Federal Art and National Culture: The Politics of Identity in New Deal America

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Federal Art and National Culture: The Politics of Identity in New Deal America. Jonathan Harris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 240 PP

This is an excellent book in what promises to be an excellent series ("Cambridge Studies in American Visual Culture"). It attempts to "put art and artists within an historical context of changing systems of taste, strategies for self-promotion, and ideological, social, and political tensions." In this instance, Jonathan Harris has been successful.

Being English, he is astonished at our neglect of the federal art of the 1930s and 1940s, championed by the triumphant modernist philippic of people like Clement Greenberg, Irving Sadler, and Barbara Rose. In order to push their new abstract principles, they had to dismiss, even damn and condemn, what had gone before. In this they were successful.

In most histories of 20th century American art, the Public Works of Art Project (1933-34), Treasury Relief Art Project (1935-43) and the Federal Art Project (1935-43) are mentioned briefly, if at all. …