What impact did the conditions of the 1930s have on the arts? What were the significant art movements and contributions of this decade?

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The 1930s was the era of the Great Depression characterized by economic ruin, collapse of banking and financial institutions--which, incidentally lead to expanded government power in the regulatory agency the Securities and Exchange Commission--farm failures, deaths, bread and soup lines, railroad tramps, land devastation such as the Great Dust Bowl, and financially and morally broken families. Despite this shattering background, the arts in America entered an age of innovation, energy and purpose characterized by a flourishing in virtually every art form in America from music to painting to advertising art to literature. Some of the factors that had an impact on the arts and gave impetus to the flourishing of art of the 1930s were:

  • need for distracting entertainment
  • government subsidy of art
  • visions of suffering across the land
  • chronicling of American culture and history as it was being formed and made
  • technological advances
  • psychological orientation toward both need and solutions
  • political influences
  • influences of Modernism in art
  • emphasis on the plight of the "common man"
  • emergence of antipathy toward American falseness and hypocrisy
  • rejection of political status quo
  • recognition of regional and folk tales and art forms
  • interest in exposing and documenting conditions and culture in America
  • popularization of previously regional music forms
  • reconsideration of popular mass media
  • European emigres from the world of the arts in America

These and other factors had an impact on American art and led to the development of various art movements. One such movement was that of modern dance as developed by Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey whose choreography synthesized fusions of ballet, expressionism, and jazz. Painters explored countrysides and produced scenes on murals that had charged political subjects or undertones in the movement of Abstract Expressionism. Hollywood entered its Golden Age from which emerged the studios and the American Style of filmmaking, a style that would become the benchmark for films internationally so that variations from the American style would be seen as radical experiments rather than as alternative expressions of the art form of film making. A music movement embracing Southern regional and ethnic forms of folk (usually associated with white Southerners) and blues (originated by black Americans) music were introduced across America and popularized by musicologists like, for example, Alan Lomax and Howard Odum. Later, white jazz musicians adapted the blues of the black South and turned into the Swing movement that swept the country in a white form, epitomized by musicians and bandleaders such as Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey (to name just two from a wide field of Big Band swing movements' greats), and a black form epitomized by musicians and bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie (to name two of the black Big Band swing and jitterbug greats who included vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, Cab Calloway, and the Nicholas Brothers who were also dancers).

In the process of assimilating the new conventions that Modernism introduced in art during previous decades, American artists' experimentation showed the result of the encounter between modernism and the Depression as artists working in visual and literary forms (including lyricists) focused their attention of how the "common man" was affected (of course today we would say the "common person" to include male and female) since the artists' feelings were that their work would become irrelevant if it did not reflect their present day reality of poverty, joblessness and suffering. President Herbert Hoover was intent upon representing the Depression as a purely psychological phenomenon that would be rectified by optimism and confidence in the business and financial market, in the banks and stock exchanges, yet, as art began to reflect, the common person's experience belied this political whitewashing of the situation. This was in keeping with the novels of Fitzgerald and Sinclair that exposed the falseness of American society. Similarly, in response to Hoover, popular culture artists, like advertising man Albert Lasker, added their contributions to expose the hypocrisy of the government. At the same time, the spirit of documentary and exposé writing swept novelists, like Theodore Dreiser and Dos Passos, to write about real events that were afflicting the working man such as the Harlan County, Kentucky, coal strike. Authors like Sherwood Anderson and Edward Dahlberg focused on regional exposés and travelogues to give a picture of true circumstances throughout America while photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans gave photojournalistic representations of the homelessness, rootlessness and sorrow spread throughout the country.

