youngtramps.jpgsalut.jpgRecently I have been looking into the cultural programs that were part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. Along with the more well known mural program there was the Federal Theater Project, Federal Writers Project, and Federal Art Project. I have been surprised to find a group of governmental programs which placed genuine value on the arts as an integral part of a populist, democratic society. With the situation we find ourselves in today, I find it hard to imagine a time when having work that was meaningful and constructive was actually valued by society at large. The projects were also dedicated to a high level of artistic excellence and experimentation (they had a solid work ethic).

The Federal Theater Project produced classic plays for audiences all over the country and also funded the production of many new works directly engaged with the social realities of the times. One play was about a fascist dictatorship taking over the U.S., another told the story of John Brown fighting to end slavery. The Living Newspaper productions featured dramatizations of current events and discussions of problems in society. The Theater Project also supported a strong black theater at a time when blacks were still largely shut out of the professional theater. The Project’s production of Macbeth with an all black cast is one of the most historically significant productions put on by the FTP. It was also a huge popular success when it debuted in Harlem. The Dance Project of the Federal Theater used the slogan, “The American Dance seeks new technique to express today’s problems.” It’s productions featured dances based on Walt Whitman poems and the lives of tramps. The FTP was one of the first sections of the WPA targeted for cancellation under charges of communism for producing plays about class consciousness and class conflict. The movie Cradle Will Rock is a semi-fictionalized dramatization of these events that is worth watching as an introduction to the time and forgotten populist history.


Just as the FTP featured many formal innovations in staging, costumes, and production, the Federal Arts Project featured many formal innovations as well. The Project’s pioneering use of the screenprinting process revolutionized commercial printing. Screenprinting posters became one of the Art Projects major divisions. These posters were often very formally innovative. They designed and printed posters for other WPA projects all over the country including producing the posters for FTP productions, the book covers for Federal Writer’s Project books, and posters for Federal Art Centers. One function of the poster division was to produce “public service announcement” type posters which encouraged people to be self-sufficient and empowered members of society.


growit.jpgThinking about the public service posters in terms of society placing value on empowered and engaged citizens, one current reinvention of these posters could be a project similar to the People’s History Poster Series which would focus on promoting DIY ways of living healthier outside of the capitalist system. For example, posters promoting growing self-sufficient gardens on your lawns, composting, composting toilets, etc as community values. Posters about the need of sustainably and organically grown produce for health and simultaneously promoting local food networks that would keep this type of produce from being available only as a luxury good…

indexdesign.jpgThe Index of American Design was a division of the FAP which attempted to document the folk arts and traditional crafts of the different cultures and communities in the United States. The purpose of this project was to emphasize the importance of handcrafts to the creative life of a community and to document the creative richness of regional folk arts while they still existed.

A similar project that was part of the Federal Writer’s Project was the American Guide Series. In each state, the FWP employed local writers to document the life and history of their state. Special emphasis was placed on the uniqueness of local community life, popular history and regional customs.

forging.jpgThe WPA/FAP existed as part of a larger governmental system whose purpose was to ensure the continuance of the capitalist economic system. While this kept it from being overtly radical, it demonstrates what can happen when a group of people commit themselves to creating institutions which are actually in service to values of democracy and populism. Ideas such as promoting democratic participation in communities, of encouraging people to grow their own food, even the promotion of a self-empowered work ethic with pride in craftsmanship and a job well done- respect for yourself and the work you do instead of passive acceptance of meaningless wage slave work- seem radical today as our society is being overwhelmed by the endgame of the capitalists. The FTP, FWP, and FAP were the first aspects of the New Deal to be targeted for systematic defunding by members of the power structure who saw in them a populist threat to the capitalist strategy of keeping people colonized and disempowered, alienated and dependent on the economic system which uses them. Charges of communism were used by members of congress to cut the funding to these programs. It was around this same time in which John Dewey’s theories of populist education (which had been a big influence on the WPA/FAP) were phased out of public schools in favor of a more authoritarian educational style.

As we struggle to find effective means of resistance to the current wave of dehumanization and alienation from the reality of our planet- to the point where it is considered a good agricultural practice to create plants with sterile seeds- I see in these posters a hope for an engaged citizenship, awake from the mass media haze, having genuine discussions about our fate and acting on them. They’re some kick-ass designs too. All images in this post are FAP posters.

3 Responses to “WPA / FAP”

  1. Andrew Wagner Says:

    F, Yeah! WPA Rocks!

  2. eishita Says:

    very nice pictures of clean self that eagle poster

  3. eishita Says:

    thank you

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