The Great Depression of the 1930's, when suicides plummeted from skyscrapers, war veterans marched on Washington, and the suddenly poor peddled apples on the street corners, was the time, remarkably enough, when America recognized the artist as a citizen and the artist recognized himself as an artist. All at once the casteless one was one of us. It was the unlikely, unpredictable, almost fantastic result of a time of sorrow. In the midst of all that vast insecurity the artist found security.
Although the Depression's WPA was a thing of controversy which has been cantankerously chewed over ever since, it may stand as the most important single emergency measure of a desperate time. It was the finger in the dike when despair threatened to engulf the Republic. Certainly, anyway, one branch of the many branches of the Works Progress Administration--the art subsidiary--will stand as the most salutary thing that ever happened to the American artist and American art.
America's idea, as expressed then, was that it is the right of the individual to work for his living rather than to stand in a bread line. And the right of the individual is the duty of a democratic government. That pair of simple propositions did the trick for the artist.
For some eighty years, at least, he had latterly lived as an alien among us practical people, his work considered a kind of non-essential play, while his pride was reduced to a defensive vanity or turned into an impotent anger. Then, suddenly, he was hungry, too. His right to eat was obvious; his right to work was granted; the second right restored dignity and meaning to his work; and then we found out that all along he had been the man next door.