In a buck-stops-here, brass-tacks era of hard economic choices, there will always be some who ask the inevitable question: What is the purpose of art? As it turns out, there are nearly as many answers to this question as there are artists. To Picasso, the purpose of art was “washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Josef Albers thought art was for visualizing “the human attitude towards life, towards the world,” while Jean Anouilh thought art was meant “to give life a shape.” Even ancient Aristotle, when he wasn’t inventing logic, had an opinion on the matter. “The aim of art,” he said, “is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Despite this divergence of opinion, you’ll note that these answers agree on one thing. Art is definitively worth something. It's not an idle pursuit meant “to waste time,” or “to fill empty space.” Art is about being engaged in the world, about grappling with what needs to be grappled with. And in fact, despite the grim view of policy makers, when times are tough people tend particularly to seek art out. During past national moments of crisis—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, and the prolonged 1970s Recession—a wide number of artists addressed the challenges of their times through their music, visual art, films, plays, and literature, and people soaked their art up.
Consider the song “This Land Is Your Land,” for a moment. Written by Woody Guthrie at the tail end of the Great Depression, just a year or so before the United States entered into World War II, it was meant as a response to the Irving Berlin’s blandly patriotic song, “God Bless America.” Though Berlin wrote his song in 1918, in 1938 he revised it for the singer Kate Smith to use on her weekly radio show. Guthrie grew tired of hearing Smith sing the song, which he considered insipid and out-of-touch, so he wrote a more realistic, if sweeping, portrait of the country that also encapsulated the feelings of people who had been shut out from the good life during the Great Depression. The genius of “This Land Is Your Land,” perhaps, was that the Depression-inspired protest in the song’s central lyric (“This land is made for you and me”) was subtle, voiced not as a complaint or call to arms but as a positive (yet still socialistic) sentiment of equality and belonging. At the time of the song’s composition, Guthrie was experiencing minor success in his career. He sang on and off in those years for radio shows in Los Angeles and New York, and he performed around the country at small venues. As the country reveled in its victory over fascism after 1945, folk singers like Guthrie faded from the collective consciousness along with their music. But Guthrie and “This Land Is Your Land” would rightly come back in favor. In the late 1950s, city kids began revisiting and reinterpreting the folk music of the earlier age, and Guthrie was a key figure in this revival. “This Land Is Your Land” would become Guthrie's signature song in these years, and over time it would come to occupy a central position in the American musical canon. (This is evident in the fact that the Library of Congress chose to include the song as one of the first 50 recordings to be preserved in the National Recording Registry alongside recordings of Gershwin playing “Rhapsody in Blue,” Bessie Smith singing “Downhearted Blues,” Elvis Presley’s “Sun Records sessions,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.)
If you look at the long view, art’s strength—and perhaps its highest purpose—is its ability to lift humans above their temporary troubles. When Guthrie sang of his people standing in lines at the relief office, “some grumblin’ and some wonderin’,” he was not fretting over his own petty concerns and struggles, he was making a universal and beautiful statement about the human condition. This is why it’s natural—as the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles are revealed daily—for us to wonder today: Where is the art to help us cope with our troubles? Where is the contemporary music to ease our aching souls? Where are the movies and plays and books to help us examine and understand the human condition? Where is the visual art that lifts us with visions of a better world?
In this space over the next few months, I will explore these particular questions about the arts of today—first popular music; then theatrical and literary forms like films, plays, radio and TV shows, and books; and finally visual art—by examining the fraying and neglected artistic infrastructure of our fraying and neglected nation for any sign of a clear artistic response to our current “Great Recession.” Also, to determine the state of our national psyche today relative to past times of struggle I will compare and contrast the art being made today to that during the Great Depression of the 1930s and during the 1970s Recession (ca. 1973-1979).
If you have suggestions for any contemporary music, movies, books, plays, or visual art works you think should be included in this discussion, please send them along. (After all, we’re talking about art that was made for you and me.) Ultimately, the hope is that we can, together, discover the most artful and creative ways of understanding and rising above this mess we're in currently.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
The photograph used above is a work for hire created prior to 1968 by a staff photographer at New York World-Telegram & Sun. It is part of a collection donated to the Library of Congress. Per the deed of gift, New York World-Telegram & Sun dedicated to the public all rights it held for the photographs in this collection upon its donation to the Library. Thus, there are no known restrictions on the usage of this photograph.