Depression Art: Not Just Escapism

astaire_rogers_waltzinswingtimeThe most durable cliche about the arts in the 1930s, writes historian Morris Dickstein, ‘is that despite the surge of social consciousness among writers, photographers and painters (some of it supported by federal dollars), the arts offered Depression audiences little more than fluffy escapism, which was just what they needed. But that’s not the whole story. It’s certainly a paradox that dire economic times produced such a fizzy, buoyant popular culture. From the warring couples of screwball comedy and the magical dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to the sophisticated music and lyrics of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins, the ’30s generated mass entertainment legendary for its wit, elegance and style. This culture had its roots in the devil-may-care world of the 1920s, but it took on new meaning as the Depression deepened. The engine of the arts in the ’30s was not escapism, as we sometimes imagine, but speed, energy and movement at a time of economic stagnation and social malaise.

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