“free and enriching communion”


The following essay is the transcript of a talk entitled “American Resources in the Arts” given by Holger Cahill, head of the WPA’s Federal Art Projects. In this talk, Cahill describes the philosophy behind the WPA/FAP including the theories of John Dewey. Dewey was a progressive educator who believed that schools should educate people to be engaged and empowered citizens. Cahill also touches on other issues still relevant to the arts today, including the separation of the art world from the general public, the alienation of people from creativity brought about by industrialization, and the community-focused nature of folk arts.

I have edited out some sections of the talk. The entire transcript can be found in the book “Art for the Millions” which also has many other first person accounts from folks who were part of the WPA/FAP.

Holger Cahill: American Resources in the Arts

…This wide interest in the arts, this democratic sharing of the art experience, is a comparatively recent development in American life. It is the devoted work of people who, like John Dewey, believe that democracy should be the name of a life of “free and enriching communion” in which everyone may have a part. Certainly this broad, democratic community participation in the creative experience is not implicit in the very form of our society, nor in the European societies from which it developed. In the modern period, up to our time, the opportunities provided for the people as a whole to share in the experience of art have been very few. Even today many persons in the art field in Europe and America cannot go the whole democratic way in the arts. They cannot bring themselves to admit, somehow, that art, the highest level of creative experience, should belong to everybody. Many American artists, many American museum directors and teachers of art, people who would lay down their lives for political democracy, would scarcely raise a finger for democracy in the arts. They say that art, after all, is an aristocratic thing, that you cannot get away from aristocracy in matters of aesthetic selection. They have a feeling that art is a little too good, a little too rare and fine, to be shared with the masses.

…Our society today does not yet afford a life in which art is intimately connected with everyday vocations. Our democracy has not yet become the life of “free and enriching communion” of which John Dewey speaks. But we hold to that idea as the pattern of a program for our society, and we are beginning to translate it into action. And as a test that our program is possible of fulfillment, we look those periods in the past that have achieved a degree of community participation in the arts. We look to the Middle Ages, when art was devoted to a subject matter which was of the deepest concern to everyone, when its symbols and allegories had profound meaning for the whole community. We look to the era of handicrafts when the techniques of art were understood by the average man, since in an era of manual production the average artisan and craftsman, through his daily activity, could find a path to the work of the masters. In a society of artisans and craftsmen- among whom the painter and sculptor moved- the carpenter, the cabinetmaker, the carver of decorations, the painter of houses and furniture, the carriage and wagon maker, all had an understanding of craftsmanship and a feeling for the good joinery and solid construction which are the fundamentals of art. Up to the close of the 18th century, the man who wanted to be an artist could fall back upon the shop tradition of these craftsmen, beginning say, as a chair gilder- an occupation which started a distinguished artist like Chester Harding towards his career as a portrait painter.

I do not think that we have weighed sufficiently the meaning of the change from a handicraft to a machine method of production, probably the most revolutionary change in the history of human society. Its effect upon the arts had been catastrophic. It has divorced the artist from the usual vocations of the community and has practically shut off the average man from the arts.

In our modern industrial civilization, with its lack of unity, its tendency to divide the various activities of life into separate grooves, the arts have been more isolated than ever before. They have been tied to narrow interests and have shown a shifting and broken pattern which reflects the disunity of our age. It is this discrete, gritty, broken experience of our industrial age to which the upholders of aristocratic dedtachment in the arts really refer when they think they are referring to the aristocratic ages of the past.

Very few nations of our industrialized world have achieved much in the way of community participation in the arts. For contemporary examples of community sharing in the art experience we must turn to societies such as those of the Pueblo Indians of our Southwest. In these coherent societies, art tradition is rooted firmly in community experience, and is kept alive through participation by the whole people. Here official art and folk art are united. If anyone wishes to see what art expression at the level of a whole community can be, let him visit one of the dance ceremonials at Santo Domingo, or Zia, or Cochiti in New Mexico. Here the entire resources of a community, resources of design and color, of rhythm and movement in dance and song and chant, have been poured into a ceremony in which everyone participates. Here is undoubtedly the most moving and impressive example of community expression and community sharing in the arts which our contemporary world affords.


There is nothing like this in the experience of our European stock in America, save possibly in communities of craftsmen like the Shakers, where craftsmanship was almost a form of worship.


There has been, however, in various periods of our past an honest search for an art that mirrors the everyday experience, the sense and the sentiment of the American people. We can look back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when homespun American talent, working with homespun materials, and with little more than local handicraft traditions to guide it, produced work which clearly indicates the emergence of native American traits in the arts- works which are still worth our loving study. We have the major development out of that local tradition in our eighteenth century school, which in such paintings as Ralph Earl’s awkward and powerful “Portrait of Roger Sherman” reflects the spirit ofa people and of a time. Our provincial and genre painting of the nineteenth century, and the whole tradition of popular and folk art, are related to this earlier tradition and to the interests and the vocations of the common man.

But from the middle of the nineteenth century up to very recent times art has tended to become an activity sharply segregated from the everyday vocations of society. The art object has become more and more a minor luxury product. Our art patrons have sought their art objects, their ideas about art and art patronage in other countries and other times. It has been a period of extraordinary exoticism, an exoticism of time and space, which has ranged through all the countries and ages of the world for the rare, the costly, the ancient. The only country and the only time which were neglected were our own country and our own time. This has become so fixed a social habit that it has been considered a part of our essential human nature. It is as if man as art patron in America were incapable of reacting to his environment and could react only to the stored-up environment of the past. I believe that our art pundits have admired the exoticism of the American collector as an expression of an interest in the universal and the eternal in art rather than in the secular and the merely local. As John Dewey has pointed out, those who contrast eternity with time often are only contrasting present with past time. The emphasis upon the universal and eternal in art too often has meant that our interest has become attached to aesthetic fragments lost from their contexts in time and in human society.

…Because, during the past seventy-five years, the arts in America have had to follow a path remote from the common experience, our country has suffered a cultural erosion far more serious than the erosion of the Dust Bowl. This erosion has affected nearly every section of the country and every sphere of its social life. There has been little opportunity for artists except in two or three metropolitan centers. With the exception of these centers, the country has been left practically barren of art and art interest. The ideas and techniques of art have become a closed book to whole populations which have had no opportunity to share in the art experience, and which, in our industrial age, have become divorced from creative craftsmanship.

During the late 1920s many artists, museum directors, educators, and critics became deeply concerned over this situation. They have helped to stimulate currents toward an art of native social meaning which would relate art to the ideas and vocations of everyday life and help to bridge the gap between the American artist and the American public. Some of these currents may have flowed a bit too strongly in the direction of chauvinism, but on the whole the direction has been good. Museums devoted to American art have been founded, and there have been some really splendid developments in art education. There has been a great effort to conserve and develop Americas resources in the arts and to make these resources available to the public. The effort has been directed both toward the producer of art and the public which consumes it. No other group has been more effective in this effort than the progressive educators who have been influenced by the thinking of John Dewey.

In the past six years the groups working for an art program which would release the creative forces of our country and make art participation possible for the whole people have found a powerful ally in the United States Goovernment as art patron. A government art program is hardly a new phenomenon. Governments in every age and in every part of the world have employed artists. …In Sweden a finely planned program has long been established, leading to an outstanding development of the industrial arts in that country. Government support of art was undertaken in a striking fashion in the 1920s by the Republic of Mexico. A group of Mexican painters was commissioned to paint murals for public buildings under the direction of the Ministry of Education. From the work of that group came an art movement which spread through the country and far across its borders, carrying the fame of Mexico to every part of the world.


During this century, government support of art has become well-nigh universal. The United States Government’s effort however, has differed considerably from other art programs, both in extent and significance. At its very beginning it receiived the impetus of two powerful forces which helped to establish its character. One of these is the Mexican mural program of which we have spoken. The other is the philosophy of John Dewey. The Mexican mural program revealed to us the spirit of a nation, gave us a more profound understanding of the people of our sister republic, and at the same time enriched the creative life of our own land by giving us a living example of an art of native social meaning…

…What happened when the government inaugurated the WPA/FAP has been beautifully stated by Archibald MacLeish, in an article in Fortune. I quote:

…From one end of the range to the other, American artists, with the partial exception of the popular novelists and the successful Broadway playwrights, wrote and painted and composed in a kind of vacuum, despising the audience they had, ignoring the existence of any other.

