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The Author Speaks: Art in Times of Despair

Interview with Morris Dickstein, author of <i>Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression</i>

The poorest era in American history was, surprisingly, culturally rich.

Though the Depression elicits thoughts of dust bowls and soup lines, it was also filled with groundbreaking movies, books and art that left indelible imprints on the psyche of the nation. Think of Dorothy and Toto skipping down the yellow brick road, the utterance of "Rose Bud" in Citizen Kane and Scarlett O'Hara's promise  to rebuild her beloved Tara—and try to imagine America without such cultural references.

In Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, Morris Dickstein dives into art of the 1930s and explores what he calls the “inner history” of the Depression—the country’s collective hopes, insecurities, dreams and fears that sprang from dark financial days. A literary critic and professor at City University of New York Graduate Center, Dickstein writes that while the average American was struggling to survive, artists, writers and filmmakers were—aided by grants from the federal government—producing some of the most complex and vivid work in America’s cultural history.

Dickstein talks to AARP Bulletin Today about why times of social crisis can inspire artists and what that might mean for culture today.

Q: Why this title—Dancing in the Dark?

A: It comes from a 1931 song by Dietz-Schwartz, from a musical called The Band Wagon, and it was one of the most famous songs of the ’30s. I thought it was a song about dancing on the ballroom floor. But when I listened to it closely, especially the version recorded by Bing Crosby, I realized it’s about something much more serious: it’s about dancing but being surrounded by the darkness of life itself, the darkness of a social situation. And this is exactly what my book is about: how a period of great social difficulty nevertheless produced one of the most lively, buoyant cultures that America has ever seen.

Q: What’s the link between social hardship and cultural productivity?

A: In a period of social crisis, people need more entertainment. They certainly need cheap entertainment, which movies and popular music were at the time. The early years of the Depression saw the demise of swank entertainment like nightclubs and the rise of cheap, readily available entertainment, like radio, sports and movies. The recording industry took a huge hit, then came back in the early ’30s with a slowly improving economy and the invention of the jukebox. Many people got their music through the radio, especially through live hookups at performances by big swing bands like Benny Goodman’s or Duke Ellington’s.

Q: How do social crises affect artists?

A: Social hardship galvanizes artists, to try to, in some way, cheer people up. The arts tend to respond to crisis situations, which add an element of drama to our lives, and the arts are very interested in drama—they’re not interested in boring lives and boring experiences. For better or worse, the current economic troubles make our lives anything but boring.

Q: How did government aid affect working artists during the Depression?

A: During the Depression the federal government gave direct, though meager, assistance to artists through the WPA, a relief program that paid writers to compile interviews with ordinary Americans and to put together a great series of guides to each state. It also subsidized theater productions, musicians and visual artists. Another program, run through the Treasury Department, led to more than a thousand murals decorating public buildings like post offices.

Q: Is there anything similar going on today?

A: There’s nothing comparable today, though the president and Congress, in the stimulus package, did add $50 million to the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts to save jobs in the arts that would otherwise have been lost.

Q: How did the arts affect people’s daily lives during the Depression?

A: The art of the ’30s did two things: It made people more aware of the situation and allowed people to understand it. For example, the WPA sponsored a series of collaborative projects between writers and photographers, and these artists were charged with documenting the plight of tenant farmers in rural America.

Two of the projects to come out of it were You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. These works really illuminated the lives of tenant farmers for the rest of the country. It’s likely that when we remember the Depression today, we think of the images from those works.

Q: What about the lighter side of life?

A: The two big stimulus programs of the Depression were first the New Deal, which really tried to stimulate the economy, and then the arts, which tried to stimulate people’s psyches. Not only did people experience Depression with a capital “D” but also depression with a lowercase “d.” Artists tried to distract people and cheer people up. Screwball comedies or dance films with choreography by Fred Astaire or Busby Berkeley had energy, movement, frivolity and often depicted the lives of the very rich. All of this was denied to most Americans.

