America can no longer be called a nation without the capacity to make an art of her own. We have such an art, and there are two orders of accomplishment by which it may be judged. We have a large pictorial and sculptural record of American life, rich in regional and human diversities of character and in the thought, feeling, and idealism of the people. This broadly representative popular record in painting and sculpture is significant because it affirms a new relationship between artist and society, of a kind and on a scale that this country has not known before and that has been little known in any country in recent centuries.
We have also, among the producers of this art, or side by side with them, the always necessarily smaller number of true creators of high rank, who are demonstrating their power of independent aesthetic expression and are giving us, in the terms of their own original experience, works that are worthy to stand with the abiding art products of past periods.
Many influences, since the opening of the century, have been active in the direction of a social and regional art expression in America, but it is due to the activities of the Federal Government as sponsor and patron--according to policies put into effect between 1933 and 1935--that the present comprehensive development of nationalization in that art has come about. The combined statesmanship and imaginative daring of Edward Bruce (himself an able artist as well as an executive) were largely responsible for the setting up of relief projects for unemployed artists; effective in a limited number of states, in 1933. The successful working out of these projects led to the organization, in 1935, of the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project, with Holger Cahill as director, as they had meantime led, in 1934, to the organization of a Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture (officially changed in 1938 to the Section of Fine Arts), with Edward Bruce as advisor.
In 1936, when depression conditions were at their height, a total of 5,300 artists were employed on WPA projects. Recent reports show that some fifteen hundred murals, thirty-five hundred sculptures, and more than forty-five thousand easel paintings have been executed in the painting and sculpture sections of the projects.
The murals have offered the greatest opportunities to artists both in technical experiment and in social expression. They were a new undertaking in American modern art. Before the twenties there was practically no tradition on this continent for wall painting that is original and that reaches the level of a fine-arts expression. About 1922 the Mexicans, under the combined influences of new archaeological discoveries, new French art, and new and revolutionary political impulses, began reviving the ancient and difficult art of fresco painting and made it the vehicle for expressing a national spirit. Modern mural painting, brought to the United States by the Mexicans Rivera and Orozco, attracted the attention of American artists to the possibilities in this field, particularly in its relation to modern American architecture. The painting of Boardman Robinson and the propagandizing of Thomas Benton were outstanding in keeping the subject forward until the Federal Government produced its program.
Painters, including some of the ablest in the country, had the opportunity to show what they could do working experimentally in this field and to execute commissions which would not otherwise
have come to them. The results are evident in schools and Colleges, libraries, hospitals, and other tax-supported buildings in every part of the country. More than one hundred panels have been placed in New York City and thirty in California, where a new type of outdoor mural in mosaic is being developed on a large scale.
With these murals, the sculptures that have been placed in public squares or developed for architectural settings in connection with public-building plans also make a prominent claim upon public attention and public interest. Smaller sculptures and easel paintings go into circulating exhibitions where they are seen by the people of many communities. An early and notable showing of WPA painting and sculpture (and also other art works produced under WPA auspices) was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936 and was responsible for calling a number of new and promising names to the attention of the public. Libraries, art galleries, and museums all over the country have had exhibitions of subsequent work.
In large sections of the country where there had previously been no opportunity to enjoy original works of art, WPA resources were used to open community galleries and art centers, fifty-eight of which existed at the end of 1938. To the wide opportunities for the enjoyment of art, opportunities are added for free art study for adults and children. Federal officials, reporting upon these accomplishments, assert that "symbolically the American artist is proving him elf the spokesman for the American community." The first WPA art was commissioned to meet no demand, but in order to protect the efficiency of the country's artists in a dire emergency; but within the four years to 1939, the demand for public art from communities of all kinds began to outrun the supply.
In the Treasury Department's permanent policy of purchasing art for all new federal buildings undertaken after 1934, as in the WPA projects, mural painting has been a subject of vital experiment.
George Biddle, Henry Varnum Poor, Boardman Robinson, Reginald Marsh, and Rockwell Kent are among the painters of murals for new buildings in the federal capital that are rich in both social content and plastic expressiveness. In post offices, and a few courthouses and other structures dotted across the country, there are evidences that America has at least the beginning of a regionally representative mural tradition, largely at the hands of men whose names are new to any extended public. Howard Cook, who is well known in the field of graphic design, is represented in the Pittsburgh Post Office and Courthouse, Jack Greitzer in the Cleveland Post Office, Lorin Thompson in the Post Office in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Frank J. Long in the Louisville Post Office, Loren Mozley in a Post Office in New Mexico, Buk Ulreich in a Post Office in Florida, Norman S. Chamberlin in the Huntington Park, California, Post Office, and Gordon Kenneth Grant in the Post Office at Ventura, California. Steven Mopope, a Cherokee Indian, assisted by two other Indians, has produced a mural for the Post Office at Anadarko, Oklahoma, in which a true feeling for wall painting is realized in a design that is linear and decorative and is aboriginal in a memorable sense.
The Americanness of this American art is a paradox. In the representative examples offered here, in regional exhibitions, in the work of contemporary young men that is going into the leading museums of the country in quantity, and most prominently of all, perhaps, in the improvised storehouse in Washington where are seen works selected as government possessions from the Federal Arts Projects, the names may be French, German, Italian, Spanish, Scandinavian, Polish, Greek, Egyptian, Russian, Mexican. We have Amerindian painters in Colorado and also in the Pacific Coast states who are raising the standard of authentic contemporary abstract art by their sand pictures.
We have Japanese, notably in New York and Seattle, who are enriching our art, both painting and sculpture, by an inheritance brought down from the ancient East. We have a kind of painting that is rich in the characteristically Sl-avic qualities of plastic lyricism and an ingenuous dreamy unreality. Most prominently of all appear qualities that are essentially Jewish: richly decorative and sensuous color; somber psychological intensity of mood, and often currently an atmosphere of calamity and chaos. The native American realism that was a conscious return to the "Anglo-Saxon forthrightness" of early folk art in painting sometimes has the aspect of a passing phase of illustration and satire, with considerable insincere naïveté of attitude.
The editor of The London Studio recently referred to this broad process of nationalization going on in American painting and sculpture as the birth of a national school--an event which he suggests "may well become the most significant movement of art history in the twentieth century." What we actually appear to have, however, is a working up of the raw materials of all kinds towards a possible national tradition, rather than the beginning of a tradition for which no fixed boundaries can so far be traced in any direction.
The two fundamentals for a fixed tradition, which is implied in the establishment of a national school, are both lacking: national stability and a central authority for the fostering of an integrated cultural expression. The energy of the new is restless and revolutionary, and the affairs of the nation are given their character, as are those throughout the Western world, by the general reaction against influences that developed throughout the nineteenth century and asserted themselves widely in the latter part of the century as an excessive individualism in common life--and in art. The twentieth-century movement has been towards collective action in a corporate controlled state where "capitalists originate trusts and workers originate unions." And these characteristic activities are carried on by a people composed of diverse and still largely unassimilated racial strains.