Art and Culture in Hard Times

by James F. Cooper

“Hard Times” is a provocative exhibition of works by sixteen American realist painters, recently at Utah’s Springville Museum of Art. Curator Traci M. Fieldsted has included paintings which convey the despair and poverty that accompanied the catastrophic economic collapse of the Great Depression, alongside works created during the current recession. Three of the artists, Burton Silverman, Harvey Dinnerstein and Max Ginsburg, born in 1928 and 1931, share a common bond; they lived through both these calamities. The scenes from the 1930s, such as Forgotten Man (1934)—a melancholy depiction of an unemployed homeless man sitting in the sidewalk gutter, painted by Maynard Dixon, who was born in 1875—evidence the traditional style of the nineteenth-century academy. The works of Silverman, Dinnerstein, Ginsburg and especially younger contemporaries, such as Steven Assael, reflect a passion for realism forged by decades of going against the postmodern tide of kitsch.
Silverman’s Wall Poster (2009), a searing portrait of a muscular young black man leaning against a brick wall partially covered by a weather-beaten rock-concert poster, displays the artist’s characteristic phlegmatic brushwork and strong compositional skills. Silverman maintains an effective balance between formal visual elements and a superb realistic representation of the human figure. Similarly, Ginsburg’s Homeless (2006) fuses the disparate elements of an urban street scene—storefronts, sidewalk, traffic light, ashcans and detritus—into a tightly knit horizontal composition, effectively employing strong contrasts between the greyish snow-covered sidewalk and the dark masses of the homeless man and his bagged belongings. Assael’s diptych Bag Lady Twice (1996) reflects a younger generation’s interest in narrative content and symbolism. The two-panel painting shows different views of the same young disheveled woman carrying a heavy blue plastic sack. The juxtaposition of these two eight-foot-high narrative portraits is unsettling. Why does she seem so disturbed? Is she homeless? Where is she going? Are the images a metaphor for the human condition? Assael focuses on the story element, while,characteristically, Silverman and Ginsburg emphasize the formal elements of composition and draftsmanship.
Recent events have sparked interest in the 1930s era. Then, as now, threats of war heightened the anxieties brought on by a national economic collapse. The Great Depression was a catalyst for renewed vitality both in high art and popular culture. In contrast, in spite of our progress, superior technology, material growth and world hegemony, American culture today seems weak and supercilious—lending credence to the dark views expressed by authors such as Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and Who Are We?), Arthur M. Schlessinger, Jr. (The Disuniting of America), Morris Berman (The Twilight of American Culture) and Patrick J. Buchanan (The Death of the West).
Historian Morris Dickstein sees a remedy in cultural renewal. In his well-researched book Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,
he writes:

The [Great] Depression was the scene of a great cultural spectacle against the unlikely backdrop of economic misery. The crisis kindled America’s social imagination, firing enormous interest in how ordinary people lived, how they suffered, interacted, took pleasure in one another, and endured…but the art and reportage that helped people cope with hard times still speak to us today: strangely beautiful photographs documenting the toll of human suffering; novels that respond to the social crisis; romantic screen comedies whose wit and brio have never been surpassed; dance films that remain the ultimate in elegance and sophisticated grace; jazz-inflected popular music that may be the best America ever produced. 1

The Great Depression, continues Dickstein, demonstrates “the crucial role that culture can play in times of national trial.” For the first time in history, a modern nation produced cultural works for mass consumption which achieved a level of quality heretofore reserved for the privileged elites and oligarchies of past civilizations. During the 1930s and 40s, the Social Realist and Regionalist artists—Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shawn, John Steuart Curry, Raphael and Moses Soyer—directly addressed the themes of hard times. In the Social Realism of totalitarian states, fascist Germany and Italy and communist Russia, the weight of propaganda stifled creativity and quality. The American Social Realists are livelier artists. But the best Americans, such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, were independent spirits who managed to avoid ideological traps.
