(Charles Bramesco’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/19; Photo: A still of Orson Welles from New Deal for Artists. Photograph: Corinth Films.)
For its 40th anniversary, the Orson Welles-narrated documentary about Franklin D Roosevelt’s post-depression artist program is getting a vital re-release
n America, the culture war over state funding of arts programs never really ends, but rather assumes slightly altered forms over time. The latest battle lines have formed around Broadway, in desperate need of an infusion of cash from the government to survive the pandemic, much to the chagrin of budget-slashing conservatives. Not so long ago, the debate centered on Andres Serrano’s urine-soaked crucifix Piss Christ, intended as an improbable expression of faith yet overwritten as an act of sacrilege by an outraged Christian right. Though it takes up an absurdly minuscule amount of tax revenue, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) attracts more heat than most federal ventures, to the point that attacking it has become something of a national tradition for Republicans – one that predates the NEA itself.
In 1935, as part of the Second New Deal designed to get the American people back on their feet in the wake of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration. Dedicated to employing the millions left without a job by the financial downturn, the agency facilitated the construction of innumerable public buildings and roads, but also reserved a chunk of its capital for a special branch deemed Federal Project Number One. This program disbursed grants to nearly 40,000 artists, writers, musicians, actors and other creative types before the WPA’s dissolution in 1942, ushering in a cultural renaissance that would lay the track for the following century’s achievements. This did not stop FDR’s critics from painting it as the vanity lark of a liberal lily-liver, however.
A 1981 documentary titled New Deal for Artists relates the obscure, seemingly dry, yet altogether edifying history of this unheralded golden era for American art. Produced for and aired on German television, it’s developed a reputation as something of a lost treasure due both to its forward-thinking stance on the vitality of an industry beyond manufacturing goods or generating money, as well as the narration from the velvety-voiced Orson Welles. Though unavailable to view for decades, this fascinating artifact has now been unearthed and restored for its widest release yet, exposing a fundamental chapter in the narrative of America’s identity.
As Welles explains in ear-caressing voiceover, pretty much every big name born between 1900 and 1915 got their start through the benevolence of the WPA. The ranks of its esteemed alumni include such titans of the written word as Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Studs Terkel; painters from Jackson Pollock to Mark Rothko to Willem de Kooning; and dramaturges like Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey and Welles himself. Without the security and room to experiment afforded to them by the auspices of the Project, a gargantuan crater would be left in the face of America’s heritage.