Thursday, March 13, 2008

WPA Posters

Over the last week I've been reading Nick Taylor's brand new history of the Works Progress Administration, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA. I've long maintained a keen admiration for the WPA, which proved to be one of the most significant programs of the New Deal. Over eight years and $11 billion, the WPA employed 8.5 million Americans and saw the construction of airports, parks, roads, public swimming pools, and numerous other public works projects. The WPA employed writers, actors, artists, and historians, who collected an invaluable series of narratives from the remaining African-American citizens who had lived under slavery. Authors for the Federal Writers' Project even produced guidebooks for each of the states and many cities.

Yet my favorite part of the WPA program has to be the support given to the arts and artists themselves. And while I was especially familiar with the murals painted by WPA artists in post offices and other government buildings, I wasn't as well acquainted with examples of the poster art produced through WPA funding. Of course, posters constituted one of the most important media vehicles of this period, both here and abroad, and were used in advertising everything from movies to travel destinations. (One of my favorite series of posters, for example, is the collection created for the London subway system and Britain's national rail network during this period.) In an age before television, many of these posters represent the 1930s equivalent of our current PSAs, taking on subjects like hygiene, national security, and even safe sex.

Perusing a catalog of WPA posters I was surprised to see how many of these works - most often three- and four-color prints - resembled the socialist realism style then employed in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Obviously the messages were different, but the artists often employed the same idioms of color and design!

Not surprisingly, conservatives in this country opposed the WPA, believing it represented a blatant example of the "creeping socialism" ascribed to Roosevelt's New Deal in general. Such opposition seems puzzling when one considers how many people benefited in areas where state and local governments had failed at relief efforts by 1935. Conservatives also asserted that the WPA was at best an acronym for "We Piddle Around," but this claim seems patently false against the legacy of WPA achievements.

In addition, opponents of the WPA loudly decried the record of federal funding for arts programs. Given the strain of anti-intellectualism that has infected American conservatism, particularly among religious conservatives, this charge isn't shocking. The last thing arch-conservatives wanted in the United States was educated masses with artistic sensibilities, believing the combination would facilitate the spread of liberalism, humanism, and even communism. (Although the anti-communist theme isn't as strong today for obvious reasons, the situation is little different. Indeed, according to Susan Jacoby in her recently-published monograph, The Age of American Unreason, anti-intellectualism in America seems even stronger now, which is starkly at odds with the Enlightenment foundation on which this country was founded.)

But enough sermonizing . . . Here are a few examples of the WPA-funded posters produced between 1935 and 1943. My favorites are the Lake Placid and Philadelphia Zoo posters.


Kitty said...

I love poster design. Love, love, love. And how graphic are these? They are bold, legible from afar, easily understood by the masses.

The hippo is beautiful. Really gorgeous.

BooCat said...

The posters have withstood the test of time, have they not? They all still fly today.
The W.P.A./F.A.P. employed architects and builders, also. The school I attended when we first moved to Central Alabama had a W.P.A./F.A.P. signpost on the corner of the lot. There were many such schools built in the rural south.