Art and the Great Depression

Hoboes walking by a billboard proclaiming 'Next Time Try The Train

Breadline beneath a billboard 'World's Highest Standard of Living'

These are iconic images from the era of the great Depression in America, and they gain their power from the juxtaposition of people enduring poverty against a context that promises them innovation, quality of life, abundance. As you might recall, I’ve become interested in the Depression, because of what it has to tell us about the economic situation we’re currently in. It’s been fascinating to study, as what seems to have come out of this era is the consumer culture of today, the mass market. And even more intriguing, it was in this era that the Great Divide, as it was known, came into being, between high and popular art.

Back in the thirties, there were all kinds of consumer innovations taking place – the motion picture, the radio, the automobile, the first cheaply produced plastics, the first telephone service across the Atlantic, the first picture magazines, even the first bed linens to be produced in a range of colours. But the whole system snarled itself up because, whilst the puritan work ethic had provided a highly productive work force, the idea of buying lots of stuff was considered wrong and a bit vulgar. There had to be a shift in ideas and beliefs, that made people realise they were entitled to nice things, and that they would want them. It seems as if this seachange in thinking was already taking place, as for example, this excerpt from a rather heart-rending letter from a father to Roosevelt shows; the father feels guilty because he can’t give his children ‘the little things in life such as a cone of cream or a 1 cts piece of candy or a soft drink once a week.’ It’s intriguing that these are the things the father should mention, not a roof over their heads or a bowl of vegetables, but treats and sweets and what we might almost call luxuries. Whilst millions suffered in abject poverty due to the Depression, real wish-fulfilment seems to have become aligned with something better than basic survival.

After the stock market crash, the blame fell on a ‘buyers’ strike’ and one of the propaganda images that went around was the image of fist clenched around some dollar bills with the slogan ‘America Has Closed Its Fist’. It suggested that one’s civic duty lay in helping the economy go round by not being tight-fisted. If people didn’t buy, then others couldn’t sell. When the government set up an inquiry in 1935 into what constituted a basic income, provision was made for tobacco, treats, sporting equipment and a family trip to the movies once a week. The concepts of luxuries and necessities were blurring boundaries, not least because of another idea starting to take root – that these ‘extra’s’ were necessary to dealing with the ordinary frustrations of life: loneliness, insecurity and deferred gratification. As one critic put it, ‘The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not.’ Consumption as recompense for the other hardships of life is an ambivalent sort of idea. On the one hand, it can seem silly and insufficient, masking the more serious desires we may have. On the other, we can be genuinely grateful for those ‘little things’ that bring distraction or easy pleasure. This particular historical era of the Depression, when most people owned so little but were surrounded by a culture ever more able to promise them an abundance of new things to buy, was readily open to the idea of assuaging misery and distress with something easily and cheaply possessed.

So where does art fit into all this? Well, the thirties were also the decade when access to art became more democratic. The radio played classical music which was suddenly available to a far broader audience, museums held exhibitions for all to see, even art itself, the Surrealists for instance, became interested in incorporating the everyday flotsam and jetsam like bus tickets and menus into its frame. Over in the UK, Allan Lane was producing the paperback book for the price of a packet of cigarettes. Ordinary people had access then to literature, and just as importantly, to books on social and economic policy (many wanted to inform themselves about the great Communist debate) that had never been available to them before. Anyone with the desire or interest could inform or entertain themselves in ways that had previously been reserved for the elite.

It feels like almost a knee-jerk reaction, then, that around 1939, the New York intellectuals were shaping up the artistic debate along the lines of ‘us’ and ‘them’, proper art against popular dross. The notion of the mass market was infused with all sorts of other cultural issues bubbling up at the time – the idea of poor people with poor taste, mass market entertainment as a sticking plaster over the genuine ills of society, things that are easily and cheaply bought as being without real value and, most influential of all, the fear of totalitarianism, which is to say the idea that people could be led like sheep by mass market movies and books, their individuality lost as cunning producers manipulated them into thinking certain ways.

So whilst some of the reasons why art separated off from popular culture could be considered snobbish – like the fear that those with less education would not be able to understand or appreciate genuine art – there were plenty of reasons that seem to me to be quite protective and perceptive, not least that you can manipulate people easily through their desire to consume certain things. All of this made me think of today and the way the debate about high art and mass culture carries on, only on different terms. It struck me that in any period of economic constraint, art is obliged to earn its way. There are no wealthy patrons, no generous benefactors, no extra money for people to experiment with the new. Instead, art has to make itself likeable to the largest part of the population. Plus, in the intervening years since the Great Depression, most people have come to consider artistic entertainment in one form or another as part of their lives, and the way it is produced has been democratised across the board – we not only produce and consume art as a mass market good, but we market it and discuss it as a commodity too. This is why critics tend to say that there is nothing other than the mass market now; it has won, and so there is no point in suggesting that anything like ‘high’ art still exists.

And yet, the debate still rumbles on, but on very different terms. Back in the thirties, when high art opened up to a much broader audience, it was taken for granted that people would be interested in it and capable of appreciating it, one way or another. At the start of the new millennium, anything deemed ‘elitist’ is an implicit insult because of fears that ‘ordinary’ people won’t like or enjoy it. Now which of these positions is in fact the more democratic? Surely it’s much better to assume that everyone has the capacity to enjoy art at any number of levels, rather than the somewhat patronising suggestion that people mustn’t be upset by being offered art that goes over their heads? It all goes back to that ice cream: is it enough on its own? Is the ice cream all we want, some little distraction or treat to make the business of living better? That seems to be fundamental to the cultural imagination of a depression. But are we giving ourselves the best we can under the circumstances if we don’t attend to the dissatisfactions that ice cream is supposed to assuage? There’s much to think about here, much that I haven’t got my head around yet. But I do think that looking back at the Great Depression can tell us a lot about our current consumer society and what its collapse might mean.

9 thoughts on “Art and the Great Depression

  1. Such a great post, Litlove. This:

    Consumption as recompense for the other hardships of life is an ambivalent sort of idea. On the one hand, it can seem silly and insufficient, masking the more serious desires we may have. On the other, we can be genuinely grateful for those ‘little things’ that bring distraction or easy pleasure.

    made me think about how, despite the obvious shortcomings of this “icecream makes up for a life of mindless drudgery” approach, this philosophy is still far more progressive than the one animating a lot of current debate around policymaking in the US, namely, that in order to qualify as “poverty-striken” the poor should not have access to any luxuries ever, no matter how small. In other words, they need to really show their suffering, and if they do have the money for that ice cream cone every once in a while, that should disbar them from any degree of public assistance. It’s the same rationale motivating anti-abortion crusaders who want to outlaw the procedure except in cases of “incest or exceptionally brutal rape.” Like we should be creating a hierarchy of brutality? What qualifies as sufficiently brutal, or sufficiently deprived? It’s odd to think that as American culture has become steadily more consumerist, we have also become more jaded about who “deserves” those luxuries we’re creating and consuming.

  2. Weren’t the early factory workers of the industrial revolution given bread and sugar but not much else? This reminds me of the ice cone.
    There is a lot to think about indeed.
    I find the Depression era fascinating but as terrible as it was, I think we are worse off.
    I mean 7 billion people…. And no, I do not beelive that recent Times’ article saying our planet can feed even more. Hunter-gatheres maybe but not people in our consumer societies… Rant…

  3. Whoa. Talk about getting your head around something. I was just thinking the other day that what we now call necessities in our lives (cellphones? expensive sport shoes?), we didn’t have in the 70s and we didn’t miss them. I hadn’t connected the Depression with the creation of the mass consumerism push but I do relate whenever we go shopping for a big ticket item, we ‘joke’ that we are helping the economy.

  4. Great post litlove! A topic that has been on my mind all the time. The internet has the effect of democratizing a lot of things, esp. in the sharing of knowledge and closing the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low art’. But, “…the debate still rumbles on…” it sure does. Think of the dichotomies between ‘popular fiction’ vs. ‘literary fiction’, ‘Hollywood movies’ vs. ‘art-house films’, ‘pop’ vs. ‘classical’ music. And in recent years, with the democratizing of opinions, there arises the battle between ‘critics’ and ‘reviewers’, ‘professional criticism’ vs. ‘readers’ response.’ Without the proper credentials (wonder what they are), I’d remain a ‘reviewer’, albeit I’ve always enjoyed ‘literary fiction’, ‘art-house films’, and ‘classical music’.

  5. Great post! I never made the connection between consumer society and the depression. It is really interesting hearing economic reports on the radio when they talk about “consumer confidence” and spending. I heard a report the other day that said The economy was slightly better in September because consumers spent more, which was good. But at the same time they saved less, which was bad. Huh? It is interesting that the depression is when the split between high art and commercial art happened. It is such an ugly, class-based argument. A highly educated middle-class and the internet has done a lot to democratize art. The battles and arguments over it though remind me a bit of the rise of the noveau riche and the reaction from those with “old money.”

  6. Very interesting. And quite sad perhaps that there’s no new consumer boom that can get us out of our current economic malaise. You’ve got me thinking now about how our thinking needs to change during a recession. I’m always struck by the irony that what the planet needs is less consumption but what people need is economic growth. The two seem to be largely mutually exclusive. I’d be interested to hear more thoughts on the kinds of art that come out of a recession / depression. More socially conscious perhaps on the one hand (such as the photos above) and also more escapist and fantasy-based on the other?

