Social Utility Isn’t as Dull as You Might Think: A Brief Visit to Rockville, Maryland
In New York City, cultural treasures are so abundant that you don’t have to consciously look for them. If you’re paying attention, they will find you. While its real estate is an objective quantity, a sense of wonder is not. That is why you can be willfully oblivious and run into venues and opportunities that could, in one fell swoop, change your life. In such a way, George Gershwin encountered his first piano. In such a way, countless choreographers-to-be found that they liked stretching at the barre and stumbling around on slippery floorboards. And in such a way have painters and photographers found their métier in odd angles and busy – or abandoned – streets.
New York City is one of the few places that did not, when I lived there, require a lot of money for the soul to be fed and the spirit sated. I would walk into a bookstore and stumble across a volume that resonates to this day. I’d be wondering around the Upper West Side and hear a violinist practicing scales. (The Ansonia, where I would visit a friend, was a virtual practice room and was never silent.) Choosing to walk home rather than ride the subway, I ran into a guy who was painting a picture. I’ve stayed in touch with him to this very day.
Yet even in America’s hinterland, one can be surprised.
During the Depression years, artists were commissioned to decorate public buildings as far-flung as post offices and power substations. They were paid a living wage, they were not necessarily constrained as to subject matter, and they regained a sense of self-respect that had been missing ever since the banks started failing and formerly solid citizens had lost their homes. Washington, D.C., has a considerable collection of such paintings, although they are often inaccessible. Permission must be requested and appointments have to be made. Yet I’ve “run into” such creations more often than mere chance would allow. I seemed to need them at the time. They answered a burning question I’ve been mulling over. Or they affirmed a sense of patriotic identification which has never been a strong suit of mine. (I subscribe to the notion that patriotism IS the last refuge of a scoundrel. Recent events, as well as our addiction to military solutions, have only deepened my conviction.)
As the seat of power for a country that’s been “on top” for as long as any country should expect to be, Washington is the sort of place where mural-sightings and musical interludes should not be surprising. Yet what is to be said of places that are outside of the loop and beyond D.C.’s notorious Beltway?
I was in Rockville the other day and was brought up short by a mural that had been installed at its almost miniature City Hall. (I had originally come there to park my car and was told I couldn’t.) This mural was unabashedly patriotic, conjuring up a parade, with brass instruments, spectacle-craving townspeople, and a generally prancing style. Parades having the qualities of a high-school pep rally on the one hand and a military occupation on the other, they are powerful connection-points between our expectations and the stark reality we are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge. They are the shimmering fabrics we place on top of a dented table. They are smoke and mirrors; projection sagas; street theater of an occasionally objectionable kind.
What distinguished this mural from so many others – aside from its mammoth scale – was its painterly panache. Highlights danced from rented costumes; they found the bowls of instruments and gleamed there; and they made of a chaotic scene a unifying presence. Say what you will about what parades represent, but when you see a picture like this, you’re going to be seduced in spite of yourself. It was as if John Singer Sargent had been asked to spend a couple of months in Rockville to see what he could come up with. In this case, our substitute Sargent was one William Woodward, of whom I had never heard. He did the painting twenty-five odd years ago and it was installed in a previous facility. At Rockville’s new City Hall, it is protected with heavy glass panels that are vaguely reminiscent of the burglar-proof kind you see at pawn shops and liquor stores. (Such a connection might suggest that this author is not exclusively addicted to museums. Which is absolutely correct.) It is also obscured by a Help desk, which runs the length of it. And while I could find no information regarding the painting’s measurements, it is no less than twenty feet long by at least ten feet high. It’s the sort of opus you don’t expect to find in such a place. To run the risk of sounding snobbish, it’s too bloody good. It should be, as they say, in a museum – even if that museum might want to dedicate itself to similarly patriotic spectacles. Or reject them out of hand and concentrate solely on formal values.
Did I expect find such a thing? No. But when I did, I felt unduly privileged, as if my visit – which was of a grim, but purposeful, character – had been sanctified in one fell swoop. I had come to oppose a traffic violation. I got expansiveness and vitality in return. I should also mention that I had a helper, who trotted out a history of the town, gave me an oversized card with a reproduction of the painting on it, and was as gratuitously friendly as a person with a job could be. Though I will not mention her name, we have the same initials: BB.
While in pursuit of the background that might be useful for an article, say, I got a lot more than I’d asked for. My helper told me about another attraction – a painting that had hung in the city’s post office for seventy years. Where might that be? It was so close, she pointed to the spot from where we were.
After putting money in a meter, I went over to the site she’d pointed out and went in. The building was one of those broad-sided things architects were designing in the 1930’s. It was plain, but serviceable, and as I entered a pleasantly gloomy atmosphere descended. Once past its vestibule, however, I saw the painting, which was hanging above a bank of post office boxes and ran the length of the far wall. I will admit to taking some pictures of it without asking. The facility’s employees were embroiled in a small Halloween celebration, which I was loath to interrupt. When somebody did appear, I asked. She said “Be my guest!” and went back to the party.
In the Thirties and Forties, such paintings were commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Fine Arts Section for post offices across the land. Depending on the budget, a town or city got a whopping narrative or a single painting that was big enough to see from a distance. Rockville’s post office got the latter. Judson Smith, the artist who was commissioned to do this one, was no better known to me, however, than Mr. Woodward. If history is not kind to a face, it’s murder on a country’s hirelings who are happy to get a job that will kick the can of their worries down the road.
