A New New Deal Culture

a poster post.

In ReadyMade Magazine, Steven Heller calls for a new WPA-style Federal Arts Program in response to the economic crisis of our times. In doing so, he believes we need a “brand-new graphic language” that builds upon the populist art of the 1930s without nostalgically retreating to it. As part of Heller’s article, ReadyMade commissioned five graphic design artists to create posters.

The results are a bit disappointing to me. I agree with all of the messages in the art, and I find their expressive forms promising on the graphic front, but they remain cliched when it comes to the sloganeering.

There’s too much of the pre-economic crisis mood in them: hackneyed upper-class calls for localism, idealistic peacenik “can’t we all just get along” utopianism, and the sentimentalization of children. Yes! I approve!

But though I like the iconographies, which are bold, and though I agree with the principles, which are righteous, none of the posters move me when it comes to the new paradigm we find ourselves in as Americans: one in which we have a promising new progressive movement politically, but we face an enormous economic meltdown.

Of all the posters, however, Chistoph Neimann’s is a bit more intriguing. There is a playful bitterness to it, a sarcasm that would never have appeared on a 1930s WPA poster, but which strikes something of the mood I feel in this in-between moment.

As we wait to see where the Obama era will take us while, simultaneously, we feel the full catastrophe of the Bush era (and to some extent, the Clinton years) sinking in, Neimann’s poster both points out how little art matters in America even as it asks, in the same breadth, whether art might be able to matter a lot.

That is, Neimann’s poster speaks with forked tongue. It shows the American eagle — a symbol of the polity — being at once stained and robed in art. The eagle looks proud, but a tad surprised as well. The poster suggests that art has been essential to the formation of the United States even as Neimann hints (in what I hear as the sardonic use of the word “special” and what I see as the comic-book humor of the portrayal of the eagle) at how Americans have tended to marginalize, dismiss, and lampoon the role of art.

When it comes to art in America, Neimann seems to say, the eagle has landed, but it is also about to flee. Maybe, in this in-between moment, it might shake its tail feather as never before.

Image: ReadyMade; Christoph Neimann

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