Initial Baptism of a Prison Mural: Depression-Era Art and Human Closeness
In the mid-1930s, Lucienne Bloch painted a mural in New York City’s Women’s House of Detention. Bloch was one of many artists who, as part of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP), had been offered a living wage to create in various institutions across the United States. In a manner of speaking, these artists were paid by the people to bring art closer to the people.
At about the same time, Walter Benjamin was writing one of his best-known essays, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In it, he observed that cinema and, to a lesser extent, photography had brought art “spatially and humanly closer” to the masses. Reproduction that retains extra-human—mythical or religious, for instance—characteristics has been around since time immemorial. Mechanical reproduction allowed not only for broader distribution of art, the spatial aspect, but also for the negation of this sacred character.
Under capitalism, the myth was largely transformed into monetary value. In the US, that meant art was for a small group of moneyed collectors who bought pieces at Christie’s in London and at a handful of exclusive New York galleries. For the masses, the church of the art museum—whose boards were typically dominated by the same moneyed collectors—was the only exposure to art. Movies and photographs did not fit this model.
The Great Depression resulted in no art fitting the model. Along with much of the economy, the booming 1920s art market dried up. The Federal Government replaced collectors as the primary patron of the arts. Focusing away from technical innovation, this essay aims to use the experience of Bloch and similar artists to tease out some of the complexities of closeness in the age of mechanical reproduction.
We will, nonetheless, begin with technical innovation. Benjamin argued that “during long periods of history, along with all the changes of human communities’ modes of existence, one sees equally transform their way of perceiving.” The “artistic industry” of a period reflects the time’s perceptions, as a facet of how people live. Even if we are not discussing mechanically reproducible art, its existence influences art in general:
“One sees it easily, in the end it’s always the old grievance: the masses look to distract themselves, while art requires contemplation. […] The opposition between distraction and contemplation can also be translated in the following fashion: the one who stands in contemplation before a work of art sinks into it; he enters it like the Chinese painter of legend who, contemplating his finished painting, disappears inside. On the contrary, the distracted masses absorb the work of art in them. In all times, architecture was the prototype of a work of art perceived in a way both distracted and collective.”
New forms of reproduction set in motion a real evolution in how people perceived creative works. The forms also gave rise to a false dichotomy between entertainment and art. Art should be an object of reverent contemplation due to its place in religious tradition, an ineffable intrinsic quality or the exorbitant price for which it sold at auction. If one sees it differently, in this case distractedly, one is not viewing it as art.
“Old grievance” hints at how Benjamin felt about the idea. The rarefied approach was just as much a distraction as it diverted attention from the structure of society. The Work of Art was at heart an appeal to take advantage of the disarray caused by technical innovation to refocus art on politics, the structure, rather than building yet another pedestal for it to sit on.
However, the same evolution that reduced art’s pedestal-sitting aura also undermined the collective response to the work. Benjamin used natural features to illustrate the point:
“One could define it [the aura] as the unique appearance of a far away, no matter how close it is. To follow with his eyes, a summer afternoon, the line of a mountain chain on the horizon or a branch whose shadow falls on him, it is, for the man at rest, to breathe the aura of those mountains or that branch. The description allows us to easily perceive the social conditions resulting in the current decline of the aura. It arises from two circumstances, both linked to the growing importance of the masses in current life. Because to render things spatially and humanly “closer” to oneself, it is among today’s masses a desire as passionate as their tendency to dispossess all phenomena from their unicity by means of taking in their reproduction.” [Benjamin’s emphasis]
Preoccupied by taking photos and videos of the mountain chain to bring home, people do not take the time or effort to reverently contemplate the chain itself. In the name of bringing the object closer, the reproduction takes precedence. Contemplation can still occur, though it would be of an aura-less replica viewed out of context and in relative isolation.
For art, if the work is a product of reproducible techniques, there is no original associated with a particular place and time. Identical prints can be made and shown independent of any frame of reference. While the mountain chain or a painting could be the subject of a photograph, the work in question is the photograph. As such, the possibility of a collectively seen “unique appearance of a far away” is lost.
This is why Benjamin brought up the model of architecture. The lack of original or aura in art is a positive attribute since it undercut the sacredness of the object. The object’s multiplicity and tendency to be privately used for entertainment, distraction or contemplation is a negative attribute as it individualises reception. If art is to be used to critique and potentially improve the structure of society, it would need to be both desacralized and in certain ways public. Architecture, as an art with which people practically interact on a daily basis and that is visible from or in the public realm, showed how the two characteristics could be combined.
