Sometimes you need to go back a few decades to get a fresh perspective on today.
Two museum exhibits in Washington, both grounded in the economic and political turmoil of the Great Depression years, make that point in rather different ways.
One exhibit commemorates President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program that employed artists to paint works for public buildings, including the White House. The other examines how Adolf Hitler — himself a frustrated painter — mastered the art of propaganda to build popular support in Germany for the Nazi war machine.
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Let's start with "1934: A New Deal for Artists'' at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, through Jan. 3, 56 paintings from its permanent collection of people and scenes all across Depression-torn America, from Central Park to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The images — some uplifting, some mournful, some fantastical — are very much of their own time and place. Yet they resonate deeply in our own hard times.
The Public Works of Art Project, which lasted from December 1933 to June 1934, was the first time the U.S. government used tax dollars to support artists directly, according to the lavishly illustrated exhibit catalog.
Just like public officials who try the same thing today, Roosevelt took a lot of grief over his program. But the criticism seemed not to trouble him.
"Why not?'' he famously replied to questions about including artists in government relief programs. "They are human beings. They have to live.''
They had to create, too, and what a fortunate thing for us today, who can enjoy paintings that feel revelatory and even intimate all these years later.
The exhibit is divided thematically, with pictures — all painted in 1934 — depicting the American people, labor, industry, leisure, cities, countryside and nature. Harry Gottlieb, of Woodstock, N.Y., found workers harvesting natural ice for Filling the Ice House. Tyrone Comfort takes us so close to a shirtless miner wielding a pneumatic drill far beneath the California soil in Gold Is Where You Find It, you can almost smell his sweat. Pittsburgh's famous Cathedral of Learning takes shape in two works by Harry W. Scheuch.
A domestic moment takes on the power of a young girl's frank gaze in Robert Brackman's Somewhere in America. There are playful scenes, such as the delightful glimpse of commuters in Lily Furedi's Subway, and Morris Kantor's depiction of that new-to-1934 sensation, Baseball at Night.
Natural wonders get their due in works such as Paul Kauvar Smith's Rocky Mountain National Park scene in The Sky Pond, and Paul Kirtland Mays' Jungle, a stylized fantasy that Depression-weary audiences might have welcomed.
America's pain is on full display in Ivan Albright's The Farmer's Kitchen, whose withered and weary old woman is almost unbearable to behold. Kenjiro Nomura's The Farm, desolate and darkly clouded, also repudiates the cliched bucolia of farm life.
The catalog tells us that Nomura's fellow Japanese-Americans who farmed in the area were prey to discriminatory laws that only foreshadowed the internment camps of World War II — scenes that Nomura also would paint.
Most of the artists here, whose work has been in storage for decades, never became famous. But they have left us memorable depictions of American people and values during very hard times.
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If the "New Deal'' exhibit shows how art can portray a nation, a new United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit shows how propaganda — itself a sort of art form — can be used to persuade a nation to follow a tyrant.
"State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda'' takes us from the end of World War I through World War II and up to recent examples of the ties that bind propaganda and genocide. It remains at the museum through 2011. Combined with the museum's famous core exhibit on the Holocaust, you could easily spend a full day to take it all in. Allow at least a few hours.
The new exhibit provides visitors with the context to better understand one of the central puzzles of the Holocaust: How could the German nation have gone along with Hitler's horrific vision?
We learn that as a veteran of World War I, Hitler admired and was inspired by the propaganda skills of the Allied powers.
"Propaganda is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert,'' he observed in his 1924 book, Mein Kampf.
But while the Allies portrayed the armed enemy as subhuman Huns, Hitler aimed his paranoid venom at civilians, including Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled.
The exhibit shows how Hitler and the Nazis used stunning graphics, newspapers, radio shows, feature films and even children's books and board games to speak to a nation made vulnerable by poverty and wounded national pride.
The exhibit also makes the point that just as some Germans didn't need much persuasion (anti-Semitism was hardly a new idea), others refused to go along and suffered the consequences.
The history is familiar but the artifacts, many borrowed from around the world, offer fresh perspective on how the Nazi message infiltrated every corner of German life. The exhibit starts with an eerily disembodied head of Hitler on a huge 1932 campaign poster, rising out of the darkness. It may have incited enthusiasm in its audience of the day; today, it makes one's stomach clench.
Other campaign posters take a tack familiar to modern electioneers, painting the Nazis as the family values party while playing to desperate people. One shows a somber and clearly Aryan husband, wife and their children with words that translate as, "Women! Millions of men without work. Millions of children without a future. Save the German family. Vote for Adolf Hitler!"
The anti-Jewish message was rarely so subtle. Big-nosed, cowering caricatures crop up everywhere. One such figure is shown with a muscular fist, at the end of a Swastika-banded arm, smashed into his face. Another is drawn as a grotesque fungus on the children's book The Poisonous Mushroom. After story hour, children could play with their Nazi action figures, complete with movable right arm to do a proper "Sieg Heil!'' Or maybe a rousing game of "Juden Raus'' (Jews Out), the object of which was to chase Jewish shopkeepers out of town.
Ridiculous as such items sound, their cumulative effect is nothing less than chilling. It comes almost as a relief to discover that some of the anti-Semitic films made by the Nazis (who took over the entire German film industry, along with radio, newspapers, the infant TV industry, publishing houses and everything else) were so crass, they flopped at the box office. But others were hits, and the exhibit includes clips so you can see what was big at the Nazi-controlled box office.
Overheated as modern political discourse can get, comparing it to Nazi propaganda tactics can trivialize Hitler's evil. But the exhibit makes a convincing case that there are fair comparisons to be made around the world.
And with the Internet opening new avenues — and audiences — to modern propagandists, surely it is worth examining the horrors of the past in hopes of recognizing portents of disaster.
Charlotte Sutton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8425.