About this Exhibit
Rediscovering America
Celebrating The People
Work Pays America
Activist Arts
Useful Arts

Activist Arts
Part 1 


We, as artists, must take our place in this crisis on the side of growth and civilization against barbarism and reaction, and help to create a better social order.
-- Peter Blume, "The Artist Must Choose," 1936

Many politically active artists worked for the New Deal projects. United by a desire to use art to promote social change, these artists sympathized with the labor movement and exhibited an affinity for left-wing politics ranging from New Deal liberalism to socialism to communism. MORE...

Lookit, I'm paying 55 cents... by Don Freeman

"Lookit, I'm paying 55 cents for standing room and a week ago I could have seen the same dancers on the picket line for nothing"
By Don Freeman, New York City Federal Art Project, WPA, 1937
Reproduced from Federal Theatre magazine

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration

Poster for Friday the 13th Demonstration

Friday the 13th Demonstration at Times Square," ca. 1937

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration

In the highly charged political atmosphere of the Great Depression, left-wing project employees not only painted, acted, and wrote, they demonstrated, published newspapers, and led sit-in strikes to protest WPA personnel and wage cuts. Artists from many different leftist points of view also embraced causes such as industrial unionism, civil rights for black Americans, and support for the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Such political activity was common in the 1930s, and though the number of actual Communist Party members was small, it helped lead to a backlash from politicians and others who claimed the projects were filled with Communists.
South of Chicago by Todros Geller

South of Chicago
By Todros Geller, Illinois Federal Art Project, WPA, 1937
Wood engraving

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, National Archives and Records Administration
(MO 56-314)

Lest We Forget by Ben Shahn

Lest We Forget
By Ben Shahn, Resettlement Administration, 1937
Gouache and watercolor in bound volume

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, National Archives and Records Administration
(MO 74-311)

A more overtly political work, Lest We Forget recalls the plight of landless farmers in the American South and the organizing efforts of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. Marked Tree is a small Arkansas town that was the site of anti-union violence. Ben Shahn traveled through Arkansas in 1935 while working as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration. Many of his photographs later served as inspiration and studies for his drawings and paintings. The quotation on the bottom of the page is from Rexford Tugwell, the head of the Resettlement Administration. When Tugwell left his position in 1937, his staff presented him with a volume, which includes Shahn's drawing.
Mine Rescue by Fletcher Martin

Mine Rescue
By Fletcher Martin, Treasury Section of Fine Arts, 1939
Tempera on panel

National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, transfer from General Services Administration

When Fletcher Martin won the competition to paint a mural for Kellogg, ID's, new post office, the jury that awarded the commission praised his social realist design for Mine Rescue. Unfortunately, many citizens of Kellogg did not agree, and some of them wrote to Washington, DC, protesting the placement of the mural in their community. They argued that the mural was unfit for a mining community because its subject would pain those who had lost a loved one in an accident. Government officials initially insisted on Martin's design but eventually asked him to redesign the mural after soliciting suggestions from the community. His inoffensive substitute, Discovery, shows two excited prospectors at the moment they discovered a local mine.

National Archives and Records Administration