The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action

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  • National Art Education Association

    The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of ActionAuthor(s): George J. MaviglianoSource: Art Education, Vol. 37, No. 3 (May, 1984), pp. 26-30Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 17:29

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  • The Federal Art Project:

    George J. Mavigliano

    / Surely art is not merely a decorative sort of unrelated accompaniment of life. In a genuine sense it should have use; it should be interwoven with the very stuff and texture of human experience, intensi- fying that experience, making it more pro- found, rich, clear, and coherent. This can be accomplished only if the artist is func- tioning freely in relation to society, and if society wants what he is able to offer. (New Horizons in American Art, 1936, 40).

    S ounding a great deal like the philosopher-educator John Dewey, Holger Cahill, direc- tor of the Federal Art Project

    from 1935 to 1943, promised a broader and socially acceptable base for American art. Cahill was a museum curator, an organizer of art exhibits, an aspiring writer, and most impor- tantly, an art lover. He was born in Minnesota in 1893, was pressured into a life of farming, but at thirteen ran away to Canada. By the age of twenty, he had settled in Greenwich Village, New York, where he remained until WWI.

    He was educated at Columbia and the New School for Social Research where he interested himself in literature and writing. His first introduction to the world of art came when he joined the staff of the Newark Museum as an adviser in American art. In 1932, Cahill left the Newark Museum to take a job at the American Museum of Modern Art until he was appointed, in 1935, director of the Federal Art Pro- ject (FAP).

    In 1932, Cahill published American Folk Art in which he laid the founda- tion for his view of art as a form of folk expression. Even before his association with the FAP, he voiced strong support for government subsidy of American art. Cahill accepted the position of FAP director at a pivotal time in the development of American art. His approach was rational and founded upon sympathetic insight into the needs of the American art scene. Like Dewey, Cahill recognized the im-

    portance of an integration between the fine and practical arts. Cahill claimed that American industrialism had pro- duced, ". .. a fearful clutter of unlove- ly things, and this in turn has resulted in a degradation of popular taste, since these objects provide the only art that many individuals know" (New, Hori- zons, 1936, p. 19). According to Cahill, the fine arts were needed to provide direction for the manufac- turer, craftsperson, and the public.

    Cahill deliberately set out to pro- mote a new movement in American art. His program of action began with the intention of creating a forum by which artists' products could be rein- troduced into the mainstream of socie- ty; he used Dewey's philosophy as a way of binding the two into a coherent whole.

    In the text of his speech given at the John Dewey Eightieth Birthday Cele- bration on Saturday, October 28, 1939, Cahill made it clear how much Dewey's influence could be felt in art education. Cahill praised Dewey and his followers for seeing the value of art as a focal point of daily life. Cahill pointed out that art should not be looked upon as a mere frill to standard education but is best understood when it is experienced through participation. Cahill, as direc- tor of the Federal Art Project, was in full sympathy with the New Deal Pro- gram and the problems of the unemployed. He also saw a chance to implement his theories on art in this unique experiment. He saw the project he helped create as a translation of his philosophic beliefs, beliefs he gleaned from John Dewey.

    Holger Cahill (unidentified mural in background) WPA/FAP 1938. Photo the property of Garnett Beisel.


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  • Holger Cahill's Program of Action

    In this article ... Mavigliano takes us back to the Federal

    Art Project of the Great Depression and its director,

    Holger Cahill. "For Cahill, the ability to appreciate works of

    art was not the exclusive birth right

    of a few people." Poster designed to be used by Community Art Centers to promote interest WPA/FAP Pro- ject, 1939-40. Designed by the Illinois Art Project Poster Unit. Photo the property of the John Walley Papers, University of Illinois Library, Chicago Circle Campus.

    Cahill was most familiar with Dewey (1934) through the book Art As Ex- perience. This book is Dewey's most rigorous expression of naturalistic aesthetics. In it, Dewey argued for the continuity of aesthetics with the rest of life and culture and argued against a sharp separation of fine and useful arts. Furthermore, he gave strong justi- fication for the fine arts both as a model and an essential constituent of the life of reason. Frequent tendencies to separate means and ends produced a practical civilization in which there was no interest in sensuous charm or im- aginative grace; on the other hand, it produced the luxuries of the aesthete whose creations and enjoyments have no connection with the rest of life. Against such a dualism, Dewey's philosophy was a powerful protest; he maintained that the function of art is to organize experience more mean- ingfully, coherently, and vividly than ordinary life permits.

    Dewey contended that the "artistic" and the "aesthetic" are indissoluble, noting that "it is most unfortunate there is no term to represent their com- bination" (1934, p. 46). The term "ar- tistic" ordinarily characterizes produc- tion of an art object. The term "aesthe-

    tic" characterizes that of the receptive, appreciative phase of enjoyment. For Dewey, artists must be guided by some aesthetic in the creation of their pro- ducts.

    It is this concept of the "artistic/aes- thetic" that is the key to understanding Dewey's aesthetic theory and the com- municative function of art to which he ascribed. Because of the nature of this experience, expression and perception dissolve the barriers that separate human beings from one another.

    Implications of a program of action related to Dewey's philosophy are numerous, yet, none more important than the communicative power of art. Dewey believed that "works of art are the only media of complete and un- hindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience" (1934, p. 105). It is by way of communication that art be- comes the incomparable instrument of instruction.

    Cahill, aware of this thesis, em- barked on a course of action, which drew upon Dewey's principle of the universal communicability of art to bring about a successful Federal Art Program. What he found appealing

    about Dewey's theory was its op- timism. Given the state of the arts, in contrast to the state of the economy in America during the thirties, such a pro- gram was bound to receive close con- sideration. The history of American art, particularly the relationship of the American artist to society, provided Cahill with necessary evidence for his convictions:

    It has been the function of our time ... to organize great democratic cultural pro- grams for restoring the former healthy relation between artist and public. The shock needed to set these programs go- ing was the Great Depression, which made it clear that unless the organized community stepped in, the arts would enter a dark age from which they might not recover for generations. (Cahill, 1944, 104)

    Cahill saw resurgence of the arts coming from the growth of leisure time and efforts of the art community to make art one of the outlets for this newly acquired leisure. Widened public awareness of the need for art and the suggestion of how to cultivate an in- terest came out of developments in- itiated by artists and educators. Cahill

    Art Education May 1984 27

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  • Girls' Dining Room of the Juvenile Detention Home, Chicago. Outside landscape with figures, by Francis Badger. (Artist shown to right of ladder). WPA/FAP Project 1937.

    (1944) stated that the widened public consciousness "has been fostered by artists, museum directors, writers and progressive educators around John Dewey" (p. 104).

    In the introduction to New Horizons in American Art, Cahill included a synopsis of American art. He claimed that the American artist ha