Democratic Art

The New Deal's Influence on American Culture

Sharon Ann Musher

Democratic Art
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Sharon Ann Musher

280 pages | 24 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2015
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 9780226247182 Will Publish April 2015
Throughout the Great Recession American artists and public art endowments have had to fight for government support to keep themselves afloat. It wasn’t always this way. At its height in 1935, the New Deal devoted $27 million—roughly $469 million today—to supporting tens of thousands of needy artists, who used that support to create more than 100,000 works. Why did the government become so involved with these artists, and why weren’t these projects considered a frivolous waste of funds, as surely many would be today?

In Democratic Art, Sharon Musher explores these questions and uses them as a springboard for an examination of the role art can and should play in contemporary society. Drawing on close readings of government-funded architecture, murals, plays, writing, and photographs, Democratic Art examines the New Deal’s diverse cultural initiatives and outlines five perspectives on art that were prominent at the time: art as grandeur, enrichment, weapon, experience, and subversion. Musher argues that those engaged in New Deal art were part of an explicitly cultural agenda that sought not just to create art but to democratize and Americanize it as well. By tracing a range of aesthetic visions that flourished during the 1930s, this highly original book outlines the successes, shortcomings, and lessons of the golden age of government funding for the arts.
Daniel Horowitz | author of On the Cusp: The Yale Class of 1960 and a World on the Verge of Change
“Musher offers clear, helpful, and persuasive ways for us to understand the arts by cutting through the thickets of programs, approaches, and personalities. The overall result is a book that illuminates significantly the complexities of the arts in the New Deal. She skillfully weaves the strands of the stories—political, administrative, artistic—often relying on deft portraits of key players and fresh analyses of dramatic incidents. This is an impressive and important contribution to our understanding of the roles the arts have—and could—play in American culture.”
Erika Doss, University of Notre Dame
“A compelling synthesis of federally funded cultural projects undertaken in the United States from 1933 to 1945, Musher’s book is written for other historians but will certainly appeal to scholars in many fields—including American studies, cultural studies, public history, visual culture studies, and more. Eloquently written and historically balanced, the book uses anecdotal evidence and biography to animate the story of New Deal arts programming and notions of cultural capital in new and engaging ways."
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Art as a Function of Government

1. May the Artist Live?
2. Art as Grandeur
3. Art as Enrichment
4. Art as a Weapon
5. Art as Experience
6. Art as Subversion

Conclusion: A New Deal for the Arts?

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