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With the U.S. in the grip of an economic crisis that has some comparisons with the Great Depression, many people have called for another New Deal. It is now an especially good time to examine parts of the New Deal, particularly the successful Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Posters for the People: Art of the WPA by Ennis Carter is a lavishly illustrated coffee table book that features nearly 500 posters produced by FAP. These gorgeous posters, created in the 1930s and 1940s, promote positive social ideals and programs. As Carter writes:
Beyond their promotional role, these posters can also be considered as a body of artistic work that displays not only the aesthetic impulses of the time but also the social climate and political agenda of the Roosevelt presidency. The Poster Division was part of an effort to perpetuate a positive and proactive revitalization of the country. . .
The posters originated as a response to joblessness during the Great Depression. George Biddle, a former classmate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, suggested that the U.S. follow Mexico’s lead and employ artists to paint murals on the walls of government buildings. Biddle argued to Roosevelt that American artists would be eager to memorialize liberal social ideals. Biddle’s idea resulted in the formation of the Public Works of Art Project in 1933. However, Roosevelt ordered the program to close in 1934 because of its costs.
In 1935, Roosevelt decided to try again with an arts project. Harry Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration created Federal Project Number One, which set aside money for art. When critics objected to government funding for the arts, Hopkins defended the Federal Arts Project (FAP) by saying that artists needed to eat just like other people. FAP remained in existence until 1943, when spending on World War II finally brought the Great Depression to a close.
Under the FAP, the Poster Division produced posters to improve people’s lives. The posters addressed community involvement, accessible education, good health and hygiene, a strong work ethic, cultural outings, sports, domestic travel, and conservation of natural resources. As Carter writes, at the peak of its success FAP had offices in 18 states. During its life, it employed more than 500 artists, who created more than 35,000 designs. More than two million posters were produced.
Few of these works survive though. To many Americans, art is something that hangs in a museum. Something tacked up on a wall in a subway is just a piece of paper. Many of the WPA posters were seen only as ephemera and thrown in the trash. Since the 1987 publication of Christopher DeNoon’s Posters of the WPA, however, the posters are now recognized as part of the history of graphic art. The Library of Congress has digitized more than 900 posters in its holdings. Other archives scattered across the country hold more posters. The vast majority of the works, though, have been lost. Carter, a leader of the online WPA Living Archive, deserves much credit for tracking down 114 newly discovered posters and sharing them with the rest of the world.
These are posters that will grab the reader. The production quality of the book is worth noting. The book’s binding is sewn, not glued. The posters are so well-reproduced that they virtually leap off the pages. This is an exceptionally handsome and well-built book that would be an excellent addition to a personal or community library.