined baby, he was an institutional slave by temperament, a very sweet fellow. I said, "Eddie (his name was Holger but we all called him Eddie), I think it set art back a hundred years." He never spoke to me after that. I never came in contact with him again.

BH: Well a lot of people were actually eating who might not have been at the time . . . .

SM: Well I don't know of anybody who was eating that wouldn't have been that should have been eating at all. I think they would have been much better off and so would the world had they not eaten. I haven't much of the sociologist in me and my heart doesn't bleed very easily for those people. If you had been around there you would have realized what I mean by it. They spent most of their time complaining bitterly because we hadn't gone directly in with Russia . . . .

BH: Oh really!

SM: Most of them were what we would call (due to the law which they passed that nobody can call a person by their name) at that time Communists. They spent most of their time trying to get everybody that wasn't a Communist out of the place and to fill it up with Communists. And from what I hear, and this is not an opinion of mine but, from what I've heard from the National Director, most of the New York Project was made up of those babies. And that doesn't only go for New York but practically every other city, except this one out here. And I had my hands full to keep those people from taking over the whole work. Two or three of them even got to the point where they painted murals and sneaked in a picture of a hammer and sickle here and there on them.

BH: For heavens sake!

SM: And I had people watching those things all the time and I had a brigade of whitewashers there that would go right out and wipe that mural off the wall or cover it up with something. I had to do that how many times. Because at that time the public wasn't as thoroughly inured and used to and indifferent to those Communistic pastimes as it is now. They would welcome it now probably.

.... [W]hen I closed the door on that Project, as far as I was concerned I washed my hands not only of the dirt of Government indoctrination but also of the dirt of most of the pictures that were painted in it.

BH: Well, the fact that the Federal Arts Project gave such an impetus to him [Donald Hord] makes me think of something that you said in this little booklet which you loaned us and which I had microfilmed the other day. It is such an expressive statement. I'd like to read this one sentence you wrote. It is from an address that Mr. Wright made over the radio in Santa Barbara in October of 1941, on the occasion of opening a new gallery under Donald Hord's directorship. You said, "Let us also remove our criticism from out the ages of a spurious and grandeloquent jingoism. Let us recognize that our own consciousness of youthful vigor encouraged by the Federal Arts Project, has without the shadow of a doubt, raised the average standard of American painting. But let us not confuse topics with technique, and let us take a slightly longer time-view of our qualities than have been recently found in the writings of our critical tycoons." I thought it was very good that you made that remark. I presume you were referring to our consciousness of regionalism and having to stand on our own feet in painting coming out of the Project?

SM: Mrs. Hoag, I was working for the government at the time. I'm always loyal to the person I work for.

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