Recommended Read: “The Cultural Front” by Michael Denning
A history of the New Deal provides lessons for workers in today’s imperilled arts world.
Whether out of economic necessity or ideological design, it is clear that the relationship between the state and the arts is being reassessed. Within the coalition government's first 100 days, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport warned that a number of our public bodies are set to be "merged, abolished or streamlined" amid attempts "to cut costs and increase transparency, accountability and efficiency".
The proposed closures of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), the UK Film Council and the Advisory Council on Libraries are only the most high-profile cases in the government's initial efforts to cut 25 per cent from the Arts Council fund.
All this makes for an intriguing political and cultural context for the forthcoming second edition of Michael Denning's Cultural Front. Released to academic acclaim in 1997, The Cultural Front is a panoramic examination of the challenging popular front culture that emerged in 1930s America in the context of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and the Works Progress Administration.
Denning argues that this period, far from being "the brief moment when politics captured the arts, when politics went left, Hollywood turned red, and painters, musicians and photographers were 'social minded' ", in fact witnessed a deep and lasting transformation of American culture that outlived the politics of the New Deal.
This momentous legacy is the success not only of Roosevelt's New Deal liberalism, but of the left as a whole. Indeed, what is significant about The Cultural Front is its relative silence on Roosevelt and congressional politics. Duke Ellington and Woody Guthrie feature far more prominently than do FDR and the WPA.
The agents in this decisive cultural period are not so much organised political groups or coalitions, but countless members of a self-conscious left that represented "a radical historical bloc". Orson Welles, John Dos Passos, Ralph Ellison, Billie Holliday, Walt Disney and Richard Wright developed the mass cultural practices of film, theatre, literature, radio and music that came from, engaged with and were genuinely popular among working-class and ethnic-minority populations. These are, for Denning, the instigators of American modernism, to whom our inheritance of jazz, blues, country music, ghetto pastorals and gangster movies is owed.
The phenomenon of the cultural front and the particular forms it took were, of course, the result of a confluence of trends and events which cannot be replicated. But The Cultural Front should resonate with all interested parties in today's debate on the coalition cuts.
To policymakers, it is a rich account of the cultural (and, indeed, economic) fertility of investing in the arts at times of economic hardship and social fragmentation. While today's vulnerable arts bodies may yearn for the relief projects and federal investment of the New Deal, the cultural left as a whole can surely learn from the lasting success its ancestors achieved by engaging with emerging cultures through emerging art forms.
Above all, though, Denning's book is a reminder that culture can surpass the minutiae of government policies. Whereas many have viewed the radical art of the 1930s as a fleeting triumph of the left that was soon suppressed by the red scare of cold war America, Denning has identified its continued presence in the mass culture of Bob Dylan, Jay-Z and Martin Scorsese that we now value so greatly.
Ralph Ellison remarked in Shadow and Act that the blues "are an art form and thus a transcendence of the conditions in the Negro community by the denial of social justice". That his legacy endures is testament to the power of such art forms over even the gravest of political errors.
A new edition of "The Cultural Front" will be published by Verso (£20) on 18 October
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