Art for the Millions at Metropolitan Museum review — 1930s America through the eyes of its artists

During the 1930s, an army of artists mobilised to describe what America was, explain what it should be and warn against what it could become. The art of those years, whether funded by the government, by leftwing organisations or by private entities, was not just aspirational, idealistic or empathetic; it coalesced into a massive wave of activism.

The Metropolitan Museum’s varied and invigorating Art for the Millions attempts to present the dozen years between Black Tuesday and Pearl Harbor as a time of diversity and expressive extremes. An introductory text panel compares the Depression to “our current age of political division and widening inequality”. The visual world was similarly polarised, “notable for representing an exceptional range of political messaging”.

The show’s curator Allison Rudnick is trying to have it both ways here (just as the New Deal government did), invoking a nation of free and robust debate and social solidarity at the same time. Millions folds in participants from outside the canon, including women and black artists, whose names have been forgotten but whose sense of purpose flowed into the great river of reform. Their tropes are familiar: buckled bodies on breadlines, muscular workers wielding massive tools, strikers raising fists.

Yet you would never know from this exhibition that there was a political spectrum in the art world at all. It opens with a collection of strident propaganda, much of it mediocre, some of it great, all of it in step with the tenets of social realism. The right barely makes an appearance in subsequent galleries, hidden both by the shadow of the left at the time and curatorial sleight of hand today. The show manages to smooth over the very jagged edges it claims to bare.

Charles White’s ‘Sojourner Truth and Booker T Washington’ (1943) © The Newark Museum of Art

A section on “cultural nationalisms” ranges through a depiction of a Hopi corn dance, posters for the National Park Service, Charles White’s double portrait of “Sojourner Truth and Booker T Washington” — and Thomas Hart Benton’s “Approaching Storm” (1940). In that lithograph, a farmer with ropey arms and an anonymising hat drives a pair of donkeys over a swelling, fertile field. All is wholesome and well, except for the bank of grim clouds sweeping in from the horizon. These disparate works share in what Rudnick calls a “heightened state of patriotism”. Distinguishing American art from European Modernism was a joint project across ideological divides.

But that one work by Benton, along with a portrait of the abolitionist John Brown by John Steuart Curry, stands in for the whole Regionalist movement, which, though the Met mentions it only in passing, was the subject of an influential and inflammatory 1933 exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute. The curator of that show, Maynard Walker, trumpeted “real American art . . . which really springs from American soil and seeks to interpret American life”. (He also included the painter Grant Wood, a key figure of the period who is absent from the Met.)

The group was not politically innocuous. In rhetoric that would sit comfortably in today’s most xenophobic social media, Walker contrasted the homespun values he promoted with the “shiploads of rubbish” that Paris had been inflicting on viewers in the US. In place of what he described as “freaks” and “interesting boys”, the Regionalists offered staunch middle-American men.

Benton saw the New York art world through a cloud of antisemitic and homophobic resentment. “It is not all right when, by ingratiation or subtle connivance, precious fairies get into positions of power and judge, buy and exhibit American pictures on a base of nervous whim and under the sway of those overdelicate refinements of taste characteristic of their kind,” he fulminated.

All of this — the heartland Americana, the whiteness and the grudge-bearing claims of superiority — was music to the conservative media tycoon Henry Luce, the founder of Time. Luce put a Benton self-portrait on the cover of the magazine in 1934, making him for a time the most famous painter in the nation. If I linger on what’s missing from the Met, it’s because it leaves out one side of the fight for the soul of America.

A picture of lines of people dressed in fancy costume
Tonita Peña’s ‘Pueblo Parrot Dance’ (c1935) © Denis Doorly/National Gallery of Art

Ironically, the messaging from the left and right wound up looking much the same. One gave us hunched and sinewed labourers building the palaces of capitalist overlords. The other churned out hunched and sinewed farm boys ploughing furrows.

John Brown looked similarly prophet-like whether painted by Curry, the ornery bard of Kansas, or the leftie Reuben Kadish (who studied with Benton). Artists of opposite political inclinations all scorned the European avant-garde, claimed to articulate the vox populi and seasoned their realism with mannerist exaggeration.

What the show does well is point out that the search for a uniquely American identity was a truly inclusive, bipartisan project, powered by empathy, meticulousness and rage. We watch photographers fan out across the country to chronicle how people carried on with formidably difficult lives.

Paining of a group of men with signs of protest
Dox Thrash’s ‘Untitled (Strike)’ (c1940) © Barbara Katus/Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
A poster of the Grand Canyon
Chester Don Powell’s ‘Grand Canyon National Paark’ government service poster (c1938) © Library of Congress

Ben Shahn found two young cotton-pickers hauling bags three times their size — burdens they could probably never lay down. He documented relative privilege with equal incisiveness. His pinched church ladies amble down a dilapidated street in Natchez, Mississippi, their grimaces casting a gloomier pall than their funereal garb.

Walker Evans combed the country, assembling evidence of a society shot through with disarray and stoic promise. His dispassionate portraits of Alabama sharecroppers and idled Mississippi barbers have lent him a reputation as a saintly humanitarian evangelising for the welfare state. Yet he tempered idealism with aestheticism; his photo of the barefooted farmer Floyd Burroughs and his daughter Lucille makes them look like Nordic deities disguised in tattered clothing and slumming in a mortal’s shack.

Among all this fervour, the government-funded Index of American Design shone as an apparently dispassionate encyclopedia of craft. The Federal Art Project dispatched 400 illustrators all over the country to hunt down local traditions and reproduce them on paper. The Met has selected some mini-masterpieces from among the 18,000 images: painstaking watercolours of embroidered chair seats from coastal New England, Shaker furniture, face jugs by enslaved potters in the South and textiles by Indigenous artists from the South-west. The virtuosity of anonymous artisans and unsung illustrators amplify each other in these ravishing pages.

The show ends with a vision of intertwined beauty and progress. Posters and paraphernalia from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and the New York edition six years later proclaim confidence that the nation could zoom out of the shabby present into an era of aerodynamic grace. Speed became aspirational, and the design of ships, locomotives, torpedoes and zeppelins flowed into the look of the Polaroid lamp, the Herman Miller electric clock and, even more spectacularly, the futuristic meat slicer designed by Egmont Arens and Theodore Brookhart.

A red square radio with large dials and a handle on the top
A radio by American industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/John C Waddell Collection

The Met show concludes just as the second world war brought an end to the Depression and the utopian idea that art could uplift the masses. MoMA purchased its first Jackson Pollock in 1944, at which point the tornado of Abstract Expressionism swept away even the memory of all the toilers with raised fists and grim faces who had populated museums and murals. The Federal Art Project folded. Benton was remembered, if at all, as Pollock’s early mentor. Revolutionary fervour gave way to disappointment, and leftists in all fields faced the ferocity of postwar anticommunism. Onetime social realists such as Norman Lewis took refuge in the abstract glowing sublime.

“I used to paint Negroes being dispossessed, discrimination,” Lewis said, “and slowly I became aware of the fact that this didn’t move anybody, it didn’t make things better.”

To December 10,



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