Murals as Documents of Social History

Article excerpt

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.


Students will:

* 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.

Historical Background

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. …