THE STORY OF THE MURALS

While concepts such as "national culture" and "regional identity" were being circulated, tested, and tried,it was the actual artwork; the tangible murals and photographs produced by the multitude of artists during the Great Depression, that proved functional in the attempt to create a sense of a growing American idea of culture. However, while both the muralists and photographers employed by the WPA were commissioned to create art that reflected the American life they were living and observing, the murals and photographs sometimes showed otherwise.

Edward Bruce's Section of Fine Arts labored from 1934 to 1943 at the threefold task of commissioning art which satisfied the government and public, the artists who produced it, and its own quality standard (McKinzie, The New Deal for Artists). Thus, while this was a burden for the Section, it was equally a burden for the artists themselves.It was the artists who were trying to produce their best work, with a creative flair and a personal touch to proudly display to the American public. When they were creating murals, they were not painting with the concerns of a nation-wide depression nor an attempt at fostering a new culture resting on their minds. Instead, they were focusing on producing the purist art; an art which reflected both their subjects and the pictures they were envisioning in their own heads. Yet, unfortunately for these artists and for the genuine concern of the arts in general, freedom to create was not necessarily theirs.

Because the artwork produced was intended to be displayed in some very prominent, American buildings, the art had to conform to the demands of the government who was paying for it. Presumably, art in buildings in Washington DC and small towns across America needed to be relative to the importance of the agency occupying the structure (McKinzie).

This mandate caused controversy regarding the murals produced throughout the country. The controversy began in the competitions organized to select specific works to be on display mentioned earlier in this project. An artist submitting work in a specific area would have to adapt his or her style and form to fit within the prescribed guidelines of a specific region. Once the artist was selected for a specific area, he would have to continue to create all of his art in the form of his winning submission. This tactic, besides halting the creativity of many artists, proved to be problematic as well, because the government standards often times did not reflect the whims, wants,and ways of life of the people in certain communities. What was produced in an overall attempt to celebrate the fruits of a specific region was often the federal perception and desired perception of a certain location and not really an accurate and actual portrayal of respective pieces of American life.

But, while accuracy was missing, publicly expressed outrage and demands for change certainly were not.Residents of Port Washington, NY objected to Paul Cadmus's designs for the local post office showing the resort town's summer people engaged in youthful sports, and especially to a girl clad in shorts in a yachting panel. Cadmus, on Section orders after public protest, reworked his design and put pajamas on the "hot stuff" in the yachting panel (McKinzie). This anecdote has several consequences. From the perspective of the artist and of art as a form in general, Cadmus had the intergrity and purity of his mural tainted and tampered with not once, but twice. He was intially given orders by the section regarding what they considered  an appropriate and accurate portrayel of Port Washinton, NY. He submitted his mural with a touch of his creative flair surfacing in the form of a carefree female on a yacht, and the people of Port Washington objected to it. He was then ordered by the Section, who heard the complaints of the people, to change his work to satisfy both theirs and the Port Washington residents' desires. The result, is a painting of a young girl on a summer afternoon wearing pajamas on a yacht, not exactly the intent of the artist, the government, nor the Port Washington, NY residents.

The creation of an American culture? Of a culture that reflects the people? In this instance, that is clearly not the case. Instead, what becomes a part of the culture is art that has been manipulated and changed almost so that it is not representative of America but instead of the mandates and stipulations it has had to endur. Thus, this unfortunate reality results sometimes from the original positive intention of the artwork.

However, this event was not just an isolated one. In the mining community of Kellogg, Idaho,, Local 18 of the Mine Workers and Smelt Workers praised Fletcher Martin's dramatic design, "Mine Rescue" as distinctly appropriate for the post office while local industrialists rejected it as not in harmony with existing conditions (McKinzie). In this instance, a conflict emerges between individual conceptions of a geographic location. This problem in Idaho also sheds light on the overall problem of the competitions in general. The compeition was entirely subjective. The standards were created by those commissioned by the WPA to determine what type of mural to place in different US regions. Different people, operating in different regions, upheld different standards, and often left out very talented artist simply because they weren't fully aware of how to compete and to be selected.

The murals painted and ultimately displayed as a result of the WPA were not done so without controversy, discrepancy, and government tampering. While the artwork often did help unify communities and provide struggling Americans with a unifying sense of belonging and understanding, at the same time, they unjustly tainted the creation of American art as a pure form and the construction of American national culture and identity as a reflection of the American way of life.

PHOTOGRAPHY