Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present
by Art Hazelwood
Published by Freedom Voices, 2011
Review by Harvey Smith
Author Art Hazelwood puts both the art and the reality of homelessness in front of a public that too often averts its eyes from the plight of those living on the streets. In his new book, Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present, Hazelwood traces the history of the economic, political and cultural forces that have shaped social policy – from the depths of the Great Depression, through the relative social equity of the Great Society, to the current Great Recession.
“More and more Americans don’t remember a time when it wasn’t commonplace to see many people living on the street,” says Hazelwood. Through art and commentary, Hazelwood shows that artists have not only seen and understood, but also responded to the social crisis, by focusing attention on the connection between public policy and people without a place to live.
Homelessness is one of the many symptoms of the systematic shrinking of the public sector enacted by governmental policies of the past thirty years. The reversal began in earnest with the Reagan presidency’s program of divestment and privatization. In contrast, pushed by mass organizing the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration and succeeding administrations expanded the public sector. Mass organizing of working people and students can again steer our nation toward policies to help the majority of Americans regain a fair share of wealth that in recent decades has accrued to the elite. The artists of this volume are pointing the way.
President Roosevelt said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” This was the measure of his administration, including the arts programs of the Public Works of Art Project, the Treasury Department and the Works Progress Administration, part of the effort that created millions of jobs that enriched the American Commons and strived for a more equitable society based not on an abstraction of “democracy” but on real “economic democracy.”
Contrast the millions of jobs created by the various New Deal “alphabet soup” agencies with the recent U.S. Census Bureau report showing 1 in 6 Americans, or 46.2 million people, living in poverty, the highest number since the bureau began tracking this data over 50 years ago.
Hazelwood points to mainstream media’s skewed and distorted reporting on homelessness. In fact, much of current popular, commercial culture seems bent on creating a myopic public. As the media increasingly has become a vehicle for the corporatization of our society, it is artists that can reach and inspire a public that hungers for an alternative view.
Since World War II, the rise of corporate culture has also driven tastes and markets for art. Unlike the strong social themes that characterize the art of the 1930s and 1940s, most contemporary art has little social content. A few critics have analyzed the shift from social responsibility to abstraction in the world of modern art (notably Bram Dijkstra in American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 1920 – 1950). Today major museums and galleries seldom display art that reflects the reality of working people or the unemployed.
I recently learned this first hand. I approached San Francisco’s major museums about exhibiting some of the more than 2,000 pieces of New Deal art in their collections. But they showed little interest. I ultimately realized that the only way people would see these works would be if I were to organize an exhibition myself. Last year I was co-curator of “The American Scene: New Deal Art, 1935-1943” at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California.
The Bedford’s exhibit of New Deal art struck a chord with the public. During its very well attended 3-month run, the exhibition featured more than 160 works by over 75 artists, most not seen by the public in nearly 70 years, including pieces by Dorothea Lange, Diego Rivera, Anton Refregier and Benny Bufano. However, we only scratched the surface. According to the Government Services Agency more than 11,000 works of art created through Depression-era programs like the Works Progress Administration languish in museum vaults around the country.
Although it’s difficult to gauge the impact on our collective social conscience of a photograph of migrant farm workers or of a public mural depicting working people, we know intuitively that socially conscious art, posters, film, plays, literature and music can collectively inspire people to think and take action.
One of the featured works in the book is a poster by Rachael Bell Romero entitled “Fight for the International Hotel.” The central figure is the image of Felix Ayson, a resident of the hotel and activist in the struggle to preserve it as low-income housing.
As a defender of the hotel, I got to know Felix and continued to visit him in another SRO hotel after the eviction. The eviction was a devastating event for Felix and the other tenants of the I-Hotel community. Within a year Felix was diagnosed with cancer. The last time I saw him was in the Public Health Service Hospital in the Presidio shortly before he died. The official cause of death was cancer; but the true cause of death was eviction.
The I-Hotel was ultimately demolished in 1981, and the site remained a hole in the ground for decades. However, Romero’s poster inspired by that injustice endures. Another poster memorializing Felix and the others displaced from the I-Hotel still hangs on my wall.
While major museums and galleries may not be actively seeking art of social conscience, artists are still producing it. As today’s economic forces shape and promote a culture that numbs and diverts viewers, Hazelwood reminds us that we need art to awaken and activate us.
Hobos to Street People shows the continued relevance of artist as activist. The book can be seen as a manifesto for artists to join their colleagues past and present and to use their skills to reach and inspire a public to act.
Harvey Smith is President of the National New Deal Preservation Association (www.newdeallegacy.org) and Advisor to The Living New Deal (http://livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu).