At an unprecedented and probably unique American moment, laboring people were indivisible from the art of the 1930s. By far the most recognizable New Deal art employed an endless frieze of white or racially ambiguous machine proletarians, from soloMoreAt an unprecedented and probably unique American moment, laboring people were indivisible from the art of the 1930s. By far the most recognizable New Deal art employed an endless frieze of white or racially ambiguous machine proletarians, from solo drillers to identical assembly line toilers. Even today such paintings, particularly those with work themes, are almost instantly recognizable.
Happening on a Depression-era picture, one can see from a distance the often simplified figures, the intense or bold colors, the frozen motion or flattened perspective, and the uniformity of laboring bodies within an often naive realism or naturalism of treatment. In a kind of Social Realist dance, the FAPs imagined drillers, haulers, construction workers, welders, miners, and steel mill workers make up a rugged industrial army. In an unusual synthesis of art and working-class history, Labors Canvas argues that however simplified this golden age of American worker art appears from a post-modern perspective, The New Deals Federal Art Project (FAP), under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), revealed important tensions.
Artists saw themselves as cultural workers who had much in common with the blue-collar workforce. Yet they struggled to reconcile social protest and aesthetic distance. Their canvases, prints, and drawings registered attitudes toward laborers as bodies without minds often shared by the wider culture. In choosing a visual language to reconnect workers to the larger society, they tried to tell the worker from the work with varying success. Drawing on a wealth of social documents and visual narratives, Labors Canvas engages in a bold revisionism. Hapke examines how FAP iconography both chronicles and reframes working-class history.
She demonstrates how the New Deals artistically rendered workforce history reveals the cultural contradictions about laboring people evident even in the depths of the Great Depression, not the least in the imaginations of the FAP artists themselves.