From the website: The Voice of America (VOA), a dynamic multimedia broadcaster funded by the U.S. Government, broadcasts accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news and information to an international audience.
The headquarters of Voice of America offer visitor tours that contain two main components: the primary focus on the history of VOA and the workings of its studios, as well as sprinklings of art history while viewing the murals that enliven the building.
Touring the studios reminded me of the studio chats I used to give at the Newseum, only on a much larger scale. Visitors do not actually go into the studios, but can watch the activity through windows in a setup similar to the configuration of tours at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The tour was narrated by a combination of a live tour guide and pre-recorded segments on headphones.
Some familiar themes from the Newseum arose in this tour: the risks journalists face, the importance of accurate and objective news, the role of the press in a free society, and the technology used for news broadcasts across different media. The guide emphasized VOA’s charter, which gives it a mandate that no other news agency has by law. VOA is not allowed to report a story until reporters are certain of their facts, and using “certain unnamed sources” is verboten.
Meanwhile, the murals by Ben Shahn and Seymour Fogel are testaments to the original use of the building – it housed the Social Security Administration. Shahn was commissioned in 1940 to paint scenes highlighting the benefits of the recently instituted Social Security Act. (At the time, it was common to celebrate New Deal achievements in
art in new government edifices.)
Shahn painted tableaus of despair in every stage of life: child labor, adults in the unemployment line, and sickness and destitution in old age. On the opposite wall are scenes of prosperity, sustenance, and a nation working hard. Together, this set of murals is called The Meaning of Social Security. Fogel’s murals in the lobby, titled The Security of the People and The Wealth of the Nation similarly show productivity and financial security.
VOA’s website explains that Shahn’s murals are based on the following 1934 quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
“This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated from this man-made world of ours.”
Understanding the degree to which New Deal policies were effective is confounded by other major events at the time (i.e. World War II). Nevertheless, it is worth noting that proactive efforts toward a society where “decent homes,” “productive work,” and “safeguard against misfortunes” could be widely enjoyed were understood to be a Good Thing, good enough to be enshrined in murals in a brand new government building in 1940.
Ben Shahn described his art as a way to communicate these efforts to everyday people:
“I feel that the whole Social Security idea is one of the real fruits of democracy. There may be some limitations to my powers of exposition, but at least it is my aim to make the mural a clear and feeling picture of Social Security, and, I hope, one that may be understood by average Americans.”
While many art museums have new exhibits all the time, VOA’s artworks are permanently on display. To the extent that these murals constitute an art exhibit, it has been the same exhibit for seven decades.
But the murals are relevant today, when we are facing many of the same issues. An exception is child labor. Child labor has been officially eradicated in the United States (the realities of human trafficking notwithstanding), and mainstream attitudes toward child labor remain negative, even aghast at the very idea. Unemployment for adults and financial hardships for seniors, however, are major issues of our time. Income inequality is ever increasing, and the majority of the jobs coming back from the recession are low-wage.
If a government agency commissions an artist to paint murals showing the policies enacted in response to today’s economic suffering, what will be happening in these murals? What art will visitors see 70 years from now?
March’s blog theme is Museums and Fighting Inequality.