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Labor?s Canvas: American Working-Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s

Author(s):Hapke, Laura
Reviewer(s):Weber, Cameron M.

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Laura Hapke, Labor?s Canvas: American Working-Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. x + 301 pp. $53 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84718-415-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Cameron M. Weber, New School for Social Research.

The art produced under the Works Progress Administration during Franklin Roosevelt?s New Deal has recently undergone a resurgence of interest as the fields of cultural economics and the political economy of art have grown. The WPA?s Federal Art Project (1935-1943) created more than 100,000 fine art canvases and more than two million prints, so there is quite a corpus. At any one time during the period artists were between 1 and 2 percent of those getting ?work relief? from the WPA, which reached its peak of 3.3 million people in 1938. Some of the artists who worked for government pay during the 1930s, creating mostly regionalist or social realism works, then became world-renowned in the 1950s during the hey-day of American abstract and expressionist art. There is an uncomfortable relationship between these early and later periods in American art as they represent two completely different philosophical and aesthetic outlooks. The early period is concerned with capturing the scenes of everyday life in a Depression-era America and depicting an image of America in its attempts to face or overcome economic hardship together as a people. The later period was one of the so-called ?American Century? when the ideals of individualism and Cold War dominance took hold, this latter period is the ?modernist? period when increasingly non-representational art was created for ?art?s sake? and not for the sake of social realism. These diametrically-opposed material conditions as expressed in each period?s art, as well as the sheer volume of WPA art, are the main reasons for the continued interest in the Federal Art Project of the 1930s.

Laura Hapke uses the WPA-era art for another reason ? to tell the story of the rise of mass unionization in the United States. In her latest book on the socio-cultural history of the U.S. in the 1930s, Labor?s Canvas, Hapke chooses thirty-seven ?prolabor Social Realism? works of art to tell her story of the period, the main thesis being that unions in the U.S. during the inter-war years transitioned from being predominantly ?male and pale? and representing only the skilled trades in the early 1930s to a more inclusive mass-unionization from the mid-1930s onward. Hapke?s approach is therefore novel and engaging for anyone interested in the many fields Labor?s Canvas encompasses; cultural studies, labor history, art criticism and economic history. Political biography is also a part of a Hapke?s palette in that an underlying narrative thread in Labor?s Canvas is the political affiliation, and thus implicit sympathy with the labor subject matter, of each of the more than thirty artists under study in the book.

The chapters are organized to support and justify the main thesis of the book. In the first two chapters we are introduced to labor art, the artist as cultural worker and a discussion of wage-labor in the capitalist state. Chapter 3 begins a study of the 1930s art and a parallel transitioning from the dominance of the skilled-labor American Federation of Labor (AFL) to the more inclusive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Chapter 4 focuses on ?white male? art depictions while Chapter 5 then moves beyond the individual into how crowds are depicted in 1930s art. Here we are introduced to Reginald Marsh?s iconographic Breadline ? No One Has Starved (1932) and other works depicting masses of job-seekers, strikers and labor rallies. The next two chapters are about how blacks and women are depicted in the 1930s art, respectively. In Chapter 6 Hapke uses the legend of John Henry as a metaphor for the black man?s adaptation to wage labor and industrial technology, whereas Chapter 7 applies feminist analysis to deconstruct the stereotyping of women in specific works of 1930s art.

The final chapter in Labor?s Canvas is perhaps the most valuable contribution to cultural and labor studies of the 1930s in that Hapke discusses the labor history of the artists themselves. We are introduced to each artist?s upbringing and ?class background? and to pre-1930s artworks as appropriate. We learn of an artist?s political affiliations, if any, including that of the Communist Party (CPUSA), and to varying degrees of political activism depending on the artist. We also learn of the educational programs of the John Reed Club, the formation and transformation of the Artist Union and its agitational Artists? Committee of Action, the artists? push for a continued federal arts program using labor activism, the AFL rejection of most artists and their subsequent acceptance into the CIO.

There is no doubt that the method and ambition for Labor?s Canvas are admirable, certainly for this reviewer whose fields are cultural economics and economic history, yet there are some serious drawbacks in the book?s realization. We can label these criticisms under ?Beard?s Lament?. Progressive historian Charles Beard in The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) lamented the fact that not enough history was written with adequate attention paid to economic and legal details. This ?lament? holds for Labor?s Canvas. In the first instance, not enough emphasis is given as to why ?mass-unionization? actually occurred in the 1930s (labor union membership more than doubled, from 11% of the workforce in 1935 to 24% of the workforce in 1940), a period Hapke describes as being ?when the labor movement was in turmoil? (p. 54) and when artists were willing to ?trade breadlines for marching bodies demanding labor rights and increased wages? (p. 138). It was the New Deal which created this labor activism to begin with.

