Put Artists to Work

The one pronouncement I remember from the nun who taught me sixth grade social studies was that God would always protect America in times of trouble by ensuring we would have the absolute right president to lead us.

I’ve been obsessing about this part of my education because God seems to have dropped the ball this time. If I was still a practicing Catholic, I suppose I could feel that God’s consolation prize is our governors and on that point I feel my state has lucked out. The president my sixth grade nun probably had in mind was JFK but we really need FDR.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is not an original pick. The issues he dealt with during his time in office–1933-1945–are very similar to ours and it’s fairly agreed that his leadership steered us out of the Great Depression. He got the country working again through The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its legacy of infrastructure, public works, and conservation efforts still benefit us today.

The WPA has been brought up recently as a model of what could help reactivate our economy. But I haven’t heard any mention of its other components–the Federal Arts Programs and the Federal Writers Project. Together, they produced some of the most exemplary works of American art and gave many of the 20th century’s great artists and writers their start. The bulk of the work, though, represents the talents of unknown artists, writers, and musicians who often lived in or were familiar with the communities they portrayed.

Aaron Coplan

For all of them, working in the programs allowed them to survive and gave them the opportunity to contribute to the country by bearing witness and preserving a crucial time our history. They recorded the upheaval in our communities, social practices and beliefs. What we ate and wore and did on a Saturday night. How we bore up under poverty, the loss of our homes, and family. The manners in which we played and loved and died. All was captured by a troop of people hardwired to offer testament.

We are moving through an era that will be scrutinized for generations. Only art in all its forms has the ability to impart the fullness of our experience. Art births understanding, brings solace to grief, acceptance to the unthinkable. Art, in the most human way possible, honors our collective experiences.

If the current powers-that-be do look to the WPA for inspiring a way out of our mess, we should all insist they hitch all the arts to it.