One particularly dire period in the history of the United States is tied to a remarkably bountiful chapter in the nation’s artistic legacy. 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 commissioned to create public works. Names once associated with the Federal Art Project, the program’s visual arts branch, have come to define the American modernist canon: Jacob Lawrence, known for transformative narrative masterpieces of Black American life and history, received early training at a workshop in Harlem funded by the WPA; Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner, who made murals under the New Deal initiative from 1935 to 1943, called it “a lifesaver.”
Still, the WPA had its skeptics and detractors, many of them conservative politicians who criticized the projects as costly handouts; one Republican representative described the arts arm specifically as a “hotbed of Communists.” In the face of these attacks, American artist and labor activist William Gropper came to the program’s defense with his incisive political cartoons, a group of which are going under the hammer at Swann Galleries this week as part of its “Artists of the WPA” auction.
Baptized “the workingman’s protector” for his works of social realism and unflinching commitment to the proletariat, Gropper was inspired by the Ashcan School, a movement focused on depictions of everyday New York City. His cartoons appeared in both mainstream and leftist publications such as the Morning Freiheit, according to Christine von der Linn, director of the Illustration Art Department at Swann.
“Freiheit was Manhattan’s leading Yiddish Communist paper at the time,” von der Linn told Hyperallergic. “His devotion to it, and similar activist publications to which he contributed, like The New Masses, was so strong that he often went unpaid for his work.”
One of the drawings in the sale shows Uncle Sam being hammered on the head by anti-Dealers. In another, a critic of the program hoists a bloated sack of cash while proclaiming, “Economize! Cut the WPA!” A third cartoon, titled “Wage Standard,” features the same dandy Mr. Moneybags figure, this time towering over the WPA’s beneficiaries and about to swing an ax.
In Gropper’s satire, opponents of the New Deal are depicted furiously frowning, donning a top hat and suit often adorned with a dollar sign, exuding the very wealth and privilege from which their selfishness derives. The images are apposite to the current moment, a time of intense pushback on public spending largely voiced by conservative policymakers.
“Attacks against the WPA’s mismanagement and cost was often satirized in daily cartoons. Gropper was a fierce lifelong advocate of social justice and responded to the call,” von der Linn said. “What I admire about these works is that they epitomize his biting caricatures of politicians and industry moguls against noble workers and causes in direct, blunt imagery.”
The sale, taking place online this Thursday, January 27, features more than 400 works by artists whose works under the New Deal planted the seeds for a new American visual lexicon, including Thomas Hart Benson, Dorothea Lange, and Grant Wood.
“As the programs of the New Deal ebbed and the war effort became the main tides of change, the United States was finally lifted out of the depression era and was well on its way to becoming a world power,” Harold Porcher, Swann’s Director of Post-War and Modern Art and the sale’s organizer, told Hyperallergic. “The New Deal, and multiple artists’ work programs that came out of it, ushered in an era of progress.”
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