Posters for the People: Art of the WPA

Reviewed by Gerald

Ennis Carter, ed., Posters for the People: Art of the WPA (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2008)

Ennis Carter, has assembled almost 500 artistically accomplished and socially consequential posters produced by the Poster Division of the Federal Arts Program (a project of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, or WPA). Her short Introduction notes that artists engaged by the Poster Division, which established workshops in eighteen states, produced two million copies of 35,000 designs, of which only a small fraction have been catalogued. Carter has aptly grouped these often stunning and charming posters into twelve categories, ranging from “Health & Safety” to “American Cultural Traditions.” Her fine achievement in selecting and grouping the posters is, however, diminished by her failure to provide greater context for these socially important works.

Carter writes that this unprecedented (at least in peacetime) US government-sponsored initiative in the graphic arts “relates to the complex goals and objectives of the New Deal.” Unfortunately, this beautiful and thoughtfully crafted volume makes no attempt to relate individual posters to specific New Deal programs or to the ethos of the New Deal. Perhaps Carter concurs with Christopher DeNoon, the author of the Foreword, who calls these posters “timeless images of beauty and artistic accomplishment.” This statement evades the importance of knowing the specificity of time, place, and socio-political circumstances of their production. The posters are not only illustrative; they carried a symbolism supportive to a broadly defined social democratic movement, viz. the New Deal. Detached from those associations, the posters’ messages appear antiseptic or even trite. The absence of accompanying text reduces posters such as “Eat Fruit for Healthy Living” or “Use the Hook and Save Your Fingers” to empty, pious visual appeals. When placed within the context of the New Deal’s programs promoting public health and the overall needs of workers, the posters convey, in addition to their manifest message, unstated reminders of the Roosevelt administration’s socially and politically progressive orientation. While homemakers and workers during the Depression very likely inferred these associations, they require some prompting for those who are far removed from their production and daily display.

In their totality, the WPA posters represent an iconography that reminded their viewers of the Roosevelt administration’s commitment to the “forgotten man,” who was more than likely “ill clothed, ill fed, and ill housed.” Posters announcing the construction of public housing in Cleveland (“Live Here at Low Rent” and “Your Children Will Like These Low Rent Houses”) surely were not produced and displayed solely – or even primarily – to apprise unemployed tenement dwellers of the availability of above-average housing at below-average rents. Such housing would attract people even without carefully crafted wall-posters in public venues. The posters were first and foremost political statements celebrating the accomplishment of a major New Deal program. Similarly, the twelve posters announcing exhibits of Native American arts and crafts signify not only their ostensible purpose but also the New Deal’s heightened respect for Native American cultures and languages. WPA posters mirrored the New Deal’s cultural pluralist impulses, which clashed with the assimilationist policies of previous administrations.

Posters for the People shows many posters—“Rural Pennsylvania” and “Visit Montana”—that draw attention to aspects of a particular state’s cultural or natural heritage. However, the editor makes no connection between these posters – whose obvious message was “come see this!” – and the WPA Federal Writers’ Project guidebooks to the forty-eight states and Washington DC, which featured tours of the states’ natural, historical, and cultural sites.  The WPA posters promoting travel within the United States or suggesting that one “Read a Book About Canada” or “Use Your School Library” were premised on ideas of Progressive reformism, one of the components of New Deal philosophy, that the broadening of the experiences and thinking of the people was essential to a movement intent on replacing unbridled profit-making with social uplift. These posters’ often insipid messages express, albeit in whispered tones, the New Deal’s social democratic impulses, which necessitated wider social horizons and concerns from constituencies not reachable with printed materials. Posters that drew attention to the natural wonders of a state and encouraged their viewers to visit it, were connected to the New Deal’s goals of developing and enhancing public spaces, encouraging support for conservation, and protecting wildlife—goals enunciated earlier by the Progressive Era. Posters that relate to these latter concerns are present in this volume, but no connection is drawn between them and the posters promoting travel.

In contrast with the WPA paintings discussed in Laura Hapke’s recently published Labor’s Canvas, there is a near total absence of overtly leftist themes in the WPA posters selected in Posters for the People. These posters were snapshots produced and displayed in public venues where the maximum number of people could view them. Each one was intended to make a single point, to provoke a particular thought or action. By their nature, they are the ideal genre for political agitation. Paintings were seen as the work of individual artists who had ownership over their production. Therefore they were permitted a wider range of expression as to content and style. Paintings might bring about a deeper change in consciousness, but posters could promote rapid change among large audiences.

The right wing relentlessly targeted the Federal Arts Program. Consequently, the WPA-produced posters almost always avoided unambiguous leftist iconography and themes. Nonetheless, it is impossible to explain the firestorm of right-wing opposition to the WPA’s arts projects had these works not conveyed basic assumptions and concepts congruent with social democracy and antithetical to possessive individualism. This can be best understood by imagining what might have been the content of posters produced by, say, Herbert Hoover’s administration. Whatever might come to mind, it reminds us of what was not present in the WPA posters (e.g., the American flag, busts of the Founding Fathers, red, white, and blue bunting, etc.). The secular-humanist ethos of the New Deal posters is unmistakable—at least it was to the political Right.

Posters for the People does not completely exclude leftist imagery. “Pennsylvania” and “Work with Care,” both created by Isadore Possoff, depict older workers grasping their tools in a monumental style associated with socialist realism. By simply blazoning their titles, such as “One Third of the Nation” and “It Can’t Happen Here” (themselves products of a Left rhetoric), WPA posters advertising plays produced by the Federal Writers’ Project projected a clearly Left political message.

There are instances where the editor should have done some additional work. The poster announcing the exhibit “Picasso: Forty Years of His Life” at the Art Institute of Chicago is dated “ca.1936-1940.” Surely, it would not have taken much effort to find the date of such an important exhibition. Similarly, the first name of Mayor Edwards, who is mentioned in the poster that urges viewers to “Join the Mayor’s Milk Fund,” and the name of the city over which he presided, could have been discovered without great effort. At least ten of the posters in this collection are not posters at all but covers for books produced by the Federal Writers’ Project. The one poster in Spanish, “Evite Accidentes” (Avoid Accidents), is placed in the section “Health & Safety,” but it is in fact a Civil Defense poster that belongs in the section “War & Defense.”

The originality of the WPA posters’ designs and their aesthetic value enticed viewers to give them more than a glance. Their artistic quality enabled them to lay claim to public spaces and conveyed the sense that their messages were important. All those who appreciate the concepts and creations of Popular Front culture, broadly defined, will savor these reproductions. Posters for the People will stimulate its readers to learn more about this high point of the New Deal’s support for public art and the heightened social consciousness it helped to engender.

Gerald Meyer Hostos Community College City University of New York