The ?first? New Deal in 1933 created the National Industrial Recovery Act, whose Section 7(a) gave monopoly bargaining rights to labor unions and authorization for cartelized price-fixing for output to industry on condition that the monopoly rents be shared with the unions themselves and that the ?high-wage doctrine? originally encouraged by Hoover be maintained. Then the ?second? New Deal?s Wagner Act in 1935 removed harm done by strike actions from the civil court system and placed labor negotiations under administrative law, specifically the National Labor Relations Board. It was these political pay-offs to the unions? support of Roosevelt in the 1932 election which triggered the very cultural/structural changes in society that underpin Labor?s Canvas mass unionism narrative. It is therefore lamentable that Hapke?s analysis does not capture the NIRA and Wagner Act beyond a superficial level.

This lack of directly relevant legal and economic analysis then points to a larger criticism of Labor?s Canvas. In Hapke?s narrative we are given a critique of capitalism as a ?system.? Under this essentialist reading, cultural and economic change is viewed as a closed system with all change occurring in a power trade-off between capital and labor. In fact, one of the underlying narratives is that in the pre-Wagner Act period government and capital were aligned against labor while in the later 1930s it is labor and government who are aligned against capital. An essentialist reading of social relations under capitalism which sees government as a tool for enforcing the existing social order, be it even towards labor as opposed to capital, may not be able to capture the disaggregated power struggles between ?organized? labor and the laboring person who is not a member of a union.

If it is indeed the suffering of the ?forgotten? man and woman that we are concerned with in the Great Depression, we should be concerned not with the well-being of labor unions and how well the unions play any struggle over power, but of each worker herself (especially the unemployed worker who is not fortunate enough to get one of the cartelized high-paying union jobs). One should note though that Hapke does not always resort to an essentialist analytical lens. She states, ?Whether Party stalwart or severe critic, prounion or prolabor, tolerant of the AFL or not, artists on the FAP were not unconflictedly proworker? (page 7, emphasis added). Hapke here may recognize that the purpose of a union is to keep wages high, which helps those in the union but hurts those that are not in the union, and that mandated high wages decrease the number of jobs in the economy. Unionization itself is not necessarily good for all labor, just some labor.

The largest lament in a reading of Labor?s Canvas is the fact that it just does not contribute to our understanding of state cultural production during the build-up of the American welfare state. Of the 37 works of art reproduced in the book, only 22 are within the time period, 1935-1943, during which the Federal Art Project was operating and of these one is from the 1941 ILWU/CIO publication Storm Over Bridges (and thus of course not a government-financed work of art), one is the masthead from the Artists Union publication Art Front, one is identified in the text as not being within the period the artist worked for the WPA, one is a photograph, not a drawing or painting (e.g., not a ?canvas?), and unfortunately one, William Gropper?s Youngstown Strike (1936-1937), is missing altogether and in its place is a second reproduction of Thomas Hart Benton?s Trouble on the Picket Line (1930) which appears again later in the book and which could easily cause confusion for the uninitiated reader due to like subject matter.

Most importantly, the identifications for each (black and white) work of art on the full pages where the artworks are reproduced do not identify whether or not the work, if produced during the relevant time period, was actually painted while the artist was employed by the WPA-FAP nor whether the work was produced for the FAP or privately in ?off-hours.? Gropper?s Youngstown Strike, for example, is now owned by the Butler Institute for American Art in Youngstown, Ohio through a museum purchase which sends a signal that it was produced privately. All works produced for the WPA (those which were not lost or destroyed) were loaned by the federal government to state and local governments or not-for-profit organizations with ownership rights remaining with the U.S. Government. Additional work by Hapke with the Francis V. O?Connor papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art could have at least helped to identify an artist?s period of employment with the WPA and further work at the National Archives in College Park, MD may have identified specific works as produced for the WPA.

However, even if each work of art was specifically tracked to its individual funding source it would be hard to generalize from selected works an overall state cultural strategy for the New Deal. Local Federal Art Project administrators were given considerable leeway in their content and stylistic approvals for WPA-funded art, so perhaps no one ?official? style or thematic content can ever be deemed as the sanctioned New Deal art. (This of course can be juxtaposed with the USSR, where Stalin declared in 1932 that only artworks depicting Socialist Realism were allowed.) If we then view Labor?s Canvas as telling a labor history through the art of the 1930s, as opposed to one through the government art of the 1930s ? a story less ambitious than the one Hapke attempts ? we can find much to admire in the book.

Cameron M. Weber is a Ph.D. student in economics and historical studies at the New School for Social Research. Email:

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII