Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview

7

MANLY WORK

Public art and masculinity in Depression America

Barbara Melosh

From the public monuments of Washington, DC, to the walls of small-town post offices, the New Deal left its mark in an ambitious public art program. Many of those works featured muscular, working-class versions of masculinity. This essay explores the recurring features and settings associated with the manly worker and interprets the figure as it participates in the gendered discourses of the state even as it reveals contemporary discourses of gender. The special conditions of this government-sponsored art create unusual opportunities for cultural historians, and this essay uses those sources to interpret the image through evidence of its production and reception. On one hand, the manly worker was a species of New Deal propaganda, an emblem of the enduring values of manhood and work in the face of economic depression, and a symbol of the state itself. On the other hand, the type of the manly worker was also found in labor union and radical rhetoric; as the historical record shows, it was interpreted in various ways by different audiences. This multiplicity may have accounted for its wide appeal, the essay suggests; the figure played on widely shared anxieties about masculinity that in turn expressed many Americans’ concerns about changes in work and family life.

* * *

Worker (fig. 7.1), installed in a small West Virginia post office in 1941, illustrates the version of masculinity sponsored by the New Deal’s Treasury Section of Fine Arts, a program that funded more than 1,400 art works for federal buildings across the nation. Bare-chested and heavily muscled, the figure

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