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David and Art - “Conservative in Form, but Not Conservative”

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

While a painting’s form may be traditional, the message it conveys might be something else entirely.

I’m not sure when I first got interested in the topic of how art relates to politics. But a long time ago when I was a history grad student and thought I knew everything, my interests somehow focused on the art programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration during the Great Depression.

Back then I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a New Dealer. And I knew that though employment programs like the WPA were considered liberal, the art they created was controlled: Modernism (by which they mostly just meant “abstraction”) was forbidden. In decorating new post offices, schools, and government buildings built by the New Deal, the art in them was to be for the people. That is, representational. And so, I made the mistake of assuming the art would be conservative in content as well as form. I was too superficial in my knowledge to know the difference. So, I dutifully produced a cringe-worthy paper proclaiming that the arts programs of the New Deal actually served a conservative world view. I was missing a lot.

The murals in Coit Tower in San Francisco are a perfect example. They were painted in 1934 by artists supported by the Public Works of Art Project. The artists who painted the murals focused on California agricultural workers and city workers. One city scene depicts a newsstand at which journals like The New Masses and the Daily Worker are prominently visible. One figure walking by a bookstore is reaching for a copy of Karl Marx. It was the Great Depression after all, and artists understood that the working classes of the country were bearing the brunt of it. Wealthy bankers in the city immediately protested the murals as anti-American.

I came across a quotation the other day from Pablo Picasso that I found very interesting. “I am a communist and my painting is a communist painting,” he said. “But if I were a shoemaker—Royalist or Communist or anything else—I would not necessarily hammer my shoes in any special way to show my politics.”

I pondered this. I think what Picasso is getting at is that art has a job qualitatively different from that of any material good. Art carries ideas about how things should be. Art can condemn bad things that are going on in the country or in the world in a way that shoes can’t. Then and now, art can condemn injustice, or the abuse of power, or stand up alongside people who may be overlooked. That’s why artists from Diego Rivera to Keith Haring to Ben Shahn created things the way they did. And that would be a pretty tall order for your loafers to handle.