Tag Archives: Morris Dickstein

New Deal for Artists

            I missed the opening of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” which displays art made with the first tranche of money directed at artists under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s short-lived Public Works of Art Project. When I finally made it to the show last month, I was struck by comments in the visitor’s log book, many of them evincing a powerful nostalgia for government supported art. After reading Morris Dickstein’s book on art during the Great Depression, and looking through another volume, “When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy” by Roger Kennedy, I ruminated on some of the issues involved with public funding for the arts then and now. The story appeared in last Sunday’s Post.

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Embracing Americana

I was on a panel last week at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center. Morris Dickstein, author of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression was there, and the subject we discussed was his book and its large and fascinating subject.  One point made during the discussion was about the almost reflexive grasp (even during left-leaning political times) after strongly American imagery during times of crisis. The art I discuss in a piece that ran in today’s The Washington Post was made during (and in support of) Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised by how big a role old-fashioned Americana plays in many of the images:

This is a wholesale embrace of the full trove of Americana, as if young American artists were never happy on the margins of American society, as if they have suddenly found the right moment to release their inner Norman Rockwell. It almost calls into question the long-standing assumption that artists in America are by necessity and choice outsiders. Perhaps they never really were. The artists included here feel more like insiders whose invitation got lost in the mail.

Americana, it seems, isn’t just a conservative speciality. It’s the stance of the insider, or people who want to be on the inside. And of course it’s also useful in times of crisis.

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