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Democratic Art

The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture

Throughout the Great Recession American artists and public art endowments have had to fight for government support to keep themselves afloat. It wasn’t always this way. At its height in 1935, the New Deal devoted $27 million—roughly $461 million today—to supporting tens of thousands of needy artists, who used that support to create more than 100,000 works. Why did the government become so involved with these artists, and why weren’t these projects considered a frivolous waste of funds, as surely many would be today?

In Democratic Art, Sharon Musher explores these questions and uses them as a springboard for an examination of the role art can and should play in contemporary society. Drawing on close readings of government-funded architecture, murals, plays, writing, and photographs, Democratic Art examines the New Deal’s diverse cultural initiatives and outlines five perspectives on art that were prominent at the time: art as grandeur, enrichment, weapon, experience, and subversion. Musher argues that those engaged in New Deal art were part of an explicitly cultural agenda that sought not just to create art but to democratize and Americanize it as well. By tracing a range of aesthetic visions that flourished during the 1930s, this highly original book outlines the successes, shortcomings, and lessons of the golden age of government funding for the arts.

280 pages | 24 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Art: American Art

History: American History

Political Science: American Government and Politics


“Musher offers clear, helpful, and persuasive ways for us to understand the arts by cutting through the thickets of programs, approaches, and personalities. The overall result is a book that illuminates significantly the complexities of the arts in the New Deal. She skillfully weaves the strands of the stories—political, administrative, artistic—often relying on deft portraits of key players and fresh analyses of dramatic incidents. This is an impressive and important contribution to our understanding of the roles the arts have—and could—play in American culture.”

Daniel Horowitz | author of On the Cusp: The Yale Class of 1960 and a World on the Verge of Change

“A compelling synthesis of federally funded cultural projects undertaken in the United States from 1933 to 1945, Musher’s book is written for other historians but will certainly appeal to scholars in many fields—including American studies, cultural studies, public history, visual culture studies, and more. Eloquently written and historically balanced, the book uses anecdotal evidence and biography to animate the story of New Deal arts programming and notions of cultural capital in new and engaging ways.”

Erika Doss, University of Notre Dame

“In this vibrant and informative account, Musher raises crucial questions. Does government funding for the arts curtail or expand freedom? Did the bold goals of New Deal artists, to expand democracy and enhance the nation’s self image result in political radicalism? Musher’s provocative intervention suggests that we all look again at the arts and public policy.”

Alice Kessler-Harris, author of A Difficult Woman: the Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

Democratic Art is a welcome addition to the historical record of the new Deal. All of us who seek to uphold the values and principles of the New Deal and have them applied in our own time owe Musher a debt of gratitude for her lucid and thorough contribution to our understanding of the New Deal arts programs.”

Michael Ticktin | New Deal News

Democratic Art creates a sort of New Deal art typology—and thus provides an excellent framework for analysis. And it may also motivate you to take a second, closer look at that post office mural.”

Brent McKee | Mid-Atlantic New Deal Newsletter

“Musher divides her discussion of government-sponsored art programs of the 1930s in the United States into five distinct modes of communication: grandeur, enrichment, weapon, experience, and subversion. This approach avoids the simplistic, politicized reading of the public art programs of the period that characterizes so much discussion of this material and will significantly impact future scholarship. There are two interesting outcomes of this format: style assumes a significant role in understanding how the varied messages of the projects within Musher’s categories were communicated, and context becomes much richer and more precisely situated within the social and political order for which the art was created. Musher does all this without invidious comparisons to ‘advanced American art,’ and thus gives the works she discusses their proper—and honorable—place within American history, as well as art history. Recommended.”


“This engagingly written account of New Deal arts funding quickly put to rest my concerns about whether we need yet another book about the New Deal art projects…. The thematic organization of the material and her excellent use of biographies and key examples make it a useful book for both students and experts in the field.”
“Warning of the political implications of using art as a weapon, and lamenting the purely economic justifications used by recent supporters of federal art funding, Musher argues that advocates should take a lesson from the 1930s art-as-experience activists who argued that, beyond creating jobs and stimulating the economy, the arts ‘make us more thoughtful, satisfied, and engaged citizens.'”

Victoria M. Grieve | Annals of Iowa

“Musher produces not so much new findings as an enriched sense of the forces at play, demonstrating the formative role of belief systems as much as economic conditions and deftly interweaving institutional histories, ideological dynamics, mini-biographies of administrators, and selected analyses of artworks.”

Christine Bold | American Historical Review

“While other scholars have studied the various New Deal art programs either individually or in broad surveys, in Democratic Art Musher works more conceptually as she seeks to articulate the various ways art’s public purposes were framed by those who advocated or rejected the idea that government should participate in funding the arts. The result is a valuable, engaging, narrative of New Deal arts programs that invites us to think about the argumentative resources potentially available to those who advocate for government-funded arts programs today. . . . Musher’s study is a welcome addition to the scholarly conversation and will be invaluable to those of us introducing students and colleagues to the role of government art in the New Deal.”

Cara A. Finnegan | Journal of American History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Art as a Function of Government

1. May the Artist Live?
2. Art as Grandeur
3. Art as Enrichment
4. Art as a Weapon
5. Art as Experience
6. Art as Subversion

Conclusion: A New Deal for the Arts?


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