Dear readers, do any of you believe that that the January 6th rioters were made up of citizens who had had a rich education in the arts? I don’t. The arts humanize us. They teach us empathy. I believe that if the arts were deeply embedded in K-12 education throughout our nation, those riots would never have happened and our states would be vastly more healthy and united.
Here I’d like to recommend ”’: Necessitous Men Are Not Free Men‘: Ruskin’s Influence on the New Deal via Settlement Houses,” an insightful lecture by the historical geographer Gray Brechin. He had seen a piece I posted about arts education in Settlement Houses and my parents’ involvement in the Works Progress Administration, which was founded in the late 30s to address the ills of the Great Depression. He sent me this valuable contribution. Although John Ruskin is in the title, a principle subject of the lecture is Eleanor Roosevelt.
Today the primary financial backers of the arts are foundations formed by the super-wealthy and chiefly benefiting audiences from the middle and upper classes.
But it wasn’t always that way.
The WPA was a federal program included in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It expanded the work of the Settlement Houses into a national program to address poverty. One of its most famous components was Federal Project Number One, which employed musicians, artists, actors, directors, and writers to bring the arts to struggling communities all across America. My father started his theater career in the project, and my mom taught theater at the Henry Street Settlement House in Greenwich Village.
“FDR was more deeply interested in the arts than any president since Thomas Jefferson and it is doubtful that any head of state since the Renaissance equaled him as a patron of living art.”
But Cahill fails to point out that FDR’s interest in the arts was chiefly nurtured by his wife, Eleanor.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the best known of a number of remarkable women influenced by the ideals of John Ruskin. She was teaching social dance at the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side of New York City when she met Franklin. Later in life she wrote about the experience, remarking that she would walk to work instead of riding in a carriage like all of her peers. “It terrified me, but I had to learn the conditions of this neighborhood.” When she became the First Lady, this inspiring passion for serving the neediest in our nation by encouraging their engagement in the arts had a huge influence on her husband. And she walked the walk. With her friends, she established an arts and crafts colony at her house on the Roosevelt property. She made her own bedroom furniture there. She promoted arts education for young children in schools and community programs.
According to Brechin, the New Deal was a comprehensive moral vision that embraced:
* Dignity of Labor
* Social security
* Crafts, self-sufficiency, and self-respect
* Resettlement in new towns
* Integration of the arts into life
* Public education
And this vision was very much the result of the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt.
We’ve had other presidents since Roosevelt who have advanced the arts. Kennedy and Clinton established national programs. Currently there are substantive murmurings from Jill Biden, and if it falls to the wives of Democratic Presidents to carry us forward, so be it! She’d be stepping into the shoes of the greatest first lady ever.
This is on the FDR memorial in Washington DC:
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough to those who have too little.”
Let the arts again be a part of the advancement of those who have too little. Let’s bring back the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt.