Economists and politicians told us that the recession was over, though some of them now worry about it taking a double dip. For those of us living farther from the ledger sheets and closer to the reality of what’s happening in our towns and on our streets, this has been and remains a depression. It’s hard to make the word stick, however, because we haven’t developed the iconography yet. We don’t have bread lines, dance marathons, guys selling apples on street corners or men jumping from high buildings because they’ve been wiped out in the stock market.
The pain and suffering has only been superficially covered by the news media, but it has surely not been addressed by our artists. In the 1930s, John Steinbeck chronicled the Depression as it played out in the lives of the Joads, his fictional Okies. He invented those memorable characters to vivify all the abstractions of the policymakers and to give literary voice to the suffering so many nonfictional Americans were experiencing.
There were a raft of other artists who also were telling the tale, making people see, hear and feel the pain as only the arts can do. There was Dorothea Lange taking photos and Woody Guthrie writing songs. Hollywood was doing its part too, and not only with a movie version of Steinbeck’s novel. Unlike current audiences, moviegoers in the ‘30s were persistently reminded by what was on the screen of what awaited them when they resumed their lives outside the theater. Even “King Kong,” generally conceded to be pioneering escapist fare, begins with Fay Wray in a bread line.
In our own times, when Iraq and Afghanistan war vets are suffering double-digit rates of unemployment, you can’t find much mention of those veterans and their struggles in our movies. But, in 1932, “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” gave cinematic life to the kind of men who would march on Washington as part of the Bonus Army, a legion of out-of-work World War I vets who squatted in the nation’s capital to bring attention to their plight — an appeal that was ultimately met not with aid but with violence.
Even musicals like “Gold Diggers of 1933" (which gave us the song “We’re in the Money”) is structured around the story of war heroes who were shamed by the need to seek inadequate public assistance. There also were more overtly political films in 1933, movies like “Wild Boys of the Road,” a gritty portrayal of unemployed young men jumping freights to find work.
A few recent indie films have provided glimpses of what the Joads might look like in this new century — “Winter’s Bone” comes most forcefully to mind — but mostly the moviemakers are far removed, in their own lives and in their products, from what the majority of Americans are living through now.
Musical artists too are looking the other way. What hit song of the last three years gives voice to our times in the way “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” gave voice to the 1930s? Where are the songs that evoke images of vacancies in the shopping malls, people driven from their foreclosed homes and couples whose marriages are shattered by the frustrations of their hardships?
A long time ago, during an early peace march through San Francisco, I remember a young guy in an apartment a couple of floors above the street putting a speaker in his window and blasting Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” to the protesters marching by. The feeling of support and solidarity that music contributed on that day was palpable, and it came at a time when public sentiment had not yet turned against the Vietnam War.
Years later, in a none-too-brave new world, I attended a Dylan concert in the months following 9/11. The “senators and congressmen” Dylan had once referenced in his old song were then talking about taking us to war in Iraq. I hoped on that night that the protege of Woody Guthrie would say a word or two about the times we were living in. But he said nothing, having long since decided he didn’t want to be an oracle, didn’t want to speak except through his songs. For many fans, it would have been balm to us had Dylan used even the slimmest portion of his art to provide the sense of solace he’d given so many dissenters long ago.
A few months after seeing Dylan, I saw Jerry Seinfeld. It was a few weeks after the shoe bomber had attempted to blow up an airplane. No one goes to see Seinfeld for political commentary, but he made a joke about the shoe bomber, and it was therapeutic, allowing us to laugh at the boogeyman. It was art employed in the interest of sanity. It’s been said that humor is our shield against insanity. So far, we’ve mostly been crazy this century, and there hasn’t been much shielding us from it. The comedians, such as Jon Stewart, Will Durst and Bill Maher, have filled the vacuum the other arts have abandoned.
As much as anything, the arts define the times, sketching a portrait of a moment in the life of the nation and the world, marking a period in ways it comes to be viewed by people who live through it and by people who come after. But the tale of our times is mostly being told by our unwillingness to tell it.
Jaime O’Neill is a writer in Northern California.