Founding Visions: Federal Theatre Project and Devaluing the Arts

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This is the third of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theatre history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.

Today’s essay, by senior Deborah Lawrence, was inspired by an excerpt from Hallie Flanagan’s book about her days leading the Federal Theatre Project, Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre Project, in which Flanagan details her appearance before the Dies Committee, which was investigating Communist influence within the Works Progress Administration. We also watched the inspiring film The Cradle Will Rockwhich dramatizes the same period. As Deborah says below, the story of the defunding of the arts is an all-too-familiar one. — Scott Walters

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beware-of-artists-meme“Beware of artists: they mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous,” reads one of the many papers pinned to my professor’s door. This quotation has been falsely attributed many times, most recently to Joseph McCarthy, where it’s been passed around as saying that it was on a poster issued at the height of the Red Scare. (It was actually paraphrased from a letter by King Leopold I of Belgium.) However, false attribution doesn’t makes the statement concerning the danger of artists any less true. Indeed, part of the unfortunate demise of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) can be attributed to this sentiment.

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The numbers don’t lie — the FTP allowed theatre to reach unprecedented numbers of people, to the degree that many audience members were experiencing their first live dramas. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, the FTP was shut down as a branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), forever remembered in theatre history as a “what-could-have-been.”

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I personally wasn’t even aware of the existence of the Federal Theatre Project until we started reading through An Ideal Theater. Meanwhile, I’d learned about the WPA at around the age of 8. (Granted, this was from an American Girl Doll book.) I was immediately intrigued by the fact that the project was both born and died near-simultaneously, flowering into existence while closed committees in Congress debated its death. I was also taken by how unnervingly familiar the story of cutting arts funding was, having been repeated over and over again, each time closer to home. In high school, every year I took art classes as my electives. I can easily remember our teacher telling us to be stingy with paint, with turpentine. Much of it was paid for out of her own pocket. It holds true in college as well — I recall our theater’s roof having leaked for around half a year, to the degree that there were buckets backstage to catch the errant drips. Meanwhile, the school had allocated funds for a new Dining Hall, and had recently built a state-of-the-art athletics building. The lack of money was not a problem — the lack of support was.

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NC Gov. Pat McCrory

There is an increasing and unfortunate trend of devaluing the arts, especially in regard to arts education. The Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory (R), has recently been furthering the anti-arts movement in North Carolina education. He’s argued for funding for higher education being based not on the number of students in attendance, but rather on the number of students hired in their field directly out of college. This would be major-specific as well, meaning that areas of study that aren’t typically easy to find jobs in would be the first to go. Arts education budgets would be slashed immediately. This would mean not only lack of resources for professors, but for students as well. Technically-minded students would be forced to learn their craft with out-of-date equipment, putting them at an immediate disadvantage in the job market. Actors would lose resources as well, such as acting classes that could otherwise be offered, or the resources necessary to put on a production with a large cast. Cutting arts funding based on hiring does not mean that there will be fewer students studying arts — it just means said students would be less qualified in their field, making it that much more difficult to find jobs — the exact problem such a budget proposal is trying to combat.

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Art budgets today are not being slashed because of a fear of Communists, in the same way that the Federal Theatre Project was not killed because of Reds. Communism was just the excuse, the catalyst to feed into a too-common trend. Art is devalued in our society. In 1939, Congress did not want to pay for artists to act, to share their creations. In fact, they ignored the officials of the Federal Theatre Project and kept their meetings behind closed doors because they never had any intention of doing anything with the FTP other than killing it. They didn’t want to hear anything in support of the Federal Theatre Project because they never valued it in the first place.

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Gov McCrory doesn't mean the same thing as Oscar Wilde did...
Gov. McCrory doesn’t mean
the same thing as Oscar Wilde.

Today, artists are not feared. We are not seen as dangerous. We are seen as useless because our contributions to the world are not nearly as concrete as scientists’ or doctors’. Our dramas and paintings are seen as pieces of paper rather than the energy and beauty that can come from imagination. Our work is devalued because the effects of it are interior instead of exterior, because when a technician fixes a machine you can see the results, but when a play heals a soul it can only be felt from within. I am not a sappy person, but I get emotional about art because it is uniquely built to elicit such a reaction.

So, sure, cut our funding. Turn the actors into mathematicians, the technicians into scientists. They will be accountants and IT experts and mechanical engineers, and they will do things and create things, maybe even something wonderful. But when somebody inevitably cries, “Where is all the art?!”, the finger should not be pointed not at the artists, but at a society that does not value what is not concrete, what cannot easily be seen.

Beware of artists. They have the ability to make us to feel, and are therefore the most dangerous.