New Deal For Artists: an unearthed film on how arts funding should work

For its 40th anniversary, the Orson Welles-narrated documentary about Franklin D Roosevelt’s post-depression artist program is getting a vital re-release

In America, the culture war over state funding of arts programs never really ends, but rather assumes slightly altered forms over time. The latest battle lines have formed around Broadway, in desperate need of an infusion of cash from the government to survive the pandemic, much to the chagrin of budget-slashing conservatives. Not so long ago, the debate centered on Andres Serrano’s urine-soaked crucifix Piss Christ, intended as an improbable expression of faith yet overwritten as an act of sacrilege by an outraged Christian right. Though it takes up an absurdly minuscule amount of tax revenue, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) attracts more heat than most federal ventures, to the point that attacking it has become something of a national tradition for Republicans – one that predates the NEA itself.

In 1935, as part of the Second New Deal designed to get the American people back on their feet in the wake of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration. Dedicated to employing the millions left without a job by the financial downturn, the agency facilitated the construction of innumerable public buildings and roads, but also reserved a chunk of its capital for a special branch deemed Federal Project Number One. This program disbursed grants to nearly 40,000 artists, writers, musicians, actors and other creative types before the WPA’s dissolution in 1942, ushering in a cultural renaissance that would lay the track for the following century’s achievements. This did not stop FDR’s critics from painting it as the vanity lark of a liberal lily-liver, however.

A 1981 documentary titled New Deal for Artists relates the obscure, seemingly dry, yet altogether edifying history of this unheralded golden era for American art. Produced for and aired on German television, it’s developed a reputation as something of a lost treasure due both to its forward-thinking stance on the vitality of an industry beyond manufacturing goods or generating money, as well as the narration from the velvety-voiced Orson Welles. Though unavailable to view for decades, this fascinating artifact has now been unearthed and restored for its widest release yet, exposing a fundamental chapter in the narrative of America’s identity.

As Welles explains in ear-caressing voiceover, pretty much every big name born between 1900 and 1915 got their start through the benevolence of the WPA. The ranks of its esteemed alumni include such titans of the written word as Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Studs Terkel; painters from Jackson Pollock to Mark Rothko to Willem de Kooning; and dramaturges like Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey and Welles himself. Without the security and room to experiment afforded to them by the auspices of the Project, a gargantuan crater would be left in the face of America’s heritage.

But those destined for fame weren’t the only ones benefiting from the nurturing environment fostered by Roosevelt’s patronage. The film dedicates a good chunk of its time to the marginalized voices empowered through the arts, minorities otherwise unable to enjoy the spoils of movie studios, record labels or other white-dominated industry institutions. The Federal Theatre Project sub-section brought African American casts and directors to cities all across the country for shows highlighting the strife and striving of Black communities. (This is the origin of Welles’ legendary production of Macbeth, its setting transposed from Scotland to a tropical island, and featuring an all-Black cast.) Yiddish plays and Native American photography were able to flourish “unimpeded by financial pressures and commercial consideration”, forming a clearer and more truthful image of the United States’ diverse makeup.

A still from New Deal for Artists

While some hardline leftists objected to the WPA’s gestalt, claiming that accepting money from the “bourgeois state” meant “making friends out of the mammoth of iniquity”, the resultant works still hewed to an anti-authoritarian bent. The so-called Living Newspaper rose to prominence as a type of agitprop performance in which the day’s headlines would be dramatized to urge social action from the galvanized audience. These vignette collections emphasized the injustice of capitalism, its fictions illustrating the real-life mistreatment of Dust Bowl farmers (as in Triple-A Plowed Under) and the lamentable conditions of inner-city slums (as in One-Third of a Nation). Children were invited to get in on the percolating revolution too; the notorious play Revolt of the Beavers imagined a valiant worker beaver rising up with his fellow laborers in rebellion against their beaver taskmaster.

The all-but-overt communist messaging in this and many other recipients of WPA funding attracted unwanted attention from the then new House Un-American Activities Committee. A rising tide of jingoistic panic-mongering over the looming “red menace” compelled Congress to shut down the Federal Theatre Project, and the dip in unemployment caused by the second world war led Roosevelt to dissolve the Works Progress Administration completely a few years later. Paranoia ended a uniquely fruitful period in American culture, and began an unending clash between artists of the people and the powerful few working to silence them.

Making this film widely accessible doesn’t just ensure that the great works championed by government aid won’t be forgotten. It’s a testament to a more enlightened way of thinking, an understanding that “art for art’s sake” is a misleading phrase – when art thrives, it’s for all of our sakes.

  • New Deal For Artists is available on virtual cinemas in the US from 21 May with a UK date to be announced


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
In the Absence of Light: celebrating the history of black artists in America
In a compelling new HBO documentary, film-maker Sam Pollard speaks to prominent creatives to tell the struggle and success of African American art

Robert Daniels

10, Feb, 2021 @6:40 PM

Article image
From no deal to New Deal: how Boris Johnson could follow FDR and save the arts
In the grip of the Great Depression, America bankrolled 10,000 artists – and reaped the rewards. As Britain’s arts face oblivion, will Boris Johnson’s £1.57bn rescue package match up to Roosevelt’s New Deal?

Stuart Jeffries

06, Jul, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Artists from Muslim-majority countries deal with chaos from 'absurd' travel ban
Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi and acclaimed musician Rahim AlHaj are among the singers, film-makers and comedians whose plans are thrown in disarray

Nadja Sayej

01, Feb, 2017 @4:28 PM

Article image
Driven to Abstraction: the inside story of a $60m art forgery hoax
For 15 years, one of New York’s most prestigious art galleries sold forged paintings – a new film explores how the art world fell for it

Adrian Horton

28, Aug, 2020 @2:12 PM

Article image
Master of Light: how one man went from poverty to prison to painting
In an inspiring HBO documentary, the classical painter George Anthony Morton reviews his past of hardship and incarceration

Radheyan Simonpillai

16, Nov, 2022 @6:41 AM

Article image
‘He’s telling a story of his time’: how Bill Traylor, born into slavery, became an art titan
Referred to as ‘the greatest artist you’ve never heard of’, Bill Traylor’s compelling life is put under the spotlight in a new documentary

Lisa Wong Macabasco

15, Apr, 2021 @5:45 PM

Article image
The Painter and the Thief: behind the year's most moving documentary
An eye-opening new film unspools the unusual emotional bond between a Czech painter and the Norwegian man who stole two of her works

Adrian Horton

20, May, 2020 @12:59 PM

Article image
Our Time Machine: a moving documentary on art, family and dementia
Acclaimed Chinese artist Maleonn found an unusual way to stage a tribute and a time capsule to his family when his father’s health deteriorates

Beatrice Loayza

11, Sep, 2020 @8:03 AM

Article image
'Thrilling and prophetic': why film-maker Chris Marker's radical images influenced so many artists
From experimental sci-fi to cartoon cats, Chris Marker's work was profound, prophetic and hugely influential. Ahead of a new exhibition, Sukhdev Sandhu and others examine his cult appeal

Sukhdev Sandhu, William Gibson, Mark Romanek, Joanna Hogg

15, Apr, 2014 @10:30 PM

Article image
Queercore: behind a documentary reliving the gay punk movement
As the origins of the radical subculture are explored in a new film director Yony Leyser and key figure Bruce LaBruce discuss its relevancy today

Jim Farber

20, Sep, 2018 @8:00 AM