Recommended for Middle School and High School Students
This Instructional Resources is the third in a series that explores the narrative role of art in public places. In two recent issues of Art Education, Susan Goetz Zwirn ("Men and Women at Work: The Portrayal of American Workers by Three Artists of the 1930s and 1940s" 57(2), pp. 25-32) and Carol Argiro ("Teaching with Public Art" 57(4), pp. 25-32) also explore the topic of public places and art.
* identify features of narrative murals that refer to local history
* discuss the role of government support of the arts in guiding the subject-matter and style of art, and make a case for or against government support of art
* design and create a mural that reflects elements of their community's history in representational or abstract style
In rural communities, it can be a challenge to find examples of original works of art, but in the 1930s a few visionaries dreamed of providing public access to "good art" in communities throughout the United States. It was a dream that produced art for only a few years, but much of that art still remains in those communities. Post offices and courthouses all over the country still own and display narrative "Section" murals and bas-relief sculptures from the 1930s and early 1940s.
By the 1930s-especially after the 1914 Armory Show in New York that had brought modern European art to America-many artists dared to explore Cubism and other abstract styles of art. Representational art that celebrated local history and people did not seem progressive, challenging, or important to many in the art "establishment." For these reasons, murals that the federal government commissioned for public spaces such as post offices-that depicted local or national history in accessibly representational styles-did not seem to represent the "important" art movements of the time. Yet many well-known artists are represented in these documents of American history, including Rockwell Kent, Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood, and Canadian artist Philip Guston. As art, murals by these artists reflect not the world of the avant-garde and modern but the tastes and interests of ordinary Americans. As such, they help us think about our own time and legacy in art.
This is the story of some of those murals that are still visible today in Mississippi towns. Use this story as a guideline for challenging students to think about aesthetic issues and about how they see themselves.
In the 1930s, the United States was in the middle of an economic depression. Millions of Americans had lost their life savings in the 1929 stock market collapse and subsequent bank closures. Farming communities were especially vulnerable to economic threats. Because of drought and over-farming, families who had lived in the same place for generations were now forced to seek new lives in other parts of the country. Americans were on the move, not by choice but because they hoped conditions would be somehow better somewhere else. Many were homeless, many were looking for work, and many had become hopeless. Married women were not allowed to work if their employment meant that a job would be taken from a man with a family to support. African Americans (then called Negroes) generally could not vote and were usually employed as laborers in hard jobs that Whites refused. In the 1930s, three-quarters of a century after slavery had been abolished, many African Americans left the rural South for better lives in the industrial North. It was a hard time, but people envisioned better times. The future looked promising partly because things seemed as if they could not get much worse.
In May of 1933, in the depths of the Depression and with millions of people out of work, an artist wrote to the President. George Biddle had been a college classmate although not a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Biddle suggested a partnership between artists and the government that would allow artists to express "in living monuments the social ideals that you [the Roosevelt administration] are trying to achieve" (Marling, 1982, p.31). His letter inspired some of the largest projects in the history of America to support the visual arts. Biddle suggested that the government hire artists "at plumbers' wages" to create murals in public buildings all over the United States. The purpose was three-fold: to provide jobs for artists, to allow small communities to express pride in their own histories, and to create visual propaganda to reassure communities that a troubled America still held untapped potential for progress. In Biddle's words, "I am convinced that our mural art with a little impetus can soon result, for the first time in our history, in a vital national expression" (p. 31).
The results of Biddle's efforts were 1,116 murals and 301 sculptures in U.S. post offices and courtrooms, in every state and Washington, DC. About 1,000 murals and 200 sculptures still survive. This Instructional Resources looks only at murals. As a group these murals document how working-class America saw itself during the years before World War II.
The history of murals in the United States during the 1930s owes much to the muralists of modern Mexico-especially Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco. These Mexican muralists confronted social history with strong images of proud workers, and they celebrated their country's progress across many centuries of change, upheaval, and adaptation. At that same time, Americans seemed more timid. On the same day that Biddle wrote to the President (May 9, 1933), John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had Diego Rivera's mural at Rockefeller Center in New York destroyed because its central portrait of the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was seen as sympathetic to Socialist ideals (Marling, 1982, p. 31). Rockefeller told Rivera that the "piece is beautifully painted, but it seems to me that the portrait appearing in the mural might seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house, it would be one thing, but this mural is in a public building and the situation, therefore, is quite different," (in Marling, p. 31). Rockefeller articulated issues still current today in public art: How much should public art celebrate? Does public art dare criticize? At what point is criticism through public art offensive?
