The twentieth-century artist's relation to the governing forces of society is quite different from his predecessors'. Until the French Revolution, art had a definite social function: to act as pictorial spokesman and historian for royalty, aristocracy, or the church. But the Revolution changed all this. Capitalism and the modern state offer the artist no such system of beliefs, nor such imagery, as did the spiritual and temporal powers of the past. The creative artists of our age have been individualists rather than institutionalists, libertarians rather than authoritarians, interested in human and democratic values more than in championing material power and wealth. For some, socialism in its early Utopian phases had a strong appeal.
The cataclysm of the first World War, and the revolutions and courterrevolutions that followed, shattered the seemingly secure world of before the war. They brought home to artists, as to everyone else, the fact that political and social matters directly affect all of us. The artist's previous unconcern with such questions gave way to a growing social awareness. Modern war, with its mechanization, its increasingly destructive weapons, and its involvement of whole populations, was no longer the heroic hand-to-hand combat celebrated by the old masters, and since World War I most artists have been strongly antimilitarist.
The Depression of the 1930's gave American artists a firsthand realization of the economic ills of society. Even in normal times, painters and sculptors (except a fortunate few) are underprivileged citizens, and in hard times, they are the first to suffer. Widespread hardship among artists in the early 1930's produced a growing trend toward the left. This was intensified by the rise of fascism abroad. Like their fellows in other democracies, American artists were aroused by the Nazis' suppression of artistic freedom and their racial persecutions. These threatening events caused many to look to communism as the hope of mankind, and blinded them to its own brand of repression.
All these developments stimulated efforts to organize for economic security and defense of cultural freedom. In 1933 the Artists' Union was formed, on a trade-union basis, reaching 1,700 members within two years. In the words of its vice-president, Stuart Davis, "the artist recognizes his alignment with those who have not--the workers." The newly established government art projects gave Union members a sense of their social function and needs--and something to fight. There ensued a period of mass meetings, protests, strikes, picketing, and riots such as the art world had never witnessed. In 1936 a broader organization was launched: the American Artists' Congress, "For Peace, Democracy and Cultural Progress," and against "War, Fascism and Reaction, destroyers of art and culture." The Popular Front was endorsed, the expansion of the government projects was demanded, and the regionalist and American scene schools were branded as chauvinist. Though the Congress included individuals of differing viewpoints, its hard core became increasingly Marxist. While fascism was excoriated, the Soviet Union was always supported, even after the Moscow trials and the 1939 treaty with Nazi Germany. But when the Congress upheld the Russian invasion of Finland in 1940, its more intelligent members resigned, and its influence evaporated.
In the trough of the Depression, in 1933, the Roosevelt Administration had started a series of Federal projects employing artists for public work in their own field. While only a minute part of a vast relief operation, the projects were nevertheless the most extensive artist-employment programs ever undertaken by a modern democracy. They broke the conservative monopoly on public art, gave liberals their first opportunities in this field, and replaced academic neoclassicism with a lively interest in American life and history. And they did this while remaining relatively free of either censorship or official propaganda. Many leading artists were enabled to survive as artists, and future leaders