Last Updated 31 Jan 2023

The Impact of War and Dust Bowl on the Development of American Society and Culture in 1930-1940

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In the 1930’s and into the 1940’s a new American art form had emerged known as Regionalism. This movement encompassed rural, midwest life in America. It was a ‘realistic’ style of painting in contrast to the Abstract works going on at the time in Europe. Like many art movements there is a reason for its fruition. For Regionalism, world war, financial ruins, and individualization helped shape Regionalism.

In 1914 Europe, existing tensions among different cultures who were forced to live inside the same borders due to alliance agreements paved the way for one of the most monumental assassinations in history. The Great War or The War To End All Wars was a European conflict set off in 1914 after the assassination of Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This assassination triggered a chain reaction of broken alliances and ultimately into all out war. Strong nationalistic views were a key component that led to this event. Soon due to American alliances, America found itself entangled in the conflict as well in 1917.

The overall warfare was simply horrific. The death toll which soared into the millions, was something the world never could have fathomed. During and after the war, the world got a glimpse of just how nightmarish the war actually was. Industrialized countries were equipped with unimaginable weaponry. This new era of warfare was a completely different animal that ultimately would ensue for four years. After the war ended we were left with only one question, why?

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In the art world we saw a chain of mockery style art not only after the war but during the war. The Dada and Cubism movement was the most prominent throughout Europe. It welcomed a sense of ‘attack’ on the traditional art scene. There were absolutely no boundaries to play by anymore. From Picasso’s violent brush strokes and hidden imagery using blocked forms to Marcel Duchamp’s sarcastic readymades, these pieces simply played off the question as to why the world got enveloped into an unexplainable and deadly conflict. In Europe these types of artistic styles, especially cubism would prevail for decades to come and even into today’s modern art scene.

It was the rejection of these European modernist artists that largely created the desire to create new indigenous, modern, American art that was free of foreign influences (Bocinsky par. 2). Instead of rejecting a realistic style into painting, with Regionalism we were now embracing it. It is quite clear by the 1930’s America was at an all time low. And as for the damage farming endured during the financial crisis and the Dust Bowl, it would be the crippled agricultural world that would be the face of Regionalism. The Regionalist movement is what gave people strength during a time of great struggle.

As of now It is safe to say that the atrocities of war did in fact have a profound impact on art. Not only was an artistic boom happening in Europe but American artists in the rural midwest would soon be driven to create their own artistic style. In the late 1920s and into the 1930’s the American economy tanked. Many aspects contributed to its collapse and one of the main ones being what happened to farming.

“During World War I, farmers worked hard to produce record crops and livestock. When prices fell they tried to produce even more to pay their debts, taxes and living expenses. In the early 1930s prices dropped so low that many farmers went bankrupt and lost their farms.” (Morain par 2). To make matters worse Southern farming acreages experienced incredible ongoing droughts. Strong winds flinging mountainous clouds of dust throughout the midwest region would come to be known as the Dust Bowl which would only intensify the financial depression.

With acts such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Kinkaid Act of 1904 issued a great expansion of agricultural lands. “This false belief was linked to Manifest Destiny—an attitude that Americans had a sacred duty to expand west. A series of wet years during the period created further misunderstanding of the region’s ecology and led to the intensive cultivation of increasingly marginal lands that couldn’t be reached by irrigation” (History, par. 5).

With the expansion of new lands and a rise in cultivators, inexperienced farmers would soon become part as to why we failed to cultivate southern lands. The superstition that ‘Rain Follows the Plow,’ was ultimately a destructive way of thinking especially because of the lack of knowledge in understanding the southern climates. Newly cultivated lands would dry out simply due to the lack of irrigation in these areas. In turn devastating dust storms would wreak havoc on the midwestern agricultural areas.

With all of these factors coming into play in the formation of Regionalism arose Thomas Hart Benton, one of the most prominent members of this movement. Benton was born in Neosho Missouri, into a very political family. ‘Expected to follow his family's well-trodden path, instead, with his mother's encouragement he chose to study art’(The Art Story, Bio). In 1908 Benton was studying art in Paris but soon started to study on his own. Thomas Benton lived in New York from 1912 to 1935. Coming back home in 1924 to visit his father who was sick was when Benton became driven to start creating pieces catered to the hard working people among the rural midwest areas.

The realistic depiction of rural life is what made Benton famous. During the 1920s, however, Bentons overall style depicted a more booming America. Overall these works would resemble the strength in America depicting a busy scene using bright oil paint colors like we see in his color work, ‘Construction.’ Though he would continue to use this style every now and then throughout his career, it was the lithograph art works that embodied a saddened emotional feel that rural Americans felt due to the Great Depression and the grave impacts from the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl would last throughout the 1930’s for nearly a decade.

“Lithography is a printing process that uses a flat stone or metal plate on which the image areas are worked using a greasy substance so that the ink will adhere to them by, while the non-image areas are made ink-repellent” (Tate, heading). In Kansas Farmyard (Missouri Farmyard), created in 1936, by Benton, we see a family of four working hard. This black and white lithographic piece is one of the many depictions of farming life by Benton.

This piece has a great impact on capturing movement, again, like many of his other works. When examining this piece it captures not only the human movements but the natural, earthly movements throughout the piece. The circular strokes in the grounds that the family is working upon, as well as the circular motions in the windmill helps create a sense of strong windlike movement going on. In the foreground there are ominous darkened clouds that could very well be a representation of the dust moving towards the family.

Although Regionalism would soon succumb to Abstract Expressionism in terms of what the new American modern art scene would become, it paved the way for Abstract Expressionism. “In some ways, however, Regionalism and Abstract Expressionism exhibited a less dichotomous relationship than previously thought. Just as the Post-Impressionists (Cézanne, Van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin, and others) connected representational and abstract art in Europe, Regionalism served to bridge the gap between strictly realist academic art and completely abstract art” (Bocinsky, Par.3). There economic classes involved were a factor in these movements successes as well.

While Regionalism was associated with a more poorer demographic, Abstract Expressionism was a booming movement in New York, heavily promoted by the pro-modernists and a more wealthier demographic. Not only were the demographics incredibly different but because the Abstract Expressionist movement dominated its influence throughout New York City where a higher population of people could become more familiar with Abstract Expressionism.

So, ultimately it is safe to say that yes, Abstract Expressionists success is justified simply due to the fact that Regionalist artists such as had a Thomas Benton had an incredibility at creating traditional visual elements combined with exaggerated abstract-like gestures. The Abstract world would ultimately become the prominent face of American modern art, but the stepping stones for its achievements are rooted in the success of Regionalism.

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