BY Jennifer Kabat in Opinion | 20 JAN 09

New Deal

To coincide with the US presidential inauguration, a look at how WPA poster design continues to influence American politics and the highstreet

BY Jennifer Kabat in Opinion | 20 JAN 09

‘ARM YOURSELF!’ ‘WANT IT!’ Rather than a call to war, Saks Fifth Avenue has enlisted Soviet-era graphics in a new campaign designed by Shepard Fairey. Indeed, with the economy in dire straits, consumerism may seem like a patriotic duty (save the country by spending your cash!). Fairey – who last year created the enduring ‘Hope’ image of Obama – has applied agit-prop to shopping for the luxury department store’s catalogues and carrier bags. While the campaign recalls constructivism, Fairey recently told The New York Times that he wasn’t thinking Alexander Rodchenko so much as the socialist realism of Depression-era posters produced by the Works Progress Administration (renamed the Works Projects Administration in 1939; WPA).

The appropriation is somewhat fitting now that the economy has gone a bit 1929 – if not quite 1933 when the US hit nearly 30% unemployment. While that figure has only just reached 7%, economic forecasters are petrified about hitting 11% and there are even calls to bring back the WPA – a cornerstone of FDR’s New Deal. The WPA employed anyone who needed a job and by 1941 the agency had spent more than US$11 billion -– note that this figure has not been corrected for inflation – on projects that ranged from roads and highways to dams, public buildings and utilities. As well as art; while Obama promotes infrastructure jobs as key to his economic stimulus, artists and those in the creative industries whisper hopes of their own bailout, a new WPA, and Shep Fairey to run it.


The WPA employed writers, actors, musicians, and, under the Federal Art Project (FAP), visual artists, who created more than 200,000 disparate pieces over the course of a decade. Artists and graphic designers taught classes in schools and community centres, painted murals and designed posters. The FAP employed Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, and you can still find Ben Shahn’s murals in a public school in what was once called Jersey Homelands, a New Deal resettlement community now known as Roosevelt, N.J. To this day it continues to be a left-leaning collectivist community.


The most extraordinary aspect of the programme was not its scale but that it employed artists at all, that art was considered as important to a nation as infrastructure. The government saw art as labour, and artists as workers worthy of employment and, therefore, public funds. In 1936, Holger Cahill, the curator who ran the FAP, claimed that, ‘The organization of the Project has proceeded on the principle that it is not the solitary genius but a sound general movement which maintains art as a vital, functioning part of any cultural scheme. Art is not a matter of rare, occasional masterpieces.’


Thaddeus Clapp, an FAP administrator in Massachusetts, wrote that, ‘By means of our activities the Art Projects have been able to reach the millions. We have reached a vast public that knows nothing about art in terms of dinner-table conversation. We have found through experience that the quickest response to widely varying types of painting, ranging from the most conservative to the most modern, comes from people who have not been limited by the arbitrary preconceptions of what makes good painting which are too often exacted as a sort of price paid for a more polite cultural background […] For the artist this has meant increased dignity in the social structure. He is no longer an exotic, but an individual functioning freely within a society that has a place for him, no longer in an ivory tower, but in contact with his time and his people.’


Lawrence A. Jones, an African-American artist working in New Orleans, perhaps put it most clearly when he wrote that the WPA gave him a ‘vivid realization of my social responsibility toward the underprivileged […] Believing as I do that the appreciation of art cultivates in man a sincere regard for the contributions of his fellow men, regardless of race or creed, I am trying through my own painting and art teaching to create a more democratic America.’ Stirring stuff indeed – and hard to sneer at; post-Katrina New Orleans could well use someone like Jones running art classes again – not to mention some public rebuilding projects.

The FAP’s most influential projects were the posters that inspired Fairey’s ‘Hope’ image of Obama. Between 1935 and 1943 more than 2000 posters were designed, touting everything from health and safety to the plays created by the Federal Theater Project, tourism, state parks, even protecting wildlife. Not running over bunnies, screening for STDs – all came under the purview of the WPA. The posters were made in 17 states as far apart as New York, Utah and Alabama. Richard Floethe, a Bauhaus graduate and graphic designer, ran the New York programme, and pointed out that, ‘The government unwittingly launched a movement to improve the commercial poster and raise it to a true art form.’


Anthony Velonis in the studio

One person responsible for this transformation was Anthony Velonis, an artist who experimented with silk-screening and improved the technology for posters – he even toured the US and wrote a screen-printing guidebook to teach other WPA artists. Before Velonis the WPA work was virtually handmade in limited runs. Under Velonis designers could do editions of up to 5000. Asked about his time in the WPA in a 1965 interview, he put it simply. ‘It saved my life.’


The WPA was so successful in raising the profile of art in the US, not to mention fashioning the mythology of the heroic American artist, that by the end of the 1940s Jackson Pollock could be found on the cover of Time magazine. The WPA and FAP showed just how important art could be to statecraft – if not to a nation’s infrastructure. At the WPA’s end in 1943 Floethe and Velonis signed on to the army to create propaganda for the war effort, and in the 1950s the CIA eventually sponsored exhibitions of abstract expressionism across Europe, which posthumously even included Pollock.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.