Culture Shock

Erin Adair-Hodges
3 min read
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Though we’re firmly in the midst of a recession, with the very real possibility of slipping into a full-on depression, that’s not all bad. If the last depression is any indicator, some truly amazing art could come out of this time of economic insecurity. So put on your coveralls and join me, won’t you, in my Culture Shock time machine for this edition of:

Depression Makes Good Art

Literature: The licentiousness and excess that characterized the pre-Depression years were best portrayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby (1925). But the good times came to a screeching halt, and two of the greatest novels of the 20 th century captured America’s lost promise: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). If you’ve never read Hurston’s tale of an all-Black town in the South, do. And if the only Steinbeck you’ve read was Of Mice and Men in ninth grade English (and let’s face it, you didn’t really read it then), I can think of no better novel to settle in with under the pile of blankets you’re using instead of turning on the heat (which is still a lot better than a hobo fire in an oil drum) than this tale of desperation and hope.

Painting: American art during this time saw a return to regionalism, stripped of European influence.
Grant Wood said that, as he sipped brandy in Paris with other bohemians, waiting for inspiration, “It was then that I realized that all the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa." Wood’s peers, artists like Ben Shahn, also returned to a wholly American aesthetic and became known as “social realists” for their portrayal of average people’s suffering and hardship.

Ansel Adams hit his stride in the ’30s, depicting the American West as a place both mythical and barren. Dorothea Lange‘s “Migrant Mother” is the most famous image to emerge from the Great Depression, and perhaps the entire century.

Wait—why am I talking about this? Do I not think you paid attention in Art History? Did I just watch a special on PBS?

When I was talking with
Tricklock‘s Joe Peracchio [see Feature, “We All Want To Change the World,” page 16] about the desire of artists to change the world and the benefits of cross-cultural exchange, I was struck by the sense that in times of crisis, art becomes urgent. I believe a shift is coming, away from an examination of consumerism and capitalism to concerns of sustenance, both spiritual and physical. Politicians are making decisions that will effect our future, but artists are creating the images for which this time will be remembered. It seems like a good time to see what history will look like.
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