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.