The WPA Federal Art Project: A Dark Age Averted
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"There is a theory that art always somehow takes care of itself, as if it were a rootless plant feeding upon itself in sequestered places. Many people are willing to believe, in a time like this, when art patronage has dwindled to infinitesimal proportions, that it is not necessary for organized society to do anything in particular, because no matter what happens, a few artists starving in garrets will see to it that art does not die. It is quite obvious that this theory will not hold." Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, made the above statement in 1936, but it seems particularly relevant today when government appropriations for the arts under the current administration have been substantially reduced in the interests of national safety and defense. During a period of severe economic depression in the 1930s, the federal government, having formally recognized the essential role of art in society, supported thousands of artists, the establishment of community art centers throughout the country, and the preservation of American decorative and practical arts. There were then, as there are today, people who felt that art was frivolous and did not merit the support of federal relief programs. Artists, they believed, did not 'work.' Whether or not there was unanimous agreement as to the legitimacy of the idea of federal support for the arts, the results of the programs were far-reaching and greatly influenced the expression of the artists during that period and thereafter.