  7. “Surely it’s much better to assume that everyone has the capacity to enjoy art at any number of levels, rather than the somewhat patronising suggestion that people mustn’t be upset by being offered art that goes over their heads?” Such a discerning question, Litlove and I would agree that the answer is yes.

  8. I’ve been looking forward to properly reading this post all week since I starred it in Google Reader! I find this era totally fascinating, too. Some things simply don’t change and even though so many don’t have money we’re told to go out and spend spend. But if we don’t then the government is in the red and there are fewer jobs, so more people out of work and so can’t afford things. And endless cycle. I think people’s dissatisfaction with this whole set up is seen with the whole occupy movement. It’s a really tricky question with no simple solutions since we are mired in this way of thinking. Interesting too about this period–and along the lines of advertising and companies telling us we want that ice cream cone–I read somewhere that this is where advertising really came into its own. Consumers were shown what they could own and what they surely wanted but also how to look and be. Things we never knew we needed were now necessities–don’t want to be smelly for example–ads played on people’s fears (and that has only gotten worse over time). Genius on the part of marketers I guess. I do hope you write more about what you’re reading.

  9. Emily – absolutely. It’s a shocking outcome of economic growth and abundance that we seem ever more reluctant to help the poor and the needy. The concept of charity has been taken over by commerce – even charities nowadays are commercial organisations and use multi-media stunts as ways to make money. Ordinary charity – helping out neighbours, relatives, the disabled – well, I’m sure there are kind people out there who attend to the non-flashy things, but they receive very little public celebration. It’s a sort of distortion of stoicism, which can be a prop in times of trouble, but turns nasty if it is a social necessity that, unless observed, results in contempt.

    Caroline – I’m sure there are third world countries that are far worse off than America in the Depression, but I don’t think we have it worse nowadays. The unemployment figures, whilst rising, are nowhere near those levels, thankfully. Nor are we subject to galloping inflation or deflation. The European economy is in a mess, but most of us live comfortably. Quite what will happen in the future, I have no idea, but I am afraid we’ll be remembered as the generation that destroyed the environment for our own consumer pleasures… Still, I guess you have to hope. There was a good piece on the radio reminding us that among that 7 billion there may well be people with visionary insight, great leaders, remarkable scientists, who would come to prominence in future times. I liked that thought.

    Care – I know! I even made a joke about my ‘civic duty’ in the bookstore the other day! (Don’t tell Mister Litlove). And I know what you mean about necessities. A roof over your head, warmth, enough food, those are necessities. The rest is just stuff (well, apart from the books…..).

    Arti – yes! The distinctions, and the arguments over them, seem just to multiply lately, don’t they? And yet when you really look at most artworks, they cross the borderline between high and mass, not least in the way they are produced. I think the big breakdown of late has been between professional standards of production and homemade amateur works. Snakes on a Train, for instance, or all those youtube videos that go viral, and now self-pubbed ebooks. I wonder whether there’ll be a backlash eventually, or if the discussions themselves are all that people really want.

    Stefanie – so much in your comment there to agree with. I know just what you mean about old and new money – it is like that, isn’t it? Always, whatever is in charge (the hegemony, as I believe the term goes) resists like mad when a new pretender arrives on the block. Change is inevitable, though. I do wonder how responsible those media reports about the economy are – they have a big effect on the stock market and are very influential on people’s sense of security and their desires to buy or borrow. You’d think it would matter then to be accurate, but the law of sensationalism still rules, alas!

    Pete – exactly. You’d think that now we’ve really acknowledged the finite resources of the planet, our priority would be to safeguard them. It’s this awful stasis in thinking – a massive consumer economy brought a lot of prosperity after the depression, but it simply cannot be repeated now, no matter how much banks and politicians may long for it. Your question about art is very interesting. I’ll need to do a bit more reading, but hope to be able to address it very soon.

    Lilian – I would always rather give people the benefit of the doubt. They tend to live up to it!

    Danielle – I have completely caught your fascination with this era! It’s an amazing time, so much hardship, and yet so much creative innovation going on too. I always think it’s crazy that when money’s tight, we’re supposed to spend it. I mean, human nature and all, that’s just not going to happen, is it? And you’re right about publicity and advertising – it blossomed in this era and created this whole virtual reality of its own, the life we should all be leading, which has become the life that we are all entitled to lead. Even though we have no entitlements whatsoever in this life unfortunately, and we forget that at our peril. I do find it all really intriguing.

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