Despite producing something that is intrinsically meaningful, whether it be music, drama, literature, sculpture, or two-dimensional images, art essentially remains a luxury, something to be consumed either by elites or by the masses with their sponsorship. . . just one of those facts of life. The implication of this is that the lifestyle of artists has always been a hand-to-mouth sort of existence, even in the best of times - they flourish (or fail to do so) utterly at the whim of societies economic, political (especially the guv'ment), or social elite (especially religious institutions). Of course, when the times are flush, artists of all genre tend to do alright (extra capital means capital available for adornment and enrichment), but when they are bust, well, artists are among the first to have to abandon their entire way of life or risk, well, being thrown out on the street or starving to death.
Image of WPA sponsored mural Mining (1942) in
Mount Hope, West Virginia by Michael Lensen
(From Melissa May Dobbins' excellent
page on the New Deal in West Virginia)
Well, once upon a time Appalachia in particular and the Union in general suffered under an economic decline of catastrophic proportions. The causes of this decline are complex, varied, transnational, and ultimately not particularly relevant to this conversation, but let's just say it was bad enough that economists tell stories of it around campfires that end with, "and that's when the stock market raised its hand - - - and it was a claw!"
Chilling, eh? Well, this period of American (and global) history is generally known as the "Great" Depression. It was bad and it was long. A lot of governments around the world succumbed to very, very bad leaders who promised their people that they'd fix everything if only their people would give them, well, absolute power - we call them fascists. Our government responded not by developing a full-scale command economy, but by applying the logic of automechanics to our economy - if the engine won't start, try giving it a jump. Both reactions, however, were founded on a simple economic principle - if unemployment has dropped so low that consumption has collapsed, feeding a cycle of economic deprivation, the fastest way out (according to its supporters) is for the largest economic entity to engage in a set of works across a very wide set of economic activities that 1) employ as many people as possible in 2) creating infrastructure around which new economic activities can accumulate, rather than just provide services whose effect is short-term (pump it into services exclusively, rather than providing them as a support net, and when state debt grows too high, the economy just tanks again - e.g. Venezuela as soon as the oil runs out if current policies hold).
Most of us are familiar with several of the more large-scale products of this "new deal" - interstates, dams, a tremendous number of new public buildings and parks, and so forth. What you may not know is that during the Depression the Federal government often engaged in supporting more modest works. Specifically, I'm talking about the Federal Art Project, managed by the Works Progress Administration. In essence the FAP was an effort by the Federal government to employ full-time 5,000 artists - mainly painters and sculptors - in the creation of artwork for the people. The product of the FAP was far from modest - almost a quarter of a million artworks were created literally in every conceivable venue in our nation - if you have a post office, federal building, courthouse, jailhouse, school, or post office in your home town that hails from the 1930s, the odds are more than excellent that the mural or sculpture you walk past in the hallway is a product of that effort. Kind of makes you want to stop and take another look-see, doesn't it?
Okay, all that said, I've decided to survey the net for sites that make account of FAP products (surviving or otherwise) in Appalachia. It should be said there are tons of sites, all worth a gander, on the FAP in other regions as well and if you're bored one night but don't want to just fry your brain on mediocre sitcoms, well, they're worth a few Google searches. Also, if you know of an FAP piece in your hometown and you want it posted up, well hell, go take a pic and shoot it to your friends here at HS - we'll try to get it posted for you. In the meantime, enjoy.
"New Deal Art During the Great Depression" from the National New Deal Preservation Association - Midwest Chapter: Okay, overall this is a great site, lots of pictures, some information, and a decent link set. . . . what you need to see, however, is the is comprehensive list of post office murals you can check out on a state-by-state basis. On the quick, though: check out sub-sites of Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
"Legacies of the New Deal" from the Library of Virginia: Provides an overview of WPA works, including but not limited to the FAP in the Commonwealth. Not a ton of information or images, but what is available is well done.
"New Deal Art Mural" from New River WV: Specifically? This site gives us very high quality images of Mount Hope's own FAP murals. . . worth a look to see what a patient photographer can provide us with.
"Mysteries of the West Virginia Building: The Structure at Historic Jackson's Mill Holds Many Secrets" from West Virginia University Alumni Magazine: A wonderful article with excellent images, it details the works of William Grauer.
"The Story of the Murals" from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville's American Studies Program: Self-explanatory.
"New Deal Murals in Kentucky Post Offices" from the Janice Mason Art Museum: Photos of, well, those wacky murals.
"The WPA Guide to the Old Dominion" from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville's American Studies Program: A tremendous collection of essays and imagery on Virginia's diverse WPA experiences. . . a definite must see.