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Labor in the Eyes of Artists: Zines, Scenes and Inbetweens

Federal Art Project



"Federal labor art was a contradiction in terms.  It could not effectively present mass unionism or revolutionary fervor, since the Federal Art Project was completely controlled by a cultural hegemony"

– Laura Hapke, Labor’s Canvas

The Wealth of the Nation

The Wealth of the Nation, Seymour Fogel

The Federal Art Project, a department of the Works Progress Administration, was created as a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal Program.  It operated from August 29, 1935 – June 30, 1943.  During its existence, the Federal Art Project employed about 10,000 artists most of who were on the brink of destitution.  The Federal Art Project produced: 2,566 murals, 108,099 easel paintings, 17,744 sculptures, 11,285 fine prints, 35,000 posters, and 22,000 plates for the Index of American Design.  This artwork was called “Art for the People” because it showcased the life of the American people.  The government invested thirty-five million dollars in support of this program.  Although the Federal Art Project offered financial relief to artists, it was not an entirely altruistic government program.  This propagandistic artwork operated in favor of the government’s desire to renew the American people’s faith in corporate capitalism, which was waning due to the strain of unemployment and economic collapse.  Positive images of strong working male bodies helped to persuade Americans of the benefits of democracy and capitalism.  Labor themes of strikes, and unions were avoided as they conflicted with the image that the Works Progress Administration was trying to present.  When the New Deal art programs were disbanded in the 1940s, most of the work was destroyed, auctioned or donated to American institutions.  This mass production of artwork called its value into question.  In 1944 Life Magazine reported that a NY junk dealer purchased bales of WPA artwork for just 4 cents per pound.