Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, attempting to battle back against the economic ravages of the Great Depression, established grants for artists in all 48 states. In Arizona, these efforts included photography, murals, guidebooks, and local art. Naturally, as professor and author Betsy Fahlman points out, the New Deal artists “participated in an implicit national cultural agenda…for a relatively modest investment, the country got a great deal of fine art that was distributed nationwide.”
Unfortunately, the arts and crafts of Native and African Americans were notably limited in the New Deal initiatives. However, the artists who did link into the New Deal programs made an effort to include these groups peripherally, in murals and photographs that depicted their culture and strivings. An example is found in the work of Lew Davis, whose murals for the segregated army base Fort Huachuca displayed the contributions of black soldiers in American wars. Davis daringly created an army recruitment poster of a black soldier with the inscription “History will judge us by our deeds.” One of the few Navajos to be tapped was painter Gerald Nailor, who created murals chronicling the history of his people for a new administration building in the capital of the Navajo Nation at Window Rock. In addition to showing the traditional agriculture and crafts of the Navajo, Nailor highlighted their suffering and defeat at the hands of their white conquerors.
Photographer Dorothea Lange famously captured the spirit of the Dust Bowl migrants, her pictures having a poignant political slant, while the equally noted Ansel Adams chose to photograph grand landscapes such as Canyon de Chelly and to depict native peoples in a classic, un-politicized manner. Adams admired Lange, we are told, as “a humanitarian and an artist” but had a certain distaste for most documentary work, regarding it as “one-sided.” Still he was able to evoke the American love of natural surroundings through his work. Similarly German-American Fritz Henle “spoke volumes” simply by snapping pictures of what he saw in and around Arizona’s massive copper mines.
Even the interned Japanese population made a contribution to the artistic projects. Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake felt “a responsibility to record camp life so this kind of thing will never happen again,” and sculptor Isamu Noguchi idealistically believed that the camps could be a kind of “cooperative utopian community.” Noguchi helped design the buildings at the Colorado River Relocation Center, where he was inspired by the desert landscapes.
Fahlman recognizes that the promotion of tourism was an incentive for some of the New Deal art programs, especially in Arizona. The Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and the ubiquitous saguaro cacti were all touted subtly or blatantly in the government funded artworks, with the Federal Writers Project producing tourist guidebooks for Arizona and most other states.
Whatever the “hidden agenda” and however non-inclusive the New Deal initiatives seem in hindsight, the push to employ artists and artisans still stands out as unusually enlightened. Fahlman’s book is, as it should be, loaded with photographs (appropriate to the era, in black and white) and will be a talk and thought-provoking coffee table classic and a great gift for anyone interested in Americana, American cultural history, the West, and of course, Arizona.