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Published: Saturday, 11/1/2008

The arts look at hard times

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

During the Great Depression and economic crunch of the 1970s, movie attendance soared. After the post-Sept. 11 financial straits of the early 2000s, DVDs produced record-setting sales.

In lean times Americans, by and large, want to escape their economic woes even if only in two-hour increments.

The same can be said of the public s preferences in TV shows during economic downturns. Ratings-minded networks typically provide sunny prime-time programming as alternatives to the dark financial news of the day.

The pop culture disconnect is standard procedure by most mass media.

If I were to sum up in one sentence pop culture s responses to hard economic times it would be, when the bread box is full, we demand circuses; and when the bread box is empty, we demand circuses, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. It doesn t matter: good times, bad times pop culture has tended to be real escapist.

If you spend all day worrying about your job and the economy and the bad times and all the rest, when it comes time to engage in an entertainment regimen, often you want an anesthetic to that, what I call the aesthetic to the anesthetic.

But pop culture isn t always entertainment-as-amnesia. It can be bleakly honest in its reflection of dour current events.

The Norman Lear TV sitcoms of the 70s, All in the Family, Maude, and Good Times, addressed real problems by what appeared to be real people at least, as close as TV ever gets to portraying real people. The Good Times theme song, for instance, probably summarized the economic plight of the lower class better and certainly more infectiously than anything else written about the subject during that decade: Temporary lay offs Good Times / Easy credit rip offs Good Times/ Scratchin and surviving Good Times.

And Hollywood has churned out its share of We re in this economic crisis together cinematic solidarity, such as 1980 s How to Beat the High Cost of Living, in which three women (Susan St. James, Jessica Lange, and Jane Curtin) are dollar-starved victims of runaway inflation 18 percent, in fact who concoct a scheme to steal money out of a large glass ball that s part of a bank promotion. It s a populist appeal to the troubled economic times with a fantasy ending of unlawful but deserved financial gain consider it three Bonnies without Clyde.

Music and literature, perhaps more than any form of entertainment, don t shy away from addressing the depressed and depressing times in which we live.

Songs about cash-strapped common men have been written about for decades from a long list of disparate musicians: Bon Jovi ( Livin on a Prayer ), Ray Charles ( Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I ), Woody Guthrie ( I Ain t Got No Home ), Dead Kennedy s ( Let s Lynch the Landlord ), Drive By Truckers ( The Righteous Path ), Omar & The Howlers ( Hard Times in the Land of Plenty ), to name only a few of the many. Bruce Springsteen, perhaps the patron saint of the blue-collar worker, devoted several songs spread across three albums Darkness at the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska to the bitter predicament of factory workers clinging desperately to lifelong jobs, all the while dreaming of and sometimes scheming for a better life. And the blues is a genre created almost exclusively to give voice to woe-is-me tales of financial ruin and heartache.

While books have been written for children to help explain the turbulent economic hardships Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen, and Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary the issue is most often addressed in adult books, from tips on how to survive such trying times check out the hundreds of listings at Amazon.com for such subjects to titles that speak to the times, perhaps none more so than John Steinbeck s The Grapes of Wrath.

Out of economic gloom of the Great Depression, though, emerged great vitality. President Roosevelt s Works Progress Administration programs aimed to put Americans back to work in the 1930s and that included artists.

Photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange documented the effects of the Great Depression, primarily in rural America Lange s Migrant Mother is perhaps the best-known photo of the period while Berenice Abbott chronicled the changing urban landscape of New York City.

Art projects were commissioned by thousands of artists, including many (Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Jacob Lawrence, and Mark Rothko) who went on to great fame.

Locally, the WPA paid Toledoans to construct wonderful buildings several still standing; to play music and stage comedies that would entertain the many who struggled; to research history, and to create paintings, and some of those efforts survive.

Even in our darkest moments, we can still find the light of inspiration.

Contact Kirk Baird at:kbaird@theblade.com



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