Public money supported artists in several ways. The programs sponsored by the Federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) are among the most well known. This organization funded art schools taught by artists, and programs in writing, music, and theater. Post office murals were different because the Department of the Treasury managed them. Most of these murals were commissioned by the Department of the Treasury's "Section of Fine Arts" that operated from 1933 to 1943 and paid for murals (about $750 each) with the one percent art fee allocated from its budget for new buildings. These murals became known as "Section murals."
Though revolutionaries inspired the Mexican mural movement, strong social criticism was not considered appropriate for works of art supported by the U.S. Government. Many artists, however, flirted with liberal ideas and social criticism in their art. In San Francisco, for example, artists painted socialist symbols into the murals in Coit Tower, a monument to the city's firefighters. The resulting dissent led the Department of the Treasury to require strict guidelines and excessive correspondence between the Treasury Department, the artist, the postmaster, or other representatives of the community in which a mural was to be installed. Often, Department of the Treasury officials required artists to make changes to the subject matter, composition, or style of their murals prior to community approval. Sometimes postmasters or members of the community complained about any attempt by an artist to use a style of representation other than realism. Because of this limitation of artistic freedom, some artists such as Thomas Hart Benton rejected the call to celebrate America's story. The artists who accepted the rules and created Section murals worked in various media-on-site frescoes or oil and tempera compositions on canvas or panels that were installed later-in representational, realistic styles. They created scenes and characters that were recognizable to the local population and images of and for ordinary Americans.
The images included here are from Section murals in Mississippi towns and reflect the agrarian traditions rooted in cotton farming and social structures that supported it in the years between the Civil War and the then-contemporary period of the 1930s. But public art takes many forms and is still being produced today-including sculptures in public parks (Argiro 2004), community murals, graffiti on blank walls in towns across the country, and art commissioned by communities to celebrate local history. Your community may have various kinds of public art-murals, sculptures, monuments-that tell their own stories. The teaching ideas suggested here can be adapted to images of other communities.
1. Explore the murals shown here. What kind of landscape do you see? If you did not know these murals depict the Mississippi landscape, what are the clues to a specific "place" seen here? What kinds of work are being done? What are people wearing? What clues do you have that these are not pictures of today? What changes could you make to add a modern reference, and how would they affect your response to these images? Which mural depicts the most action? Which is the quietest scene? How do you know? Select any three people in these murals. What might they be thinking, and why? Have students write captions and short newspaper stories for each mural, as if they were illustrations for a news story.
2. What do we mean by "public art"? Who is the public? What rights do sponsors have?
* Show students murals by Diego Rivera and other artists from the Mexican mural movement. Use Rivera's murals at the Detroit Institute of Art that celebrate the American automobile industry and its workers, as well as images of Mexican history.
* Then, read aloud Rockefeller's comment about public and private spaces (quoted above). Discuss with the class whether they think it is appropriate for a sponsor to destroy a work of art meant for a public place if the sponsor is offended by the subject matter. Was Rockefeller right to destroy Rivera's mural in New York? If he had left it in place, how might wo react to it, today? Does a private sponsor have a right to destroy or move a work of art s/he has paid for? Why or why not? Should public money support public art projects, and should government offices be able to control the exhibition of the final product? Who else should be involved in the decision? Who is the "public" of public art? Have students write and then act out arguments for and against, a public artwork that is now on view on your community. What might have been the arguments for and against this work at the time it was made? What do people think of it now?
* What are the responsibilities of the artist? Thomas Hart Benton, whose representational "regionalist" style seemed perfect, for the Section murals, was critical of racial and economic inequality in many of his paintings. He did not participate in the mural competition because he resented having to modify his work to please other people. Many other artists agreed with him, and felt obligated to portray social conflict and other less-positive concepts in their art.
* Section mural artists accepted the guidelines of the competition and worked within the rules. But it is difficult to create images that please everyone equally. What images in these murals might have been offensive at the time, and to which groups of people? What images of life today might offend some people while at the same time celebrate the lives of other kinds of people? Make lists of "acceptable" and "problem" subjects for murals then and now, and explore alternative ways of showing these stories.
3. Treatment of themes and styles.
* Many Section murals are based on themes relevant to the community. In the examples shown here, we see rural life with a country church, cotton ginning, a picnic in a rural community, and tomato farming. In general, the themes address similar issues: everyday life and work, local history or legends, Post Office history, and triumph over adversity. In general the themes are positive, celebratory, and optimistic, despite the troubling times in which they were created. In two of the murals presented here the theme is "harvest" (ginning cotton and harvesting tomatoes) but each conveys a different perspective on rural work. Which mural depicts a more romantic, pleasant point of view? Why?