The painting, called Sugarloaf Mountain, shows a rolling landscape that culminates in the bosom of a low hill. Its clumsily planar structure evokes lots of other paintings of the period, yet it has a certain charm. Here is rural America blooming for the idle spectator who might be waiting for a package or wanting to send a postcard to a distant friend. The farmhands that undoubtedly peopled this landscape have been omitted. In 1940, this swatch of the American heartland seemed to need no one.
As one walks about, the painting is the dark center of the room. Like those eyes that are said to follow you from a portrait, the painting was equally visible everywhere I stood.
When it is in perfect synch with the space it’s in, a painting like this can acquire – as if by association – a substance and solemnity it may lack in an ordinarily “artistic” setting. Yet because it was created in order to fill out a public space, it has the dignity of a collective spirit and commands the space it’s in. So many lobby paintings are just that: whiffs of decorative frou-frou that have so little presence that they blend in with a wall or elevator bank. This painting spoke to a rural past with which everybody in the facility would have been familiar. It was probably the focus of some necessary, but transient, daydreaming. And it very likely provided a cash-strapped population with a serenity it might not have been able to find on its own.
This painting was not commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) – which was responsible for many buildings, monuments, and paintings – but by a separate governmental entity. It was headed by a former lawyer with artistic aspirations and it commissioned hundreds of artworks, many of which are part of a still-viable facility. Others have been, alas, put into storage – or rushed (I know of at least one such case) into private ownership. One might argue that such paintings held the mirror up to a nation that was struggling to get back on its feet. Yet with every commission, our nation did that very thing.
We might consider what such a program could do for us now. As the middle-class shrinks and economic disparity becomes the dirty laundry only the strident wishes to air, a program that would unleash the creative spirit would, I think, help invigorate and unify a population that’s been under siege by corporate interests and pig-headed politicians for some time. A country whose basic services are being questioned by an intolerant minority could use the shot in the arm that can only be delivered by a painting, a poem, or a symphony. And housed in a building that brings everybody together, not to spend money, but to cultivate a sense of who we are.
For all of America’s privation during the Depression years, our government did not forget about what would not only feed its mouth, but minister to its soul. And however short-sighted it became during the war that succeeded these Dust Bowl-dominated years, it gave us a wealth of words and images we can appreciate to this day.
If that’s socialism, I say bring it on! We need it as we never have before.
Maryland was no stranger to the Treasury Department’s Fine Arts Section, which, if it did not launch a thousand ships, employed more than a dozen artists on projects that showed the breadth of activities, as well as the historical foundations, of American might. (Such a propagandistic approach was needed at a time when American might was crawling on its knees.) In 1939, Nicolai Cikovsky’s History of Transportation attempted to show Maryland on land and sea in four panels that have either darkened over time or lacked his characteristic sparkle to begin with. Here is a case of an artist whose modernist tendencies could not be reconciled with the job at hand and, while they were adequately repressed, no compensating vitality seems to have emerged. Yet the panels do show an America that shot up like a weed and, in doing so, put tall ships into the water, steam engines on rails, cowboys in saddles, and goods onto wagon trains and steamboats.
By the time Cikovsky took this job, he had found a more or less hospitable environment as well as a political consciousness. Enamored of a style and presentation that was rather radical for a country that had resurrected the common man, he fell in with the left-wing politics that had attracted adherents from every spectrum of society except our ruling class, which became infamously self-centered until the war years tamped it down. Until his death in 1984, Cikosvky attempted to fuse a spirited sense of color and design with the modernist principles he’d imbibed as an impressionable young man and found waiting for him in the U.S. shortly after he came. The History of Transportation was completed during a Social Realist phase that was, for many artists, an economic necessity. Cikovsky came by it through fellow émigré, Raphael Soyer, whose commitment to soft-focus realism never flagged. Toward the end of his life, Cikovsky began to paint landscapes of a Long Island that has been celebrated ad nauseum by artists such as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher. Cikovsky, however, might be credited with having dug in his painter’s heels before anyone else did. Indeed. His landscapes exude a sense of discovery that is frequently lacking in the work of his more comfortable successors.
Hagerstown’s cycle is more plodding still and seems like the work of a man whose inspiration was flagging during a time when so many of his countrymen had no work at all. Yet, in every mural that was painted, in Maryland and elsewhere, the focus is often on the worker-bees that had been, up to that moment, ciphers that were as dispensable as penny nails. The more vulnerable America became, the more humanized its attempts to explain itself. Rejecting the wildly experimental work that had revolutionized the art world twenty years before, artists began to relinquish the studio in favor of city streets, country lanes, barn-raisings, hay-baling, window-shopping, and a whole gamut of everyday occurrences that had been banished from the walls of collectors since 1913. One might call the 1930’s and early 40’s a kind of moral renaissance that swept artists right along with it. However, after 1945, the competition for the cutting-edge was resumed and the palpable gains of the 1930’s were summarily dismissed, given the air (to employ the slang of that time), and put into storage. The murals that were commissioned during this period have provided us with a link to a time when populism in art was not a bad thing. Ordinary people needed to know they’d made their imprint on the world and artists were there, for any number of reasons, to supply it.
Essay and photographs © Brett Busang
Brett Busang is a writer and artist living in Washington, D.C. He sent us the following capsule autobiographical statement: “(I like) people who listen; places from which soccer is notably absent; books without chase-scenes (unless people are running); no particular color; any public space that is chewing-gum free; a good day followed by a lousy one; most organisms that are not named Josh or Hayden; peace of mind that doesn’t come at the expense of thinking; food I can eat with my fingers; drivers who signal; no drivers at all.”