What was it about the 1930s that inspired so much creativity? The music, theater, literature, architecture, industrial design, motion pictures and photography have a power, honesty and beauty that, seventy years later, continue to surprise and delight us. Moreover, no other country or culture came close to challenging what is now seen in retrospect as uniquely American. As we enter another, perhaps equally troubled era of economic hard times and increasing war threats, American civilization seems bereft of solid core values. What we make now, particularly in the arts and popular culture, seems to lack the quality that characterized the earlier period. The vital connection between beauty and content has never seemed more important, or more absent. Despite the ravages of the Great Depression, Americans managed to hold fast to those core values that were deeply embedded in the social order and culture. When Pulitzer Prize-winning historian William Manchester wrote, in his World War II
memoir Goodbye, Darkness (1980), that the American character was shaped by Hollywood of the 1930s and early 40s, he wasn’t exaggerating or being sardonic.
Movies such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Purple Heart (1944) demonstrate that a combination of skillful filmmaking (form) and message (content) can work not only in masterpieces but also in solid, middle-brow entertainment and effective wartime propaganda. I challenge anyone to keep a dry eye during the final scene of The Purple Heart, as a handful of captured and tortured American airmen march proudly to their deaths before a Japanese firing squad, with the music of the Army Air Corps Song swelling to a crescendo in the background. Each airman is portrayed by director Lewis Milestone as a unique individual, united in heroic action by patriotism, honor and bravery. They are quintessential American heroes: gum-chewing, wise-cracking, cigarette-smoking, cocky, irreverent, patriotic and freedom-loving. That’s how Manchester described the men who fought alongside him at Iwo Jima. Decades later, in his 1980 memoir, reflecting somberly on the rapid decline in quality and the spreading decadence in American culture, he wondered how America would again find such brave men “to hold the pass at Thermopylae.” The film’s reputation may be tainted by wartime jingoism and racism, but the same director had also received an Academy Award for the anti-war masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
The Grapes of Wrath is one of John Ford’s masterpieces, shot by cinematographer Gregg Toland with a spare beauty that raises documentary style to an art. In some ways, Grapes is an update of Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach, in which a group of travelers tries to survive a perilous journey in a horse-pulled stagecoach across the fierce western desert, facing Apaches on the warpath, their own flawed characters, weaknesses and social prejudices. In Grapes, the Joad family flees the dust bowl and bank foreclosure in a broken-down flatbed truck across a harsh western landscape, destitute, sometimes starving, pursued by union-busting thugs and the cold indifference of the law. Both films offer carefully crafted portraits of individuals under deep duress, pulling together. These films are also moral parables, about class prejudice and the iniquities of crooked banks and bankers.
As the twentieth century’s most popular form of storytelling, the movies had an interesting relationship with the novel. The Grapes of Wrath is based on a John Steinbeck best seller. Theodore Dreiser’s masterpiece An American Tragedy (1925), a cautionary tale about a poor lad who schemes to lift himself out of poverty by marrying a wealthy young lady, was a fit subject for the Great Depression. The 1931 movie, directed by Joseph von Sternberg (who discovered and directed Marlene Dietrich the previous year in the German film The Blue Angel), focused on the working-class issues raised by Dreiser’s book. Its dramatic atmospheric lighting anticipated the film noir style of the 1930s and 40s. The social issues of An American Tragedy, however, would be recontextualized in A Place in the Sun (1951), one of the great cinema classics, directed by George Stevens. The social dimension becomes secondary to the famous close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor kissing Montgomery Clift. Stevens used a new six-inch lens to create scenes of the utmost beauty, delicacy and intimacy. The effect, displayed on enormous movie screens in darkened theaters, enraptured audiences. In her famous essay “A Century of Cinema,” Susan Sontag observed that, during its golden age: “Cinema was the both the book of art and the book of life.”2
The culture of the Great Depression depicted the hard times Americans endured for almost twenty years—beginning in the late 1920s with the dust bowl driving people off their land, the collapse of small banks in the Midwest and the growing crisis on Wall Street and extending into the post-war period when the world lay in ruins. But the most remarkable aspect of this era lay in the quality, vigor, integrity, the sheer formal beauty and craft of so much that was created and appreciated by people who sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. The movies, which had only recently converted to sound, were fed by a torrent of talented playwrights and writers, such as Elmer Rice, William Inge, Clifford Odets, Thorton Wilder, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a generation of great stage actors too numerous to mention, many of them developed by the Group Theater and Actors Studio, founded by Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford. The left-wing ideological bias of these artists would come under heavy congressional scrutiny during the 1950s. However, it is worth noting that the Hollywood Ten and many of their cohorts were also responsible for creating film noir, one of the most creative and distinctive American contributions to world cinema.
