When art came to the rescue…
Sep 9, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I feel like this cartoon from The New Yorker really captures my current state: cabin fever. I’ve been trying to make the most of these months spent in the great indoors, but it’s not been easy. I’ve put together the same jigsaw puzzles multiple times, I’ve painted and painted some more, I’m writing despite a fickle muse, and of course I’m re-reading books and scrolling through Netflix for digital comfort food. But despite this diverse menu of hobbies, I still feel restless and unable to focus. After all, there are only so many new things you can do within the same four walls. For the last couple weeks, every time I looked through my Netflix queue I felt uninspired. But that all changed last week when I became absolutely captivated by the documentary, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All.
I’m not usually the best person to watch a movie with – I can be fidgety and I’m often multi-tasking with the movie serving as background noise. But getting reacquainted with ol’ blue eyes was an all-encompassing experience. In this film, the soundtrack of Sinatra’s life was masterfully woven together with insightful interviews. While I was already familiar with the highlights of his career and had a vague recollection of his personal life, what surprised me most to learn was Frank’s unwavering commitment to equality. For example, in 1945 he starred in a short film called “The House I Live In.” Over the course of the ten minute story, Sinatra explained to a group of children the importance of loving one’s neighbor. The message isn’t anything new, but was in danger of being forgotten. Sinatra understood that his voice could reach a larger audience and make a meaningful impact. From this point on, Sinatra continued to use the spotlight to highlight injustices.
Artistic expression is perhaps one of the most powerful tools in humanity’s tool box. Like Danielle Ponder explained to NPR recently, music has the ability to reach people in a special way. For artists like Danielle and Frank, channeling creative power as a vehicle to better society is a calling. While pondering this idea, I was reminded of the many times when art came to the rescue. Let’s explore a few examples together…
This first example is timely because it’s connected with our modern Labor Day celebrations. Lewis Hine was a sociologist, born at the turn of the 19th century. He was a dedicated academic, but for all his book learning, Hine instinctively knew that the only way to bring about change was to show people what was happening (rather than make grandiose speeches). Luckily for him technological developments meant he could test this thesis. In 1900 the Kodak Corporation released the iconic Brownie camera and, for the first time, photography was available to the masses. This invention was a game changer and Hine knew it. Soon he was snapping pictures of how the other side lived. Shining a light on living conditions among the working poor was one thing, but Hine soon focused his lens on child labor. This move was not popular with the factory owners, meaning he had to go undercover to gain access. Hine was often threatened, but never intimidated. He methodically traveled the country, capturing hundreds of tiny workers as they toiled in fields, factories, and mines. It’s estimated that by 1900 nearly 20% of kids under 16 were part of the job market. Their working conditions were deplorable and while Labor Day was established as a holiday for workers and unions were thriving, child labor was the dirty little secret powering the economy.
But it turns out this “dirty little secret” was actually not that hidden and wasn’t even considered dirty. While abhorrent to our modern sensibilities, it was considered perfectly acceptable at the time for young children to be contributing to the family income. For parents, hard working children grew into adults with strong values. Any reports of unsafe working conditions were considered dubious. Children were expected to work and this was the way of things. But Hine challenged the status quo and he did it without a single word.
When I see one of Hine’s pictures the first thing that grips me are the eyes. The stares from these children are arresting, almost haunting. Their gaze cuts through the dirt and grime on their faces. Something within you shifts and even though it took almost three decades before policy would outlaw child labor practices, Hine’s work changed the course of American history and rescued millions of children. Imagery can alter the trajectory of a national dialogue in one breath and lay bare our inner struggles in the next. Dorthea Lange’s photography is one such example as her work captured the trauma of the Great Depression.
Hired by the U.S. Government to document rural poverty, Lange’s body of work is at once identifiable with its original time period and yet remains timeless. We see modern struggles captured in these faces from our past. Perhaps her most famous picture was taken in 1936. Entitled Migrant Mother, Dorthea introduces us to Florence Thompson and her three young children. Florence’s expression and appearance belies her age of thirty-two. We find her at the moment when she is unemployed and has sold the tires from her car to feed her family. For a migrant farmer (a pea-picker to be precise), surrendering your mobility is an act of true desperation. Sharing stories like Florence’s through the art of photography impacted government policy and united a hurting country.
From 1935 to 1943 the U.S. Government formally recognized the importance of art. When FDR instituted the New Deal, the powerful Works Progress Administration sprang into action. The agency employed millions of Americans to work on public projects such as roadways and bridges. But the agency also instituted the Federal Art Project. Nearly a quarter of a million pieces were created as a result of the project’s contributors. Many of the grand murals we enjoy today are because of this initiative. In fact, we can even thank the U.S. Government for kick-starting the careers of many our most beloved artists. Jackson Pollock’s early career success can be directly connected to this venture. (It’s really inspiring to take a scroll through the artist’s registry. Ten thousand artists contributed to this program – that’s like an army in its own right!) In addition to supporting individual artists, the project’s funding became the seed money for many community art centers. These are institutions we might take for granted today, but they share a common origin story: the WPA.
In addition to creating new work, reflective of the current American climate, the artists also cataloged the past. The Index of American Design is a sweeping, pictorial accounting of American crafts and decorative arts. The scale of the undertaking is huge, covering the moment of the earliest settlements to the start of the 20th century. This deep dive into the past provided fertile ground to aspiring modernists. Would American mid-century modern design have the same flavor in the absence of such an important collection? We’ll never know, but I find it really beautiful that for a moment in time an entire country looked into the past as a way to create a better future. During these eight years art’s value was celebrated – what an amazing chapter of American history!
In our current times we are seeing artistic expression stepping into center stage once more as we collectively work to process emotions both familiar and fresh. There are countless examples from our past and present when art has helped us navigate tough moments and even tougher conversations. I couldn’t possibly cover them all in this article: the debut of “Imagine” by John Lennon, To Kill a Mockingbird first arriving on bookshelves, or when Pablo Picasso unveiled Guernica. Regardless of era, art finds a way to speak to our heart and connects with us individually. An example of more recent vintage comes from across the pond. The National Portrait Gallery in London is sponsoring a ground-breaking project entitled “Hold Still.” It’s described as “an ambitious community project to create a unique collective portrait and capture the spirit and feelings of the nation as we deal with the coronavirus outbreak.” As we’ve established recognizing the healing power of art is not an unfamiliar concept and might just be the ticket for folks like me who are struggling to conquer cabin fever. Tell me dear reader, what are your favorite moments when art came to the rescue?