* Look at all four of the murals shown here. Discuss how they are similar and how they are different. All of the murals are representational, but teachers can guide students to notice stylistic and thematic differences. For example, consider the work of Jacob Lawrence (Lawrence, 1993). Which of these murals looks most like Lawrence's angular, flattened, Cubist style? Which ones use soft light to make agrarian work look satisfying? Which ones depict everyday life that might still be happening today? Which look most like Norman Rockwell's mid-century images of everyday life in a contented America? (Gherman, 2000). Students can work in teams to create and critique exhibitions of Jacob Lawrence or Norman Rockwell style paintings, working from books, Internet sources, the Section murals depicted here, and other murals.
4. Design a mural.
* What historical and current themes are important to your community? Farming methods and crops? Extreme weather? A famous museum? A dance company? The manufacture of a certain product? Famous legends? A recent high school sports or choral music championship? Divide students into small groups. Ask each group to suggest at least three possible themes for a mural. Next, students should explore the overlaps and emerging priorities in their themes. Each group of students should think of at least one theme that would surprise the other groups. Encourage students to go beyond stereotypes and standard legends. What themes would not be appropriate for a mural and why?
* As a class, pick a time period or a theme to represent. Consider themes from the recent or distant past, the present, the near or distant future, or a combination. Decide what theme best represents your community. Listen carefully to each other's suggestions. Discuss the composition of the mural.
* Decide on a format for the mural. Will your mural be permanently painted on a wall of your school, on an abandoned wall in town, or on a long section of butcher paper? Divide the class into "committees" and ask each committee to propose three alternative sites for the mural. The committees should argue for and against each site, and then select one. The class should then act as a single committee and select a site and conditions for the community mural. The mural might need more than one section to allow for multiple designs. Committees can then begin to sketch designs for each section of the mural. What colors will best represent the mood of the mural? What will be the focal point?
* Decide how you will begin the work. Do you want to have each person work on one section and assemble each piece to make the mural, like you might for a quilt? Or, do you want to draw the mural as one large piece and then have small groups work on it together?
* Assign a job to each person in each group. For example, one person in each group should record the alternative and final decisions. This way, the teacher can monitor any problems that the groups have while they work.
* Set the students to working on their mural. Require thumbnail sketches and then have students select one or two designs to enlarge to full-size. Allow several class periods to create the murals.
* After the murals have been completed, the teacher should lead a group critique. Have students adopt different roles in the community such as the lead artist, local assistants, a local art teacher, a local historian, a banker, the newspaper editor, and the postmaster. How does each community member react to the finished design? How does each think everyone else will react? Invite the "real" local characters to critique the mural. Will this be a mural that survives the test of time and is studied by future art students? Why or why not? Write a letter for a time capsule and explain to future historians why you chose the themes and style you chose. Compare your work to that of the 1930s muralists.
Argiro, C. (2004). Teaching with public art. Art Education, 57(4), pp.25-32.
Gherman, B. (2000). Norman Rockwell: Storyteller with a brush. Atheneum Books/ Simon & Schuster.
Lawrence, J. (1993). The Great Migration: An American story, paintings by Jacob Lawrence. New York: Museum of Modern Art, with The Phillips Collection. HarperCollins.
Marling, K. S. (1982). Wall to wall America: Post office murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Zwirn, S. G. (2004) Men and women at work: The portrayal of American workers by three artists of the 1930s and 1940s. Art Education, 57 (2), pp. 25-32.
Following is a list of additional resources about Depression-era murals. Most of these resources include information on a variety of forms of WPA support for artists, including murals in public schools.
Becker, H. (2002). Art for the people: The rediscovery and preservation of progressive and WPA-era murals in the Chicago public schools, 1904-1943. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Beckham, S. B. (1989). Depression post office murals and southern culture: A gentle reconstruction. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Benton, T. H. (1983). An artist in America. Columbia, MO, and London: University of Missouri Press, fourth revised edition.
Bustard, B. I., (1997). A new deal for the arts. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, in association with the University of Washington Press.
Lance, M. (1981). Artists at work: A film on the New Deal art projects. New Deal Films, Inc., P.O. Box 2953 Corrales, NM 87048.
There are also records of correspondence from the Department of the Treasury to the artists and postmasters in the National Archives/College Park, Section 121. Some of this information is available on the National Archives website at http://www.archives.gov.
This Instructional Resources was made possible by a Faculty Research Grant from the University of Mississippi, Offices of Research.
Mary Jane Zander is Assistant Professor of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. When this article was written she was Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the University of Mississippi, Oxford.…