It was this vacuum which the Federal Art Projects exploded. In less than a year from the time the program first got under way the totally unexpected pressure of popular interest had crushed the shell which had always isolated painters and musicians from the rest of their countrymen and the American artist was brought face to face with the true American audience…


…This creative drive has been stimulated and maintained because the Project has held to the idea of the unity of art with the common experience, the continuity between “the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, sufferings, that are universally recognized to constitute experience”; because the project has encouraged the closest possible collaboration between the artist and the public for which he works; and because it has held firmly to the idea of the greatest degree of freedom for the artist.

On this subject of freedom I should like to read to you what a distinguished American painter, George Biddle, says about the Project in his “An American Artist’s Story”:

It is the first time in history that many artists are working completely without censorship, without even the indirect censorship of the art dealer or the collector. I believe this is the most quickening impulse in painting alive in the world today. I believe that it will form a record of the deepest value…

In its programs of encouraging collaboration between artist and public, the Project has discovered that such a simple matter as finding employment for the artist in his hometown has been of the greatest importance. It has, for one thing, helped to stem the cultural erosion which in the past generation has drawn most of America’s art talent to a few large cities. It has brought the artist closer to the interests of a public which needs him, and which is now learning to understand him. And it has made the artist more responsive to the inspiration of the country, and through this the artist is bringing every aspect of American life into the currency of art. The direct response of the artist to his environment is a thing to be encouraged, it seems to me, for it is the artist, as John Dewey says, who keeps alive our ability to experience the common world in its fullness.

Let me read you what two Project artists have written about their reactions to the world of their everyday experience. One of these artists, William Sommer, is a man over seventy. He writes:

I live in Northfield, Ohio, twenty miles from Cleveland, in a state that gives all it has to the artist- ever-rolling hills, miniature valleys, old farm houses, cattle grazing around immense barns with small towers, towers which do away with the straight lines on the roof, towers which simply must be put into the general scheme, beautiful in form and eternal in simplicity. The farm folk never disturb me as an artist in my work, but welcome and instinctively respect what I represent…


I think I have seen every painting this artist has produced for the Project, and in my opinion they are beautiful and sensitive records of the Ohio farming country, as clear and honest and straightforward as the statement which I have just quoted.

The other statement is that of a brilliant young Boston artist in his early twenties named Jack Levine. He has painted a number of powerful and searching scenes of city life for the Project. He says:

Essentially a city dweller, I find that the aspects of man and his environment in a large city are all I need to work with. I find my approach to painting inseparable from my approach to the world. Justice is more important than good looks. The artist must sit in judgement and intelligently evaluate the case for any aspect of the world he deals with. The validity of his work will rest on the humanity of his decision. A painting is good for the very same reason that anything in this world is good.

I feel the sordid neglect of a slum section strongly enough to wish to be a steward of its contents, to enumerate its increment- newspaper, cigarette butts, torn posters, empty match cards, broken bottles, orange rinds, overflowing garbage cans, flies, boarded houses, gas lights, and so on- to present this picture in the very places where the escapist plans his flight.levine_feast.jpg

These statements express very clearly the differing attitudes of an artist interested in the American scene and an artist interested in social comment. But both, in their differing points of view, relate their art directly to their immediate environment. The mural painter, who is engaged in creating a monumental art for America, will have still another point of view. Let me read you something written by Mitchell Siporin, of Chicago, one of the most brilliant young muralists the Project has developed. He says:

The midwestern painter and sculptor of the immediate past attached himself at first to the Greeks and to the artists of the Renaissance. Then there were the English portraitists, and later the dainty swish of a Bouguereau nude, descending from the bath, rustled through the art salons on the shores of Lake Michigan. And much later, the ‘isms’ of a moderrn world: impressionism, expressionism, futurism, and even dadaism. Today, we young midwestern artists are at work on a native epic in fresco…

Ours is the story of Labor and Progressivism, of Jane Addams and Mary McDowell, of Eugene Debs and Robert LaFollette, Sr., of Vachel Lindsay and Theodore Dreiser, of Haymarket and Hull House...


Here is the odyssey of the American artist in our time.

Artists such as these have contributed immeasurably to the aesthetic resources of our country. I wish I might tell you more fully of their work in painting, and sculpture, and printmaking and teaching, of the thousand and one activities in which they have engaged in creating a great popular art program. But there is not time. The WPA/FAP has a great variety of projects, gauged to the skills and the talents of the artists it employs, and the needs of the public which it serves. I should like, however, to mention two of these activities- the Index of American Design and the Community Art Center program, for both of these have been affected by the thinking of John Dewey, and have been assited by progressive educators who have come under John Dewey’s influence.

A nation’s resources in the visual arts are not confined to painting and sculpture and printmaking. They include all the arts of design which express the daily life of a people and which bring order, design, and harmony into an environment which their society creates. These will include the whole range of the decorative and useful arts, from the shaping of a teacup to the building of a city. This view of American art has given direction to the activities of the Index of American Design. The Index, started in the fall of 1935, is recording, by means of carefully documented drawings, our design heritage from the earliest days of the colonization to the close of the nineteenth century. Ten thousand of these drawings have been completed. Thousands of photographs have been made and extensive bibliographies on American design have been compiled. Some three hundred and fifty artists in every section of the country are carrying on this work. The WPA/FAP will make this material accessible through libraries, museums, and schools to give the student, the teacher, the research worker, and the general public opportunities to become familiar with this important phase of the American culture pattern.

The Index of American Design represents an endeavor to recover a usable past in the decorative, folk, and popular arts of our country. This record of the arts of our people is an accompaniment to the widespread movement that has been going forward in literature and in music to awaken a realistic and vivid appreciation of the American past. The Index is rediscovering a rich native design heritage which we had all but forgotten in our frantic and fashionable search for aesthetic fragments of European and Asiatic civilizations. The Index is a record of objects which reveal a native and spontaneous culture. It gives us a broad view of this American cultural heritage embraced between the linear purity and almost magical proportion of Shaker craftsmanship and the Latin gaiety and color of Southwestern design; between the bold strength of the ship’s carver and the delicate perfection of embroidery. In its drawings of the work of hundreds of unknown and humble artisans, the Index of American Design shows the continuity of the aesthetic experience with the daily vocations of the American people. The enthusiasm and surprise which has greeted exhibitions of Index material throughout the country reveals that our people have a deep affection for these arts of the common man. They seem to recognize that these arts fit very closely into the context of our democratic life, as, for instance, the thought of Thomas Jefferson fits into the context of our democratic ideas.


…But by and large American communities have had little opportunity to share in the art experience. This is particularly true of the poorer sections of our large cities and of every community outside the orbit of a few favored metropolitan centers. But the eagerness to share in the experience of art is not confined to the large cities, to any one section of the country, or to any special group in the community. This has been proved by the response in seventy American communities from Key West, Florida, to Spokane, Washington, to the Community Art Center program of the WPA/FAP.

The core of the community art center idea is active participation, doing and sharing, and not merely passive seeing. If genuine learning in any field can be achieved only by doing then this is certainly true of the visual arts, whose techniques demand a coordination of brain and hand and eye. The WPA Commmunity Art Centers emphasize learning through doing. As inherently American as a New England “town meeting,” every art center is a part of the life of the community. It acts as a center for community life where the amateur may share with the professional in the rich experience of creative expression. It provides a friendly meeting place, with workshops, galleries and lecture rooms where the unity of the arts with the activities and the objects of everyday life may be realized. There are exhibitions both local and national in scope, lectures on art, demonstrations in art media, hobby club activities, participation of various age groups in painting, sculpture and the arts and crafts according to individual temperament and skill. There is also an active interest in community problems such as housing, landscape gardening, and town planning, and the decorating and furnishing of the home.

Every effort has been made to adapt the community centers to regional needs and interest, ranging from the native handicraft skills in the Southern mountain sections and in states like New Mexico, to the technical problems and hobby interests of industrial communities. This adaptation to community needs is important, but most important of all is the spirit of cooperative learning and sharing which has characterized the art center movement throughout. The seventy communities in which art centers have been organized have expressed their approval of the program by contributing nearly half a million dollars in the past three and a half years. During that time more than six million persons have attended art classes, art demonstrations and lectures, exhibitions, discussions, and various forms of group activity in the centers. This program as it continues will serve to naturalize art in many American communities hitherto barren of art and art interest. It should serve to stimulate American creative workers and provide greater resources in art for the American people.

…to provide a better environment for the American artist, to provide wider opportunities for the American people to participate in the experience of art. For it is our conviction that along that path we will move toward the life “of free and enriching communion,” envisioned by John Dewey as an ideal for American democracy.


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