When Art Worked: Art, the New Deal, and Democracy
Since the founding of the nation, art has created constituencies for the preservation of its most revered natural areas and places of historic and cultural significance. Roger Kennedy, former Director of the National Park Service, and Director Emeritus of the National Museum of American History, discusses how the New Deal put the arts, including painting, music, theater, and architecture, to work and its influence on the development of the National Park Service.
Roger Kennedy: Actually those of you who knew Sid Gates may also have known Mary Anderson Bain who used to bring the yogurt and the sandwiches and eat them with us of course. Because she was his partner. Remarkable lady she had worked for Mrs.Perkins and for Mrs. Roosevelt before Sid.
And it is because of her I think that I became the Director of the National Park Service. And that's a longer story than you want to hear today. I have been thinking about us here today, though a little bit I will get in to this in just a moment. But I want to give you something to remember. I want to give you something to remember not just because Franklin Roosevelt had something to say about how we remember.
But there are two little short quotation which occurred to me last night that I want to read to you. One of them Franklin Roosevelt had on his wall. It was from something that Abraham Lincoln had on his wall.
And it's appropriate for many of you today and for our president and our country. "I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep on doing that until the end. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10,000 angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
And on the second line which I want to give you as a little gift. Is what Lyndon Johnson said to aides and to Clark Clifford, and all the clever, clever people who sat around his living room in Spring Valley and told him that it was foolish to proceed with Civil Rights legislation because it never get its root.
Lyndon Johnson turned to them and said, "Hell, what's the presidency for?" Franklin Roosevelt turned to Henry Morgenthau just down street as they were driving back from a show at Cochran. And said to him, "You know Henry, a hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief."
Now he wasn't talking about the relative value of relief or argue. He was talking about memory and how it works. These lives in our memory, that lives in our memory. Those are two different Roosevelts. And these lives in our memory too. The great economist by its partner Peter Bernstein told me one day that he encountered the father of his best friend in school selling apples on the corner of 72nd St. in West End Avenue.
From 72nd St. to the George Washington Bridge was one long shanty town which people worked what was left to the World War I uniform. Central Park was full of shacks. That's a red line in New York City. That's the circumstances in the city.
Unemployment was at 25% in most American cities. It went to 50% in some and there was just no work at all in some others. What was true then, which is not true today is that nature conspired with the collapse of the economy. Nothing worked. Nothing worked. Everything broke down.
Everything you tried failed. The sky over these city was either yellow or orange. For three weeks in the summer of 1933. It was brown over New York. The clouds came in from the West. And when they left the West, they looked like that. I'm just going to read you one little bit of art in which John Steinbeck told us what it was like because we need to remember that this is what was happening to our country and our countryside.
"The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn. Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.
And when night came it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down. And in the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down, and sifted down. And sifted down "
And all over America those signs went up. And these signs that we remember went up. Farm families lived like these. And how do we know these? And why do we remember? Because the new deal saw to it that we should. It saw to it that the best photographers in these country would volunteer which they did, many of them did not need to work.
And they let us know that our country was becoming like these and we had together to do something about it. These photographs are works of art of course. And so is this, and this is our country. And our countryside. Stimulus doesn't do much when you desecrate the earth. But there was an intention to work together to make something better occur.
This is a Ben Shann poster for the resettlement administration which is run by Rexford Tugwell out of a house now that was been completely destroyed just across the street.
And Harry Hopkins' headquarters was right over there underneath that steel in glass monstrosity just up the way here. Henry Morgenthau had better quarters in the Treasury Department. But I like you to think if you will of Harry Hopkins and Rex Tugwell are both right over there, helping out.
We remember them that's Tugwell on the right, the best looking of the new dealers. Certainly the best tailored of the new deals. That behind him are people who worked for the National Park Service before there was CCC. There was no CCC incidentally until 1937.
There was a Civilian Conservation Corps in New York. But the Park Service Work Camps did the fundamental work of the early 1930s. This is I think my favorite new deal image.
