UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 1, 2009

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ARTS IN BAD TIMES

Morris Dickstein, LA Times - Studies of the 1930s have shown how the economic meltdown was accompanied by psychological depression: loss of morale, a sense of despair, grave fears for the future. Going to the movies or listening to the radio could not solve these problems, but they could ease them in the same way that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's intimate fireside chats boosted morale and restored confidence.

The most durable cliche about the arts in the 1930s is that despite the surge of social consciousness among writers, photographers and painters (some of it supported by federal dollars), the arts offered Depression audiences little more than fluffy escapism, which was just what they needed.

But that's not the whole story. It's certainly a paradox that dire economic times produced such a fizzy, buoyant popular culture. From the warring couples of screwball comedy and the magical dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to the sophisticated music and lyrics of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins, the '30s generated mass entertainment legendary for its wit, elegance and style. This culture had its roots in the devil-may-care world of the 1920s, but it took on new meaning as the Depression deepened.

The engine of the arts in the '30s was not escapism, as we sometimes imagine, but speed, energy and movement at a time of economic stagnation and social malaise. When Warner Bros. -- which avoided bankruptcy with its lively and topical gangster films, backstage musicals and Depression melodramas -- promised a "New Deal in Entertainment," it was offering the cultural equivalent of the New Deal, a psychological stimulus package that might energize a shaken public. . .

If we look at the arts as a life-giving form of social therapy, many other fads and fashions of the 1930s fall into place. . . The public also loved comedies about the very rich. Everyone could feel superior to their silliness, the weightlessness of their lives, yet live vicariously through their energy, irresponsibility and freedom, the snap of their delicious dialogue. Meanwhile, musical standards created a seductive dreamland, somewhere "over the rainbow," a better world where cloudy skies and rainy days somehow promised "pennies from heaven."

The propulsive swing music of the big bands, produced by performers and band leaders such as Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, brought jazz to a mass audience for the first time -- jazz to dance to, not simply to listen to. It filled the airwaves, ballrooms, nightclubs, even concert halls.

The visual equivalent of swing music was Art Deco. Gifted designers such as Raymond Loewy, Donald Deskey, Walter Dorwin Teague and Norman Bel Geddes stimulated consumption by putting a fluid sense of movement into everything from locomotives to table radios, projecting the consumer into a streamlined future otherwise hard to imagine. This culminated in the design of the 1939 New York World's Fair, with its flowing crowds and futuristic visions of "The World of Tomorrow.". . .

There is little sign so far of how the arts will respond to the damage done to our confidence and morale this time around. But movie-going has already increased by almost 16% this year. We know from the 1930s that the stimulating effect of art and entertainment comes not only in the jobs produced but in the emotional links with the public that absorbs this work and takes it to heart.

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