Ryan Slabaugh: Lets be distracted from money for a minute
October 16, 2008
Its too hard not to associate the word depression with our current economy. With the stock markets volatility in full display this week, the word has triggered memories of dusty plains and bread lines, much to the chagrin of more optimistic analysts.Yet, the 1930s Great Depression refocused our countrys values. While some said it just wasnt possible to be roaring anymore, as the previous decade had allowed, our countrys leaders disagreed. The roaring will always go on, they insisted, its just some eras wont make money at it. So our leaders focused a lot of our attention on civic issues. This created jobs, reinforced our infrastructure and, perhaps most importantly, laid the foundation for our modern culture.As part of the New Deal, the feds created a number of opportunities for our countrys true personality to foster. Not only did this provide jobs for artists, writers, musicians and actors, but created a whole new genre of jazz, of blues, and turned folk heroes like Woody Guthrie into near immortals.The Great Depression, for better or worse, gave our country one thing it hadnt thought of before time. Bars were illegal for part of the decade, and most rural main street hangouts were boarded or torn down. In many classic black-and-white photos from the era, the only buildings in town that looked clean were the church and the newly-founded welfare office. But even then, people could handle only so much church. And welfare, well, was welfare. Still is.Yet, without this program, Ralph Ellison, for example, might never taken to his pen and written The Invisible Man. Jackson Pollock might never have discovered a great way to waste paint, and in the meantime, create a whole new style that has been mimicked but never copied. Throwing paint suddenly became cool. Still is.Not only were artists given jobs to create work, they were also asked to teach others their craft. The Federal Writers Project allowed wordsmiths, who would otherwise have had no income, to write guidebooks for states, cities and scenic spots such as Lake Tahoe and Death Valley.The Federal Theatre Project, perhaps the most controversial side of this project, allowed free, adult, uncensored theater led by Hallie Flanagan. Not only were the stage productions quite provocative, the program established the radio story as an art form, brought dance out of the realms of the cursed and into our homes, and spawned vaudeville and circus productions. The modern clown, for one, stepped into the spotlight of The Great Depression. This could be seen as ironic. I see it as evidence of a societys finest coping mechanism.The theater, clowns and all, even broke down racial barriers, allowing mixed productions in childrens theaters and, in those cities still fighting for the separation of races, Negro Units were established in several cities. They took their own versions of jazz and folk, added a tear drop, and called it the Blues.Yet, politics will be politics. Some 30s theatergoers, or readers, or art lovers, did not appreciate the program. They felt the content was boondoggling the public with thick propaganda for the federal governments New Deal. In response, Flanagan, in a famous essay called Democracy and the Drama, argued this new art represented the new frontier in America, a frontier against disease, dirt, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and despair …In hindsight, our Great Depression was also a Great Boom for our creativity. In other countries that provided little outlet for this type of nonprofit energy, fascism soon took hold, and war soon propelled our economy and removed the arts from the front lines. When the smoke cleared on V-Day in 1945, jazz bands could be heard leading the celebration.To be clear though, we are not in a Great Depression. Were not even close. But as we worry in bed late at night, or nip on our fingernails as we look at our stock portfolios, perhaps we should take a deep breath, close our eyes, and let our mind wander away from reality. Our culture has been, is, and must be more than money and McDonalds. Its blues, jazz and the great American novel.Perhaps now is the time to remember.
Ryan Slabaugh is humming a tune because he cant draw so well. Contact him by calling (530) 550-4260, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment online on his column.