A Teachable Moment

A Teachable Moment


So there we were, two Americans summoned to 11 Downing Street to advise the movers and shakers of British culture on the lessons to be learned from FDR’s New Deal, and particularly from Federal One, the WPA Arts Program that between 1935 and 1943 allowed thousands of painters, writers, actors, dancers, sculptors, musicians and designers to define themselves as working artists rather than destitute citizens on the dole. Alan Brinkley, author of Voices of Protest and Liberalism and Its Discontents and currently the provost of Columbia University, gave an eloquent resume of the New Deal’s ambitions and limitations. Then your correspondent followed up with a few points aimed at translating the language of 1930s America into contemporary Britain. But far more striking than anything either of us said was the sheer cultural leverage of the assembled audience, who included the chief executives of the BBC, the Royal Opera House, the British Council, the Arts Council, the Southhbank Centre, the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as the serving ministers of Culture and Work and Pensions, MPs from both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, not to mention Alastair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, with his wife Maggie, acted as our hosts.

That these people, each of whom controls a budget as large or larger than the $50 million portion of President Obama’s stimulus package for the US National Endowment for the Arts that proved so contentious, were prepared to spend a big chunk of time listening to a history lesson–and an American history lesson at that–was evidence of just how seriously Britain takes its culture industries. (Anyone tempted to denigrate culture’s contribution to Britain’s balance of payments would have quickly been set straight by Tessa Ross, who as head of Channel 4’s film division greenlighted Slumdog Millionaire.) But this morning’s gathering was also testimony to the power of an idea. We had been invited to launch The New Deal of the Mind,, the brainchild of journalist Martin Bright, who in an article in the New Statesman argued that by putting all of their emphasis on bailing out banks or big, long-term infrastructure projects the British government was missing out on one of the few undisputed successes of the New Deal, the Federal Arts Programs. "If ministers have decided to go down the route of work creation backed by borrowing," urged Bright, "they should at least do it with some imagination and flair."

Similar ideas have been floated in the US–most recently by Charles Peters and Tim Noah. But what was remarkable about Bright’s modest proposal was not so much the content as the response–this lone lefty journalist’s trial balloon had somehow commandeered not just a respectful hearing (and, courtesy of the web and Bright’s energy, a wide audience) but office space, the ears of the powerful, and thanks to Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the promise of real money. All within just over a month.

What does the WPA Arts Project have to do with equality and human rights? Well, for one thing, 40 percent of the workers on the WPA Writers’ Project were women. And that was back when Betty Friedan was still writing editorials for the Smith College newspaper. Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Katherine Dunham and Arna Bontemps were all alumni of the arts projects. And in an era when virtually the whole of US government institutions, from the Armed Forces to the blood banks, were segregated by race, the WPA arts projects were unique in the degree both of genuine integration and the opportunities they offered for African American professionals. It was the WPA that taught a generation of Americans that culture was not something that you go out and buy, or passively consume, but something that was made by and belonged to people like themselves. It would be ironic if this lesson, which still seems capable of stirring such avid interest in Britain, remains neglected in the country that gave it birth.


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