A particularly disastrous period in the history of the United States are bound to a remarkably abundant chapter in the nation’s artistic heritage. As part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the infrastructure and employment initiative deployed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, tens of thousands of artists were responsible for creating public works. The names once tied to the Federal Art Project, the visual arts arm of the program, have come to define the American the modernist canon Jacob Lawrence, known for his transformative narrative masterpieces of The life and history of black Americans, received early training at a workshop in Harlem sponsored by the WPA; Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner, who produced New Deal Initiative murals from 1935 to 1943, called it is “a lifeline”.
Still, the WPA had its skeptics and detractors, many of whom were conservative politicians who criticized the projects as expensive giveaways; one Republican representative described the arts arm specifically as a “nursery of communists.” In the face of these attacks, American artist and labor activist William Gropper has come to the defense of the program with his incisive political cartoons, a group of which goes under the hammer at the Swann Galleries this week as part of his “WPA Artists“auctions.
Baptized “protector of workersfor his works of social realism and unwavering commitment to the proletariat, Gropper drew inspiration from the Ashcan School, a movement focused on depictions of everyday New York City. His cartoons have appeared in mainstream and left-leaning publications such as the morning freiheit, according to Christine von der Linn, director of the Art of Illustration department at Swann.
“Freiheit was Manhattan’s main Communist Yiddish newspaper at the time
;“, von der Linn told Hyperallergic in an interview. “His dedication to this, and similar activist publications he has contributed to, such as The new masses, was so strong that he was often unpaid for his work.
One of the drawings in the sale shows Uncle Sam hammered on the head by anti-dealers. In another one, a reviewer of the program heaves a bulging bag of cash, proclaiming, “Save! Turn off the WPA! A third cartoon, titled “Wage Standard”, features the same dandy Mr. Moneybags character, this time towering over the WPA recipients and about to swing an axe.
At Gropper’s satire, opponents of the New Deal are depicted furiously frowning, donning top hats and suits often adorned with a dollar sign, exuding the very wealth and privilege from which their selfishness derives. The images are related to the current moment, a moment of intense decline in public spending widely voiced by conservative policymakers.
“Attacks on WPA mismanagement and costs were often satirized in daily cartoons. Gropper was a lifelong advocate for social justice and answered the call,” von der Linn said. “What I admire about these works is that they embody his biting caricatures of politicians and industrial moguls against workers and noble causes in direct and brutal imagery.”
The sale, taking place online this Thursday, Jan. 27, features more than 400 works by artists whose New Deal works have sown the seeds of a new American visual lexicon, including Thomas Hart Benson, Dorothea Lange and Grant Wood.
“As the New Deal programs waned and the war effort became the main wave of change, the United States had finally emerged from the Depression era and was well on its way to becoming a world power,” said Harold Porcher, director of Swann. Post-War and Modern Art and Sale Organizer, Hyperallergic told. “The New Deal and the work programs of several artists who came out of it ushered in an era of progress.”