Roosevelt’s New Deal fostered Jackson Pollock and a generation of American artists. Funding street art could do the same for us..
Graffiti in Thurrock
The spirit of the New Deal was invoked by Will Hutton in The Observer this Sunday. We need an equivalent of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, he argued, to give hope and meaning to life in this new age of mass unemployment. This seems to me a brilliant insight, but what, in visual art, might it look like in practice?
America’s radical welfare policy in the 1930s, as Hutton’s piece reminds us, did not just use people cynically as lumpen manual labour. Rather, it actively sought to nurture individual talents. Painters were paid by the state to decorate airports and libraries – the great Armenian-born abstract painter Arshile Gorky, for example, created a mural at Newark Airport.
Jackson Pollock and his generation were not just physically saved by the WPA but inspired by it to work all their lives on a mural scale. The public vision of the 1930s endures in their later masterpieces such as Pollock’s One, Barnett Newmans’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, and Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals.
So, how could the programme be translated into practice here? As it happens, we are primed as a nation for public art. All over Britain, a huge variety of imagery has been erected in the boom years. There must be more funding for public art, not less – but obviously the money can’t just go to famous individual artists. Instead, it has to be redirected to provide creative work for the young unemployed. And so, the state should pay the young to graffiti our streets.
There’s one obvious way this might work. The rise of graffiti art in modern Britain has been a spontaneous phenomenon with little involvement from above. It has gone from the streets to the art dealers – and now it can go back to the streets. There’s a real analogy between graffiti and the mural projects of 1930s America – graffiti is unlicensed mural painting. Now it offers a way to unleash creativity in an unemployed generation. To paraphrase the WPA slogan, give someone the dole and you do nothing for their self esteem. Give them a spray can (and access to free art education) and you just might produce the next Jackson Pollock.
Posted by Jonathan Jones