That's help from Washington. That was really help. That's Rex Tugwell, in the impeccably tailored white clothing. And that's a real farmer. And they brought real help. Yes, and help on the grander scale. Around this building you can see Harold Ickes in his pentagon. This is Harold Ickespentagon.
This is the place where you mobilize the country to get good lasting work done. And you managed to convert a distempered, disgusted, dispirited country. And you make it believe in itself again by doing big work. This is of course rural electrification. When I went to the United States navy, I think half the people I entered with had never experienced any kind of electrification that I know.
No more than a third did ever experienced indoor plumbing. These up just a couple of stores up, He's building dams by William Gropper. Why is it important? It's important because members of Congress tried to get it whitewashed after it was up and you know why not? Because we were building dams, but because the work crews depicted were integrated. Got to look at the colors. It was very radical stuff.
Mrs. Grace Tugwell was the master of the Farm Security Administration Photography Program and a lot else as I will come to. She's one of the great women of that period. She and Mary Anderson Bain and various other folks that you heard a lot more about. This is a good mural of the work done and it's there not because of the mural, but because of what Franklin Roosevelt said on that placard.
I hope this sounds familiar to some of you. "We can ill afford to lose the energy and skill of these young men and women." The NWACP picked up that line and used it. And they were assisted in doing so because we helped each other see each other, and remember each other.
The woman on the right hand side is the impeccable Madonna of the new deal. If you want to know what byzantine art did for the Virgin Mary. This image did for the new deal. And produced for the new deal. And indelible sense of who we are. When Dorothea Lange drove passed this tint with this woman in it. She drove on for about 15 miles and she said something tugged at her stomach.
And she had to go back, and she had to get it. She had to get it. And so it was that we came know each other. These are the people we care about. This is why we have gumment. That's what gumment is for us, is to help us take care of each other. Yes, art of course helps because it makes the images much, much more incandescent. But that process had been going on for quite a while.
This is a John Steuart Curry etching. And how much of this -just look at that drawing in the back on the horse. That's a big fellow and it fell. And the dog, because you're going to see them again. This is a 1921-1923 image by Curry. That's a painting of 1928. George Bellows and John Steuart Curry provided the NWACP with their placards, with their signs, with the front of all their pamphlets.
Art rallied around that cost civil rights in the 1920s and 1930s when very few other people did. The guy is still on the horse, the dog is still there. The guy is still on the horse in the Justice Department. This is what you pass on when you go to work in the Justice department if you're really lucky on the way to the library to find out why you're working there. This is just above you as you come in the door. There is justice, that's you pal. Or at least it's somebody who you may worked for.
The guy coloring on the ground incidentally is white. The lynch as frequently the people who were lynched were. There's the guy on the horse, there's the dog. And justice meaning, us, meaning our system of government, is going to help us resist all that. The spirit of helping of competency mobilized for decency.
The skill mobilized to help people who needed it was a constant thing. It was true in the Justice Department. This is the only mural whose content and artist was personally selected by Franklin Roosevelt. It's for the Hyde Park New York Post Office. That's a burning building in the back. The guy was being helped by Dr. Bard and his brother whose brother is law is in the back. Reminds us that there are black people in the Hudson River valley as long as there were white people.
And rescuing and helping was the tradition in which Franklin Roosevelt grew up. In the mining town in Montana for which this mural of Rescue was produced. The Chamber of Commerce hated it and wanted out of there. The labor unions rallied round and wanted it in there. These is us helping each other. Now, we help each other in a number of ways. We found each other in a number of ways.
We discovered we needed help in a number of ways. Among those ways was you can see them there, Woody and Billy Banks, and Alan Lomax. We recovered ourselves to the sounds, that we now find it the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, but there would have been any Smithsonian Library of Congress folk life program and certainly no folk music recorded for that period or any other period without the new deal. This was the Historic Preservation Movement made oral.
This is what HAB is about. But for the ear, this is what all of those programs cultural resources that we care about can do to help us find each other, remember each other. Franklin Roosevelt said, "You will remember through my art." Well, we remember ourselves this way. It isn't Madison Square Garden ladies and gentleman. It's us together in room singing.