When we look back, we do not see a social golden age: there were glaring inequalities, and political debate was often rancorous. Some films, even classics, cannot be shown today without deleting entire scenes because of their inflammatory racist content. But popular culture was a vital part of life, offering a steady diet of beauty and hope. The memory of the hardships wrought by the Great Depression has faded even for those still alive today who lived through it. What does not fade, indeed, what continues to gain in luminosity, are the narratives, images, art, architecture and music created during that dark period. What some now call “the greatest generation”—those who persevered and triumphed over economic catastrophe and a world war, and went on to build the mightiest industrial juggernaut the world has ever seen—were sustained by a vigorous moral culture which suggested that a better world was still possible. Many films produced by Hollywood during the Great Depression celebrated the lives of great inventors, doctors, explorers, soldiers, athletes and national heroes.
Warner Bros. made many of these positive, life-affirming films. Warner also made pictures with an explicit social message, such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), with Paul Muni as a decent man caught in the system. That may be hard to reconcile with the image most associated with Warner, as the studio that created hard-bitten films about tough guys and crime lords of the bootleg-liquor era. Time Warner today is the greatest media conglomerate in the world, but in the 1930s, Warner Bros. was a small studio, compared to industry giants such as MGM. But, as film historian Richard Schickel observes in a new book, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, during the Great Depression Warner Bros. movies had character that was “palpable.” The Warner Bros. stars—Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and John Garfield—were “oddballs all in looks and manner…never the prettiest or the most handsome,” but they had grit, conscience, energy and passion. There was a pain, an anger, an existential wound the public could identify with.
Bogart, as he grew older, evidenced this quality in the three films that made him a star: High Sierra (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). People forget, even the most devoted Bogart fans, that the aging actor was practically washed up after eleven futile years in Hollywood playing supporting roles. During the 1930s, he was often cast as the rat who gets killed by Cagney or Robinson. In Dark Victory (1939), he played a small role as a stable hand, supporting Bette Davis’s Academy Award-winning performance as a dying socialite. In The Return of Dr. X (1939), he was a mad scientist, with a shock of white hair and a prosthetic scar. Then, suddenly, at the age of 40, he was no longer acting, but being—that rare state of grace which separates actors from movie stars. High Sierra marks the point when Bogart suddenly became Bogart. No film historian has successfully explained the transformation. Casablanca is often on the top spot in the “Best 100 Movies” poll, but if Paul Henreid, who co-starred in the film, had been cast as “Rick,” it would not have made the list. During the 1940s, Bogart personified the American male who had lived through hard times of the 1930s, courageous, honorable and stoic, with a code he would not betray even for the woman he loves. He was cynical, but ready to respond when his nation called. In the 1944 film To Have and to Have Not, the enemy was again Vichy France. Bogie’s love interest was Lauren Bacall, a sultry nineteen-year-old model from New York City, and their screen chemistry was so powerful Warner immediately recast them in several more films, most notably The Big Sleep (1946). Both film scripts were adapted by William Faulkner, from novels by two of America’s great literary stylists, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler.
Schickel observes that MGM may have been Hollywood’s largest, most prosperous studio, “but there was always something smug, self-satisfied about its pictures, something more purely escapist in its intentions.”3 But there were memorable exceptions. MGM moguls made a lot of women’s pictures, but occasionally they reserved some tough roles for Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, who were often paired. San Francisco (1936) is surprisingly frank about spiritual, economic and social issues of the day. Gable’s Darwinian indifference to the ethics of business, love and the social contract has a rude come-uppance in the final scenes depicting the catastrophic earthquake of 1906 that destroyed San Francisco. Gable, sinking to his knees amid the rubble, begging God to save the city and the woman he loves, brought a shock of recognition to Depression-beaten audiences. The destruction of San Francisco may not match the mindless spectacles of Transformers, The Day After Tomorrow or Armageddon, but it resonates with soul and character.