It is not a coincidence two of the FAP’s major areas were associated with architecture; mural and sculpture. Girolamo Piccoli’s “Report to The Sculptors of the WPA/FAP” gives a sense of the situation in the 1930s:
“Inasmuch as the Depression period greatly curtailed funds for public building, both the public and sculptors tended to lose sight of the possibilities inherent in the social use of sculpture. The type of buildings that have been erected has restricted sculpture to very minor decoration. Furthermore, the current use of functionalism as practiced in buildings deprived the community of this art. We have had to re-awaken and develop an understanding of this aspect of sculpture and its application among the people, as well as among the sculptors. With years of isolation in their studios, sculptors began to lose sight of the traditional role of their art.
“Traditionally, sculpture has been a mass art. Few could pay the heavy expense of a sculptor’s career. Today, a lifetime is needed to create a reputation that can attract the money and the patronage of the rich. Sculpture was practically an unknown art, as far as the American people were concerned, until the formation of the WPA/FAP.”
Sculpture, like architecture, was traditionally a public art, integrated into the social life of the community. The “functional” architectural movement, which developed alongside photography and film as mass production of building materials progressed, “restricted sculpture to very minor decoration.” Benjamin discussed the repercussions of such materials in “Experience and Poverty,” which I explore in “Windowmancy and the New Poverty.” The rare public sculpture opportunities that remained were further reduced because of Depression-era belt tightening.
Sculptors retreated to their studios and sought out the patronage of the rich, which was only bestowed on a select few. Importantly, the perception of both artists and the general public shifted to view the form as an exclusive luxury item. One of the FAP’s tasks was to “re-awaken” everyone involved to art’s social and political potential. In part, this was done through community art centres and outreach. In part, it was by offering a living wage and materials to artists to create public art. Beniamino Benvenuto Bufano captured the essence of the latter approach:
“Our art must become as democratic as science and the children in the playgrounds of our cities. That is why I have sculptured Pasteur for one of our high schools, Sun Yat-sen for our Chinese quarter, granite frogs, bears, and seals for our recreational parks, and St. Francis for Twin Peaks—a symbol of the city that bears his honored name, big enough to belong to everybody, too big for anyone to put in his pocket and call his own.”
Murals were no different. Hilaire Hiler described his experience working on The Aquatics Park building in San Francisco in the following way:
“The situation was fortunate also in that I was privileged to meet and talk with the architects at a very early stage in the building’s construction and could thus have a finger in every part of the pie: to design floors, wainscotings, electric fixtures, sculptured low-relief carvings, tile mosaics, color harmonies for the ceilings as well as the ceilings themselves. Such a situation is all too rare in the life of the contemporary artist. The opportunity carried considerable responsibility with it; but the sort of responsibility which is gladly shouldered. There would be no aesthetic quarrel in style between the architectural setting and the mural decoration as far as I was concerned.”
Not everyone was assigned a project in, on or around a new building. In established schools, artists talked to teachers and students; in hospitals, staff and patients; in prisons, staff and inmates. They had artistic licence, yet their work was connected to the local community in a way it had not been in the 1920s when, as Louis Guglielmi noted, “The private gallery […] destroyed a potential popular audience and forced the artist into a sterile tower of isolation divorced from society.”
In general, then, under the FAP both sculpture and mural were desacralized and public. The granite frogs, to take one example, lacked mythical or capitalistic exclusivity, which is to say distance. They were also “too big for anyone to put in his pocket.” While they were not thematically critical of society, they were critical inasmuch as their very existence challenged the capitalism-driven inequalities of the previous decade.
Now we can dig deeper into the notion of closeness using Lucienne Bloch’s prison mural. To begin with, Bloch found the prison community had internalized the perspectives mentioned above:
“Discussion with the psychiatrist in attendance and many conversations with the inmates revealed with what sarcasm and suspicion the latter treated the mention of Art—as something “highbrow,” indicating to what extent art had in the past been severed from the people and placed upon a pedestal for the privilege of museum students, art patrons, and art dealers.”
The first instance of closeness was “to combat this antagonism” in “relating it [the mural] closely to their own lives”:
“I chose the only subject which would not be foreign to them—children—framed in a New York landscape of the most ordinary kind. It could be Uptown, Downtown, East Side or West Side—any place they chose. The tenements, the trees, the common dandelions were theirs.”
