John Rothenstein, ‘American Art Today’, 1941

Rothenstein describes here the recent growth of public art commissions in the US. President Roosevelt, he explained in what was originally a radio talk, had passed legislation to support artists and to require federally-funded new public buildings to devote one per cent of their budgets to art. This has caused art ‘to have escaped from the studio into the railway station, the law-court, the town hall, and the post office’. All this was in stark contrast to the situation in the UK and Rothenstein presumably felt it was part of his role as Director of the Tate Gallery to point to what he saw as the enlightened approach of the US, notwithstanding, or perhaps because of, the country’s pre-eminence in industry and business. In just a few years contemporary art had become the concern of the ‘American man in the street’.

Many people in Great Britain are inclined to regard the Americans as a nation so engrossed in politics, in manufacture, in commerce, in sport, in scientific research, as to have very little time for the arts, except, of course, for the great new art of the film. And when we do think about American art we think of a pallid reflection of the art of Europe. Only a few years ago such a view would have had some justification. American artists were dazzled by European painting and sculpture, and large numbers of them even made their homes abroad. And this is how a commission of experts set up by President Hoover reported on public taste in 1933. ‘It must be admitted’, they said, ‘that for the overwhelming majority of the American people, the fine arts of painting and sculpture in their non-commercial, non-industrial forms do not exist’. But during the past half-dozen years there has been an extraordinary and deeply impressive change.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, my official duties entailed a visit of several months to the United States where I was privileged to see something of this change. It was just ten years since I had left America, after spending some time there as a professor of art history.

Fig.1 Reginald Marsh, Sorting the Mail 1936

Reginald Marsh
Sorting the Mail 1936
Ariel Rios Federal Building, Washington, D.C.
Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
© 2019 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The first intimation of the change I’m speaking about came to me in a railway station. I had to break a journey from Canada to Kentucky at Cincinnati, and remembering how dingy and dark the railway station was, I didn’t look forward to spending several hours there. But the station had been rebuilt. In the middle of it was a huge hall, of which the most striking feature was a vivid and imposing series of pictures in mosaic, which told the story of Cincinnati. The station was no longer the desolate spot I remembered. It had become one of a great city’s chief centres of leisure and civilisation, and a place where the hours passed quickly. Well, before very long it was apparent that what had happened in Cincinnati was happening everywhere else. Wherever I went people were talking about art; not about art in the abstract so much as about the painting and sculpture that was being done for public buildings in their own particular cities. In fact art seemed to have escaped from the studio into the railway station, the law-court, the town hall, and the post office [fig.1]. It sounds incredible, but I was told by a government official that as many as forty-five thousand post-offices were being ornamented with paintings and sculptures. Art had become part of the general life of the community.

What had produced this sweeping, this spectacular change? Oddly enough the Great Depression which struck the United States at the end of the nineteen-twenties gave the opportunity. The artists who had lived abroad were compelled to come home as the flow of remitted dollars on which they had subsisted dwindled away. And they found an America no longer mesmerised by prosperity such as the world had never seen, but an America that had become grave and self-critical in the face of disaster. So it happened that the hearts of many of those who had chosen to leave their country in her hour of material success went out to her in her adversity.

Of course, this new harmony of outlook didn’t come in a day, for America, distressed and anxious, hadn’t much time just then for artists. Presently the rising tide of unemployment threatened to submerge almost all of those who depended on art for their living. A multitude of painters and sculptors were without the means to paint and model and carve, and thus a great part of the nation’s creative power seemed destined to frustration.

At the eleventh-hour salvation came in the guise, unfamiliar to artists, of a body of legislation. This was based upon the recognition of the right of the citizen to have the noblest achievements, aspirations and beliefs of his country embodied in works of art and upon the recognition of the value of the artist as a man with the power to create these works of art, and upon his consequent right to some help from the State, of the kind which is generally accorded to the scientist, for instance, or to the scholar, or the farmer.

It is a melancholy thought that modern democracy, which has enjoyed so long and so brilliant a succession of triumphs in many spheres of human endeavour, has, as a patron of art shown a good deal less generosity, less responsibility, and less vision than some of the darkest tyrannies of the past. President Roosevelt’s legislation – perhaps the most momentous art legislation in history – represents a very striking attempt by a great modern state to assume responsibilities towards the arts on a scale in any way commensurate with its resources.

The full satisfaction of life can only be reached through the consciousness and the senses. President Roosevelt has seen how vital it is that these should not be depressed but stimulated; that only fine and harmonious surroundings can induce that zest that makes life really worth living. Mrs. Roosevelt told me how firmly President Roosevelt is convinced of that, and what importance he therefore attaches to his art legislation.

You may ask ‘Just what is it that the President has done?’ I’m sure you don’t want to hear a lot of details about the actual laws passed, but the main points are these. First of all, artists were given nation-wide employment simply to keep them going during the Depression. Then, as the Depression lifted, more emphasis was placed on the beautification of American cities, and a law was passed making it obligatory that 1 per cent of Federal expenditure on buildings should be devoted to their adornment. That means that on a building costing £1,000,000, £10,000 would have to be spent on painting and sculpture. But perhaps critical listeners may be afraid that such legislation would merely lead to acres of dreary official art being tacked on to public buildings as an after-thought. One thing is quite certain: nothing of this kind is happening in America. The chief safeguard against it is that the designs for the various projects are not chosen by officials. They are chosen in open competition by juries composed of artists.

All this applies, at the present, only to Federal buildings, but the States, and indeed many of the great business corporations, are following the Government’s lead. So you see how much art has become the concern of the American man in the street. – Home service