“Artists also have to eat”

The US economy hit the ground with the crash of 1929. The first reaction to lift the country was not ambitious enough to produce the long-awaited recovery. Failure cost President Herbert Hoover the job in an election won by Theodor Roosevelt, who launched the ‘New Deal’ in two phases, in 1933 and 1935, with the aim of cleaning up finances and promoting employment: also that of the creators.

“Artists have to eat, too,” his advisor Harry Hopstein told Roosevelt. He took it seriously. He hired muralists, writers, theater directors, and actors to keep the citizens of his country willing to live in dark times. He recruited photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange so that they would respectfully portray their most disadvantaged compatriots. And he also ordered that they be interviewed, a material that even today is one of the best sources for historians.

Sound cinema and radio

One of them, Morris Dickestein, dedicated one of his works to the support of the Roosevelt Administration to artists. The 1930s began with bankrupt film studios, with the ‘nightclubs’ where the best live music was offered closed, with the theaters and publishers fighting against misery. Shirley Temple and the Marx Brothers, the swing, and composers like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, writers like Henry Roth and William Faulkner soon emerged.

The evolution of radio allowed to broadcast live Duke Ellington concerts from the Cotton Club of Harlem

According to Dickenstein, this cultural revival in the midst of the depression was favored by the then new technologies. Sound cinema emerged and with it musical comedies and film realism. The evolution of radio allowed the concerts of Duke Ellington and his orchestra to be heard live at the Cotton Club in Harlem.

The thirties were those of the hard realism of John Steinbeck and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. But the general public leaned towards the energy-laden culture, the crazy comedies, the dance to the rhythm of the ‘big bands’ and the musicals. In times of stagnation, rampant fears and downward hopes, they became a dynamic force capable of raising morale and setting people in motion. The choreography in the cinema and in the theater gained a central role.

Roosevelt understood that culture and entertainment played a very important part in the lives of Americans. But it was not all dances. After ‘The Great Gatsby’, Francis Scott Fitzgerald published ‘Smooth is the Night’ about the obsession with triumph, which had led to failure. Protest singer-songwriters like Woody Guthrie also began in the thirties. Nothing to do with Shirley Temple. In any case, the culture had an unprecedented recognition in the midst of an economic catastrophe.

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