The institution’s superintendent was initially against the decision, believing “that ‘natural scenes’ of a fantastic kind ‘would be more inspiring’ and would not remind the inmates of unpleasant associations.” On one level, there is as much difference between the two subjects as between Benjamin’s branch and mountain chain. The mural, regardless of what it depicted, was a one-of-a-kind work placed to allow for distracted contemplation by the community.
There are, though, two points of contrast: a creative process anchored in the community and some sort of collective ownership of the work. The process passed from conversations through sketch development to the painting of the mural itself. Regarding the superintendent, “as the work progressed, her interest grew, and she often stood by the scaffold and eagerly discussed my problems with me.” For the matrons:
“Outside of the fact that their conception of an artist was shattered when they saw me work without a smock and without inspired fits, they were delighted to witness a creation of a “genuine hand-painted picture.”
As to the inmates:
“The inmates had a more natural point of view; they wholeheartedly enjoyed watching me paint. The mural was not a foreign thing to them. In fact, in the inmates’ make-believe moments, the children in the mural were adopted and named.”
The matrons’ reaction is the clearest demonstration of general perception. It also shows how desacralization may arise not from the work being available for everyday distraction but rather from people being witness to its creation. Bloch was a skilled worker who, by her own words, won over the skeptics with her “craftsmanship.” She was not, as popular opinion suggested, a magician who accomplished the unfathomable in her isolated tower.
The “ragged children” in the painting are also a clear link between initial discussions and the final output. While Bloch chose what influences to use and how to use them, the community could see how they contributed. Closeness did not come from the subject itself, as any subject could constitute “a far away, no matter how close it is” and no subject would alter the nature of the mural as a “genuine hand-painted picture.” Playing a clear part in the choice of what a picture painted before their eyes portrayed, however, did make it less or even not at all “foreign.”
Collective ownership is a more difficult question. Certainly, because of the Federal Government patronage and placement on the wall of a public institution, the mural was, while it existed, public property. On top of that, it was collectively visible in an everyday context for the community.
Yet, the inmates who made up the vast majority of the audience lived a regimented life over which they had little control. The Federal Government was in a way the representative of the people, but was just as much a part of the bureaucratic state. The FAP at the time of Bloch’s mural was relatively free of undue influence. As the Second World War approached, the program was retooled to focus on war propaganda. The inmates’ suspicion of art was likely only the tip of the iceberg and the idea they could feel a sense of ownership of a painting on a prison wall seems far-fetched.
The key is in Bloch’s observation that “the children in the mural were adopted and named.” To borrow an expression from Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, the inmates performed an initial baptism. Most names, both proper and common, are “passed from link to link.” That is to say, we are not party to the initial naming. We understand the reference through context and the conventions of the relevant linguistic community. If someone says “Napoleon” under non-specific circumstances, for instance, we understand the referent without having to know much of anything about it or how the name-object connection came about.
At one point, Napoleon was initially named, as were gold, water and unicorns. Instead of the name being passed down through speakers in the community, “here the object may be named by ostension, or the reference of the name may be fixed by a description.” (96) “Ostension” means gesturing toward or pointing at an object. The intent here is not to get into the details of Kripke’s argument, only to point out that, of all the names we use, those we have originally named are very rare. It is also amusing to use an expression like “initial baptism” in a discussion about desacralization.
As with most art, Bloch, being the artist, titled her own piece; Cycle of a Woman’s Life. Initial baptism can be accidental or informal, however it usually entails a certain authority. Congregations that viewed art in their local church did not name the works, any more than visitors to art museums do. They accept the preestablished titles.
It is significant, then, that the inmates felt comfortable to adopt and name figures in the mural. It is equally significant that Bloch, whose intent was “to bring art to the inmates by relating it closely to their own lives,” considered this naming as a sign of her project’s success. It was a sign they accepted the work, even if only in a limited way, as theirs.
Walter Benjamin saw an opportunity in the age of mechanical reproduction for art to be divested of its mythical aura and play a more important political and social role in society. This shift would reduce the distance between people and art. It is, however, not always clear what form this nearness might take. Spatial proximity may not have an impact on human closeness; individual possession may undermine collective closeness.
The experiences of artists involved in the New Deal’s Federal Art Project offer a great deal of insight on this point. Notably, Lucienne Bloch’s prison mural anecdotes recounted how collective human closeness developed from initial conception all the way to the work’s christenings. To this day, and especially after every new case of art being put on a capitalist pedestal and sold at Christie’s, people tend to view art’s social and political role with “sarcasm and suspicion.” While the form of a piece is important, addressing this perception neither begins nor ends with the work of art in itself.