Since the days of ancient Greece, public art has existed as a major art form. Religious and social art was vigorously implemented by the Greeks to bolster public confidence in the empire. America experienced a similar phenomenon after the Great Depression when government-sponsored mural projects proliferated throughout major cities in order to reinvigorate public spirit. The unsanctioned street art of today also communicates socially relevant themes to the public, but does so in a way that often subverts and questions dominant political authority.
During the 1920s and 30s, members of the American artistic community revitalized the Italian Renaissance tradition of fresco painting that had also inspired their contemporaries in Mexico during the Mexican Mural Renaissance. Certain visionary U.S politicians including Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to emulate the Mexican model that combined creativity and national values. Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), whose mural The Arts of Life in America (1932) can be found in the New Britain Museum of American Art collection of modernist paintings, worked under the Federal Art Project division of the Works Progress Administration, an organization that created over 5,000 jobs for artists during the 1930s. For the first time since America’s founding, artists enjoyed generous government support. Poverty stricken cities, once devoid of life, were enlivened with colorful murals that depicted powerful, hard working Americans. Benton received a great deal of attention in 1930 when he created his own mural project, America Today. His Regionalist style, which focused on nostalgic and socially relevant subject matter, acted as a reminder of better times during a tumultuous moment in our nation’s history.
At first glance, Arts of Life in America appears utopian. Men and women, painted in an elongated, robust style, have the appearance of heroic figures, much like the gods and goddesses that populated Roman temples. For his Whitney commission, however, Benton was not concerned with presenting a saccharine image of the nation to his viewers. Instead, his illustrated scenes of daily life in New York City, the South and American West offered a biting critique of American habits. In Arts of the City, for example, Benton exposed undesirable aspects of the City that were exacerbated after the Great Depression. Benton fearlessly addressed the banes of urban life, namely, prostitution, poverty, mobs, isolation and loneliness, as seen through the homeless men rummaging through the trash for food, or the solitary Jazz musician striking a mournful chord on his saxophone. While the seemingly brash subject matter of his Whitney murals are a stark contrast from his more folksy, nostalgic themes of rural America, Benton’s boldness was probably influenced by the fact that the murals were intended to be displayed in a museum rather than the streets. The themes confronted in Arts of the City would have been too controversial in the eyes of the government, which wanted images of positive figures that overcome hardship rather than succumb to it. It was the museum environment that would have allowed for more creative flexibility and opportunity for critique.
Interestingly, one of the more dominant forms of public art today -“street art” – sees the streets, not the museum, as the greatest venue for discussion. Whereas the content of the WPA murals appealed to the mores established by the federal government, the public alleys, walls and street signs of today are an untapped resource for street artists who seek to question the existing environment with its own language. Unlike vandalism or territorial graffiti, the unwarranted “post-graffiti” does not seek to destroy public property. While some street artists may see public walls as a canvas for personal artwork, others wish to reach out to the public in ways that are highly politicized.
In recent years, street art has emerged in the form of wheat-pasting, stickers, stenciling, posters and installation and has become a common sight on the buildings, street signs and sidewalks of Brooklyn, New York and other cities all over the world. This comes as no surprise since New York City has witnessed a number of developments in public art since the days of the WPA murals. While the graffiti art of the 1970s and 80s was largely associated with hip hop culture and vandalism, several artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring eventually transitioned into more conventional art venues. That tradition has continued into the present, as some of the best street artists in the city are also represented in galleries or commissioned for design work by major corporations. Like Benton, they juggle multiple artistic identities. Whereas Benton’s corporate persona emerged in the form of street murals and his private identity was showcased within the museum, contemporary street artists have reversed those roles.
Where do you think art has the greatest potential for critique? Is it in the public, “free” space of the streets, or within the confines of a gallery or museum? How might these artists reconcile the ephemeral nature of street art with the attempts of galleries and museums to preserve it? Do artists lose credibility by taking on more “mainstream” identities?