Skip to main content

Why Art Needs Our Protection

The year is 1931, and just two years into the Great Depression Frederick Lewis Allen is trying to articulate how much has changed for Americans. In his popular history, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, the editor of Harper’s magazine writes that “Prosperity is more than an economic condition; it is a state of mind. The Big Bull Market had been more than the climax of a business cycle, it had been the climax of a cycle in American mass thinking and mass emotion. There was hardly a man or woman in the country whose attitude toward life had not been affected by it in some degree and was not now affected by the sudden and brutal shattering of hope....With the Big Bull Market gone and prosperity going, Americans were soon to find themselves living in an altered world which called for new adjustments, new ideas, new habits of thought, and a new order of values.”

These juxtaposed images are a thought experiment. They depict radically different landscapes, and more than that evoke the “sudden and brutal shattering of hope” we associate with the 1930s. Arthur Rothstein, whose image is on the right, will go on to photograph many other surreal images of a once-habitable midwestern landscape buried under sand dunes. The next year Claude A. Patterson paints a lush, almost idealized landscape as yet unaffected by drought but no longer unaware of the Dust Bowl. Together, using different mediums, they are documenting a state of devastation that encompasses material and psychological experience.

Our access to these events of the 1930s depends upon a 16” x 20” oil painting and a nitrate film negative a little larger than 2” x 2.” The fragility of paintings like “Highwater” is covered elsewhere in this exhibit; Rothstein’s image is even more fragile due to the chemical instability of its film base, which causes it to deteriorate and eventually decompose. A copy is all we’ll have. The conservation, preservation, and restoration process for either object is very costly and labor intensive, which makes it especially hard for low-volume museums and galleries to stay open and preserve artwork. There are thousands of other institutions—not just the New Deal Gallery—struggling to conserve not just objects, or even historical scenes, but a way into lived experience. And the fragility of this infrastructure means it can change with just a swipe.

Digitalizing images is a new way of preserving artworks and photographs. This means replacing the original piece with a photograph or digital copy of the artwork. Is this the best way to preserve such important pieces of artwork? By relying on a mere digital file that could be erased and gone in a matter of less than a second. This can even apply to people’s camera rolls on their phones, one mistakenly pressed button and everything is gone.

Although digitalizing is a relied on method of preservation today because it is inexpensive and easy to do. It is not the best way to keep the original artwork alive.  The restoration and preservation methods that restore originals is very time consuming and very expensive. This leads to museums leaning towards digitalizing and they are not to blame.

Many museums that are not high-volume museums like the Smithsonians have dedicated volunteers and workers who pour so much effort into keeping the museums running. However, unless we as a society can understand that the protection of art is very critical to keeping our culture alive, we will eventually lose important artworks.

Works Consulted

—Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. Harper & Row, 1931. Web version available at University of Virginia.

—Patterson, Claude A. Highwater. Oil Painting courtesy of New Deal Gallery. 1937.

—Rothstein, Arthur. Sand Dunes on a Farm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Farm Security Administration. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress.

Why Art Needs Our Protection