Warren Susman described America during the Depression as a nation in the throes of a "cultural crisis". Psychological studies from the early Depression found that most unemployed Americans considered their financial troubles a personal failure and feared for their family's future. The trauma of displacement, hunger, and shame, significantly impacted culture. In response to this sense of loss, Americans idealized the past. Colonial villages were preserved, more museums opened, murals of historic moments in towns were painted, and movies celebrated simpler times. In stark contrast to the romantic ideas about the past, people were also becoming increasingly aware of the pervasiveness of technology in American life. The promise of technology was weighed heavily against the cost of progress.

In 1927 alone there were a number of significant achievements in technology, including "radio-telephone service between New York and London, San Francisco and Manila; the development of the first national radio network; the opening of the Holland Tunnel, the first underwater vehicular tunnel in the world; the introduction of talking films; [and] the production of Henry Ford's fifteen-millionth automobile." For the first time, these technological advancements connected massive numbers of people across the country. Suddenly people were seeing the same images, listening to the same radio programs, purchasing mass-produced national newspapers and magazines, and communicating cross-country via the telephone.

This was also a period of great movement through the travel and displacement that resulted from the economic crisis, wide distribution of the automobile, and an improved transportation infrastructure. Large billboards advertised the "American Way of Life" with images of happy families in new cars, vacationing in America. These advertisements were only part of a larger movement in the visual arts. Art was becoming accessible to more people through all of the aforementioned technological advancements, advertising, and federal funding for the arts.

Before the U.S. government starting funding the arts, a group of influential, federally funded, Mexican artists called los tres grandes brought the Mexican search for identity to the Mexican public walls in "the first important mural movement that originated outside of Europe". In the early nineteen thirties, the most famous of these artists, Diego Rivera, provided American intellectuals with a symbolic and physical representation of the two sides of the American debate regarding the cost of progress.


Start here for information on the way Rivera was received by the public.  Magazine articles and quotes are included.   After reading the PT Barnum page, read this page for images from William Chase's book on Mexico and the U.S.   After reading the PT Barnum page, read this page to learn about how the Fords, and other conservatives tried to establish themselves as cultural leaders.