Q: But you write that Depression-era arts weren’t only “serious” and “fantasy” art, but something more complicated and nuanced.

A: The side of the arts that really dealt with the Great Depression directly also had entertainment elements: they were melodramatic, they were exciting stories, and they were stories that were not exactly happening to you at that moment, they were other people’s stories. We listen to Bing Crosby singing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"  in Pennies from Heaven, and he reflects on a world full of troubles and hard times, but also reassures listeners that better times are ahead.

Even though these stories were about the Depression, they still took people out of themselves.

Q: And the fantasy side?

The so-called fantasy side is full of references to the Depression. The Busby Berkeley film, 42nd Street, which could be an example of an escapist musical, is full of references to the Depression. It’s also the rags-to-riches story that cheered people up.

You see Ruby Keeler, stepping out of the chorus and becoming a star at the last moment. This appealed to people during the Depression. They were fascinated by sudden, dramatic changes in fortune because they themselves experienced that or they feared that they would experience it. Seeing a hopeful version of that was very cheering.

Q: During the Depression artists for the first time produced work that elevated the success of a group over the success of an individual.

A: The classic American story is faith in individualism and the success that you achieve through individual effort. But at a time of general social crisis like the Depression, this belief in individualism has a very negative effect on people. It may continue to help them strive, but if they didn’t get anywhere, they tended to blame themselves, not the economy or Wall Street.

Sociologists have documented that the response of a large number of people during the Depression was one of personal shame and guilt at the fact that they were unemployed or weren’t doing well, even though this was a social condition and everyone else was experiencing it, too.

Q: How did artists address this?

One of the solutions was to deal with the situation collectively, not simply individually. One of the messages of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, is that individually we all fail, but if we help each other, then maybe together we can achieve something against enormous odds. And you find this belief in the collective—almost an un-American belief in the collective—all over. And you see it both in the economy and the politics, but you also see it in the cultural work.

Q: How will the current economic crisis impact the country’s psyche?

A: It seems like we came to the precipice of Depression 2.0, even though reforms were put in place in the ’30s to make sure it never happened again. People got a real scare, including economists, who were among those who said it couldn’t happen again.

So far the psychological response to the crisis, as well as the effect on economic behavior, is markedly similar to the Depression. We’re about one year out of the meltdown from mid-September last year, and one thing we saw was a near-immediate loss of confidence: credit markets froze up and consumers stopped buying almost overnight. There’s a striking parallel between the decline of morale, the decline of confidence and the tremendous social fears that people experienced during the Depression and that people experienced during those early months of the meltdown.

Q: How will the financial meltdown affect contemporary culture?

A: On one hand, there will be a lot of escapist arts—cheaply made television programs, quiz shows, talent shows, reality shows like Survivor or Deal or No Deal. They are cheap to make, which is very important during a recession when networks have already been losing market share. But they also cater to people’s fascination with luck, competitive effort and dramatic changes in fate and fortune, especially by amateurs with whom people can identify. This is always heightened during hard times. In movies we’ll be seeing more sequels, and in TV more spin-off shows. Both are premarketed and are thought to have a built-in audience.

Q: We’ve already seen some of this: Melrose Place is being remade, and the show Private Practice is a Grey’s Anatomy spin-off.

A: Yes. On the other hand, people like songwriters and independent directors who tend to make small realistic films anyway will try to document how people are experiencing the fallout from the current recession. There will be a lot of human stories gradually coming out of the current recession, of people losing their homes or their jobs or their savings, even as we enter a period of recovery. Films about the current recession haven’t been made yet. It takes time for artists to respond to social crises. But movies like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, both from 2008, show us how they might be done. They deal with plucky, determined people just barely surviving in difficult circumstances, and they are less depressing than we might expect.

I’m quite certain that gradually the arts will attempt to explore the drama of these people’s lives and explore how they experience these things as individuals, rather than as a social statistic.

Krista Walton lives in San Francisco.