Now, on the far downside of that historic era, looking for fresh evidence of material and spiritual growth, we are confronted instead by a diminished cultural landscape. What is there today to sustain a new generation, to inspire and enflame their imagination? In contrast to the elegance, sophistication and grace of seventy years ago, today’s music, architecture, sculpture, painting, motion pictures and industrial design reveal a shocking decline in quality and moral certitude.
What shines through the hard times of the Great Depression is a quality uniquely American, particularly as expressed in popular culture. It is the individual, not the group, that is celebrated. The famous scenes in the Eisenstein classics Aleksandr Nevsky (1938), Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) and The Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) exalt the thousands marching in lockstep to defend the collective, the state, the Revolution. In contrast, American culture celebrated the individual.
It is possible to argue that the movies were doing much of art’s heavy-lifting during this era: telling archetypal stories with remarkable formal intelligence. You can see it in George Stevens’s quintessential western, Shane (1953). Intense close-ups of the actors are framed against the vast panorama of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Loyal Griggs used the imposing rugged western landscape to bring a mythic scale to this story. The villains, led by a feral Jack Palance with panther-like intensity, skulk in the claustrophobic recesses of a dark, muddy saloon, waiting to assassinate the homesteaders one by one as they ride into town for supplies. The quiet, monosyllabic hero, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, is framed against the vast color-drenched expanse of nature. The saloon becomes a proto-urban symbol for man’s corruption and greed. Shane is an American knight errant, who slays the evil men in mortal combat and then rides back alone, wounded, into the wilderness. Every frame of Shane is as carefully composed as a nineteenth-century landscape painting by Thomas Cole or Albert Bierstadt, who had painted the Grand Tetons. The filmmaker’s objective is much the same as the artists of the Hudson River School: to draw a moral and spiritual lesson from man’s connection to nature. Much has been written about the landscapes of American Regionalist painters of the 1930s, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, but the best landscape “paintings” of the mid-twentieth century were arguably made by Hollywood directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks and their cinematographers. Ironically, mass culture seemed more creative than the high arts during this period. Wood’s regional scenes look like toy towns; American Gothic, his famous portrait of an American family, is one of the most lampooned icons in American art.
The most significant thing about the contemporary American realists exhibited in “Hard Times” is the exceptional quality of their work. Traci Fieldsted, curator and author of an essay on the show in Fine Art Connoisseur, praises the “sensitivity and courage of a highly skilled group of artists who have chosen a road less traveled.”4 Most of these artists are familiar to readers of American Arts Quarterly. Burton Silverman was the 2005 recipient of the annual Award for Excellence in the Arts presented by Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, which publishes this arts journal. He never wavered in his dedication to representational art, despite the adulation heaped by the arts establishment on postmodern kitsch. Today’s realists have not lost touch with the traditional craft and values that characterize works by the old masters.
During the Great Depression, America was still firmly bonded with the core values of the past. When Franklin Roosevelt commissioned the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in 1934, he was reaffirming a great cultural tradition epitomized in the late nineteenth century by the Beaux-Arts City Beautiful Movement. The Memorial is a fitting reminder and tribute to Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the creator of the federal style of architecture. Jefferson thought of civic buildings as temples of republican virtue. Postmodern culture severed the cultural and historical connections between America and its past. The result was a loss of quality, not only in high art but in popular culture. The occasional good movies and pop songs today are but faint echoes of the once-vibrant American idiom that dazzled the world, from Japan to London, Iceland to Argentina. The golden age of American culture didn’t end abruptly with the end of the Depression; a lot of good work continued into the early 1960s. Americans of the 1930s were not naïve about the problems they faced, but they had energy and realized how vital art was to their lives. “There may be trouble ahead,” Fred Astaire sang to Ginger Rogers, and his solution was to meet it with courage and grace: “Let’s face the music and dance.” Let us hope that a resurgence in the arts and culture will surface in time to rescue America once again, at its darkest moment since the Great Depression.


1. Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), p. xiv.
2. Susan Sontag, “A Century of Cinema,”
3. Richard Schickel and George Perry, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story (Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 2008), p. 15.
4. Traci M. Fieldsted, “When Artists Paint the Hard Times,” Fine Art Connoisseur (January/February 2010), p. 61.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2010, Volume 27, Number 2