The Federation had political aims when it was founded in New York by many of this country's leading modernists.
"The Federation in Retrospect" - by Dore Ashton
Early in April, 1940, a New York Times headline announced: "17 Members Bolt Artists' Congress." Behind the headline lay a complex history of artistic, social and political upheavals rarely matched in the century. The imbroglios that led to the dramatic disruption of the Artists' Congress also led, during the late Spring of 1940, to the establishment of a new group, The Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, Inc., which would attempt to evade the debilitating conflicts inherent in the activities of the 1930's.
During the few hectic years-roughly from 1934 to 1940-that artists' groups had flourished, the world had visited upon them a series of hideous tremors that presaged the Second World War. Artists, like everyone else, responded strongly. The adjustments that external circumstances demanded in their lives counted for much in their groupings. With 1940 and the War, radically different adjustments needed to be made. According to one of the oldest living members of The Federation, George Constant, the largest purpose was, in its foundation, and is still, to keep artists together. "Other professions have their professional organizations," he says, "so we should also. It's a professional obligation." Constant's view of the enduring purpose of The Federation was certainly one of the factors in its founding. But it has evolved in its more than three decades of existence.Circumstance has shaped and modeled its destiny. In its origin, it was the identifiable offspring of the spirited controversies of the 1930s.
The economic debacle of the early 1930's encouraged collective defense. Artists were not immune to the sweeping discontent that resulted, for instance, in the foundation of powerful labor unions. They fought for the right to benefit from New Deal relief programs. When the Federal Art Project's WPA was well underway in 1935, artists flocked to its rolls. At the same time, they organized themselves professionally into groups such as the Artists' Union, in 1935, whose purpose was "to unite artists in the struggle for economic security, and to encourage wider distribution and understanding of art." Other grouping also appeared including the Artists Committee of Action. When the government seemed to be pulling away from its WPA commitments, these groups went on strike, held mass meetings and generally intervened in their society with tremendous energy. (In 1937, the Artists' Union actually joined the CIO as Local 60, and the old urge for solidarity seemed at last to be satisfied.) These formations within American society were not to develop slowly and organically. The world was too much in disarray. Each dramatic event in Europe shook the foundations of American spiritual life, as World War II proved. In 1935 there was Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia; in 1936 the outbreak of the Spanish CivilWar and Hitler's arming the Rhineland; in 1937 the Moscow Trials; in 1938, Hitler annexed Austria; in 1939 he occupied Czechoslovakia and then signed a pact with Stalin; in 1940 Stalin invaded Finland. Each of these events evoked nervous responses in the United States. In February, 1936, at the American Artists' Congress three-day meeting, hundreds of listeners heard Lewis Mumford exhort artists everywhere to form a united front against Fascist forces; the eminent painter Stuart Davis attack War, Fascism and Reaction. Artists increasingly felt the weight of the political disasters, and saw themselves in protagonists' roles. Interpretations varied widely. There were passionate battles in various meetings. What can be said generally is that artists organized for the first time in the United States to experience professional solidarity and influence the events that impinged on their lives. In the particulars, there were numerous fundamental conflicts. To name only a few: a national urge for identity, answered by some artists in terms of what came to be called American Scene Painting, Social Realism, and Regionalism; and a concurrent desire on the part of other American artists to participate in the international modern movement, and to eschew chauvinist stances. On the ethical side, there were those whose belief in social revolution led them to subordinate their artistic independence, and there were those whose artistic ideals forbade political intrusions in the realm of art. The turmoil during the late 1930's was immense. But somehow, the Artists' Union and the American Artists' Congress survived their internal griefs for several years.