Or it's us together making things. Before there was color photography the new deal send very good artist out to do water colors of American Arts and crafts. This is what the artifactual. The little artifactual consequences of historic preservation are. And these is of course a national registry. Welcome National Registry.
If we didn't have the National Registry we wouldn't have known that this check with cattle running in and out of it was really what was left of these. In Lompoc, between Los Angeles and San Francisco is the mission is La Purisima which was entirely a WPA and CCC project restored yet recreating it. Restoring its beauties and wonders and restoring its story.
Restoring the memory of the Indians there and the friars who helped them and didn't help them. That story we have because the place is there. Because of the WPA and the CCC. What I'm trying to stress here is a simple thing. It it that the new deal was a process of rediscovering of our care for each other. of what we might do for each other if we rallied to help each other. It's not a great deal more complicated than there.
And as we find each other, we find each other in all of the arts. Sometimes we take a sewer. Sometimes we take a sewer or a profoundly polluted river like this one in San Antonio. Around which there were nothing but bordellos, saloons, hookers. The most disgusting consequences of a society that was profoundly destabilized and sour, and exploited.
San Antonio's river walk was one of the most disgusting places in the United States. And so, the WPA and the CCC made it what it is today which is really very nice. Now it wasn't just recovery of old things. It was recovery of old crafts and capacities that the stimulus of the 1930s made possible.
This of course is Timberland Lodge near Portland, Oregon. It's entirely a creation from the ground up to meet a necessity. And it is a place in which the capacity to make beauty of everyday necessity which is what art is. That capacity became articulated in the I think the most glorious place in the United States in which all of the crafts came together.
These, not just a simple staircase. And we discovered something else. The very first thing the new deals first two projects. Harold Ickes announced before he took the job that his first project if he got the job as public works administrator, a Hoover program not a Roosevelt program. That he was put in charge at the PWA. The first thing he would do was to restore the Washington Monument.
The very first highway project built by the New Deal was the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Why? Because for Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln too. But George Washington was the primary pro-typical president. Why? Not for some other reasons you might think though Roosevelt was. After all an assistant secretary of the lady once. Now, it's because George Washington was the nation's first conservation president.
He is only extended literary works 70,000 words on how you take care of your land. And what will happen to it if you don't. He was the father of American Conservation. That's what matter to Roosevelt when he went to Mount Vernon he said, "Washington's heart was pallated for all time. Here he could talk with his neighbors about improvement about mills on the creeks about top soil. Which even then," said Roosevelt "Had begun to ran off about the planting of trees.
So, there was our new dealers up on top of the Washington Monument. The next time we restored it is when we were all here together and we restored it the next time. And somebody 40 years from now will restore it again, God willing. So, it now looks like this. It's a grand thing. But there are grander things and they are closer at hand to us here.
You may recall that there was a great artist who couldn't get to perform across the street. Mary Anderson was denied that auditorium, just over there. Just down the street from Harry Hopkins' headquarters. Just across the street from Harold Ickes headquarters. But, no, no, no, couldn't do that.
So, if I knew how to reverse this machine which I do not. I would take you back to the Washington Monument and tell you of that juncture dramatically. Now, impossible so you just have to take it in the undramatic form.
The Harold Ickes said when they told him that DIR wouldn't let her perform and somebody had suggested, I think Walter Williams that she'd like to perform at Lincoln Memorial he said, "What the hell. If she wants to talk from the top of the Washington Monument. That's what she gets." And she did.
Now, we know about that performance, and we know that that monument, that lady in front of that man is depicted downstairs in the most interesting mural in this place. It's interesting because it's about us, not about her. You can barely see her. She's way up there at the monument and I bet you can't see her. And mainly because I've got slightly better resolution. Can I see her at all? Who can you see? You can see the people who heard her, and did something about it.
