Say “American art of the 1930s” and a tidal wave of associations washes over you: the American Scene, wpa artists’ programs, Mexican Muralism, photographs of sharecroppers and anguished women, Alice Neel’s portraits, Stuart Davis’s abstracted “color space,” Grant Wood and American Gothic, David Smith and the first welded-steel sculptures made in the United States, social realism, modernist experimentation. And then we start thinking about the Great Depression, breadlines, Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, the New Deal, and much, much more. It can seem as if it’s all too much to make sense of.

Now, “Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a thoughtfully focused overview of this...


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