As part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, agencies and newly implemented federal programs supported the efforts of these artists as they exposed and documented and represented the true conditions of the country. For instance, the federal Farm Security Administration supported the efforts of photographers like those mentioned above and Margaret Bourke-White while a host of other programs supported federally funded projects for artists, musicians, dancers, and writers under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These WPA projects supported painters, like abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, and other artists but had a special objective in exploring and preserving American folk art and tales. Through the WPA, the Federal Writers' Project's (FWP's) American Guide series hired writers to collect and document the history and folktales of individual states and locales. For instance, the FWP compiled the memories of African Americans who had been born slaves, a collection published in 1947 as Lay My Burden Down while theFederal Music Project funded an index of American folk music and composers. Documentaries exposed specific oppression in different regions and suggested reforms while the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) Living Newspaper series exposed political struggles on the stage through original plays that were highly critical of big business, landowners, and bigots, such as Marc Blitzstein's prounion opera The Cradle Will Rock (1937) and Helen Tamiris's choreographed dances Salut au Monde (1936). Within this liberality, however, was an anti-conservative tendency such that T.S. Eliot's social conservatism and Ezra Pound's ardent fascism were incompatible with the aims, programs and objectives of the WPA. Conservative Robert Frost even wrote anti-New Deal poems. While conservatives held positions that were incompatible with the WPA, Regional and Southern art, folk art, folktales and oral histories reaped all the benefits of the Federal New Deal programs for the advancement of labor, arts, American culture and history.

Hollywood and the filmmaking art and industry played an important role in providing psychological relief and strengthening for the trials facing American workers and families during the 1930s. Movies cost only twenty to thirty cents so were accessible to a broad span of Americans, even in the Depression. The economic pressures of the Depression had two significant effects on filmmaking. The first was that small independent movie studios and movie theaters were forced to close down leaving only the nine major studios in a financial position to continue to operate. The second was that European-style filmmaking experimentation, such as are exemplified by Renoir in France and by Expressionism in German, was written out of the budget and films that brought audiences--and thus revenue to the studios--were emphasized: the studios emphasized films that entertained. As result of these two effects, the American film industry became the world filmmaking giant and the American Film style became the standard of filmmaking, representing glamor, beauty, happy endings for heroines and heroes, rich sets and costumes depicting upper class life, and big name stars. Of course there were dark films as well in which good did not triumph and in which the unglamorous, villainous side of unfortunate life were represented, but the big box office money-makers were of the optimistic, entertaining sort of films featuring names like Irene Dunn, Clark Gable and Cary Grant while many of the biggest stars, like Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant, were European or English. 

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Certainly, the Great Depression had rippling effects upon all aspects of America. In fact, artists had little choice but to react to the times, or risk becoming lost. Thus, at least in great part, the 1930s became a decade of documentary expression, one in which artists explored alternate representational forms, all designed with the aim of revealing an often desperate reality, or of planning an escape from this reality as was characteristic of the films of that time.

Since art often reflects life, writers such as William Faulkner and John Steinbeck realistically depicted the times in their novels. Steinbeck's magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath, as well as his novella Of Mice and Men are both narratives of the dispossessed who become migrant workers in California, bearing the desperate hope of reclaiming ownership, family, and friends. Within these works, too, the underlying interest that many shared with Steinbeck in Socialism is also prevalent. In Grapes of Wrath, for instance, the government camp, built as part of the National Recovery Act of the New Deal, that the Joads stay in for a while is superior in quality to any of the others. 

Other novelists turned to journalism in the early 1930s. For instance the naturalist Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos traveled to Harlan County, Kentucky, to report on the coal strike taking place. In his USA Trilogy, Dos Passos creates Newsreels that begin or interrupt chapters, creating a novel which was combined with journalism. Sherwood Anderson and others wrote about the suffering of the common people in exposes and narratives, both. Certainly among the most memorable artistic efforts are the photographers of the latter part of the decade:  Such photographers as Dorothea Lange who moved in the migrant worker camps and photographed the desperation of these people brought the plight of many to public attention. Photographer Margaret Bourke-While depicted the disenfranchised, as well, often under the commission of the federal Farm Security Administration. Another great photographer, Ansel Adams, developed a technique that presented dimensional views of the West and the National Parks.

Curiously, the desperate times gave rise to a "Vital Decade" as artists launched themselves into expressive forms. For example, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey choreographed their first fusions of ballet, expressionism, and jazz. This was a synthesis came to define what has become modern dance. With the reportage of the migration of people from heretofore unfamiliar regions to those in the East, farmers and country singers, blues singers in Deep South came to attentions of people from other areas of the country. In order to uplift people, Hollywood took this new music and occurrences and rewrote them into entertaining movies while artists painted politically charged murals. Modernism began after World War I, and it continued through the 1930s, but Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, and Woody Guthrie became nationally known folk musicians and the arts "discovered the common man." 

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