The 1930s Arts and Entertainment: Overview
Despite the Great Depression, which gripped the country, the 1930s were an exciting time for the arts. Novelists such as William Faulkner, Zora Neal Hurston, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all produced major works in the 1930s. In the theater Eugene O'Neill and Clifford Odets wrote influential plays. In dance, jazz and ballet were fused in the work of Martha Graham. American painters and sculptors produced huge public artworks and began to move toward a more abstract style. Jazz, hillbilly music, and the blues found a broad audience in the 1930s, while the Hollywood movie embraced color and developed its own distinctive style.
Like nearly everyone else, artists, writers, and musicians suffered in the economic climate of the Depression. At such a time of crisis there was a sense that America had lost its way and that the country lacked a distinctive culture of its own. In an effort to boost national pride while helping to provide some jobs to help Americans through the Depression, the government's Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal political programs, supported regional artistic activity by giving federal funding to the arts. In many cases this meant that artists could continue to get paid to work when the market for their goods disappeared. The idea was not only to develop a modern American culture but also to rediscover one that was being lost. Artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians traveled around the country documenting and borrowing from folk (common) culture. Some were paid to collect and develop the nation's regional art forms. Photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange tried to capture the suffering of the poor, while many novelists tried to report the suffering by turning to journalism. Artists like Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler all used regional landscapes and scenes in their work, and in doing so, became closely associated with certain geographic regions of the country. Writers, too, were linked with the places they wrote about:Page 5 | Top of Article Nathanael West became known as a California novelist, while James T. Farrell was associated with Chicago, and William Faulkner with the South.
During the Depression the arts had to appeal to a mass audience in order to stay in business. There was no longer enough money to support work that did not sell well. In Hollywood many independent studios and theaters were forced to close, while the major studios turned to lavish musicals, thrillers, horror movies, and popular dramas that attracted larger audiences. Audiences looking for escape from their daily lives enjoyed child star Shirley Temple and her sugary brand of song and dance. Swing music, played by orchestras led by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and others, entertained at dance halls around the country. Technology also helped make the 1930s an age of mass entertainment. The radio and the jukebox made drama, national news, and popular music accessible even to remote and rural communities.
In the fine and performing arts, the 1930s saw a conflict between modernists and traditionalists. The modernists looked to Europe for their inspiration and associated themselves with high culture. They favored experimental arts, such as abstract painting, music that lacked obvious tunes or rhythms, and novels without plot. Traditionalists focused on American themes and realistic images and associated themselves with what some called "low" culture. They reworked folk songs and retold tales of the West. Ultimately, neither "high" nor "low" culture dominated. Rather, the boundary between the two began to blur. From its beginnings as simple dance music, jazz, for example, grew into a mature and highly complex musical form. It became a favorite of middle-class urban intellectuals, as well as being popular with dancers. Writers such as Raymond Chandler and Horace McCoy wrote crime novels that were discussed as literature, rather than cheap thrillers, while painters such as Stuart Davis borrowed images from popular culture and advertising to create their otherwise abstract works. Across the arts the new national culture became one of mass entertainment, and popular Americana, showing a deep concern for the lives of "ordinary" Americans.