When you pass this mural in this building downstairs, remember that's you out there. Out there in front. Those faces are recognizable though anybody who fought civil rights in the 1930s and 1940s. But the point of that mural is, no, no, no. It's not the great mans in front of us. No, it's us. It's everybody in this building. It's everybody who works here. It's everybody who believes that the American system knows that there is a government which can serve us all.
That's why Franklin Roosevelt said, "I will be remembered by my art." It's because we can make those points that are just a little subtle without it. Now there are two other things in this building that I just want to point out to you because I missed them when I worked here. I don't want you to miss them because they are right down there waiting for you. They're in the courtyard outside, what used to be the lunch room, I don't know what it is now. But whatever it is there are two pieces of sculpture that's the young Lincoln.
Do you remember the older one in front that just back of Mary and Addison. Well, this is the younger one. And he's emerging from the earth. That's a stick or a branch. And this is somebody who merges from the people to do the people's business.
Art can do that, words can't. And that's down there too. And if you want to know what a monument is as the latin word tells, a monument reminds. It's about monumentum. It's about remembering. It's about this. So, downstairs it suggested to us in this piece of sculpture by a Romanian born WPA artist that these are the people that we should remember because that's all we do to work, we do.
Yes, there's a lot of wonder in the Washington Monument. And Dwight Eisenhower my ex boss used to say informally what he said formally, "There is more of history to be felt and understood in a lonely, graceful column rising against the sky, than there is in all the descriptive matter that was ever written on the subject."
But the point is I think that the monument that you saw in the previous image. Really the two of them, the emerging Lincoln and the Mother and Child. That's the real monuments that we will be remembered by/for and with. And as we think of Washington, remember that this column was put in place really not by George Washington, but by George Perkins Marsh. So, it will come between George Washington and us.
The founder of American Systematic Environmental Philosophy, that's George Marsh's column. That's George Marsh's design with a little help from hiring powers rescuing a place which the base of that monument was an abattoir. Literally it was a slaughter house when George Marsh came to it with Lincoln's encouragement in the 1860s.
A third of the District of Columbia sewage float right past it through the creek. There were cattle running up and down on that when Henry Adams saw it in 1859. And these people who sense of what you can do to restore a landscape and why you would bother where much more interested essentially in that. Then they were in columns rising against the sky.
Now, finally I want to suggest to you that all of these was the consequence of an organizing intellect which mobilized other organizing intellects with high craft, deep professional skill, and a profound commitment to your work. The new deal was about you and me, and us. Now, the real success said Gutzon Borglum to Harry Hopkins. in a letter that Harry Hopkins carried around in his wallet for the rest of his life.
And I think this may surprise you just a little. This isn't a kind of thing that you might think that Harry Hopkins will carry around in his wallet. Borglum is the big images on Mount Rushmore guy, that's his kind of small scale sculpture. But he knew what he was doing in the early 30s.
He knew that when he wrote to Hopkins and Roosevelt as to why it was that they should mobilize the arts to create constituencies for decency. He said, and this is what Hopkins kept, "The real success of aid to the creative ones amongst us. Is in what that does to the nation's mind. To coax the soul of America back to life."
I want to now just read to you again the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson and then I'm going to read you the eleventh commandment which is Soil Conservation Service has in its longest running pamphlet which is written "The End of the New Deal" by Walter Lowdermilk. "Lyndon Johnson we just talked about coaxing the soul of America back to life. This is fairly topical and if you ever doubt what it was that you're about in this building.
The Set by boring people on the hill, the frantic infortunings of the constituencies to which you must attend. Just remember please that Soil Relations Service now I think called Natural Resources to something rather. Incidentally if you ever want to know where the WPA is, it's right next door. The WPA still exists, its charter still exists. It's right over there in the General Services Administrations administered by them. And so what's left to the CCC.
However that's not the way I want to wind these up. I want to wind these up with Walter Clay Lowdermilk who is essentially the systematic philosopher of environmentalism in the new deal years. This is the 11th commandment, " Thou shalt inherit the holy earth as a faithful steward, conserving the resources and productivity from generation to generation.
Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground and wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth." On the other hand there's your work. Thank you.