Sunday, May 16, 2010

Making Do During the Great Depression

The Gen X, Y and Z generations - who have no touch with anyone who has memories of the Great Depression - are now living through the Great Recession, and may they remember it for the rest of their lives.  My grandparents were vividly marked by the Great Depression, as were my mom and dad and their siblings, who grew up during its long stranglehold on the country (indeed, the entire world) in the 1930's .  Their experiences provided a framework in which my brothers and sisters and I were born and raised.  That framework of frugality, doing without and hard work impacted us in remarkably different ways that reverberates yet today, particularly during these new hard times.  Yeah, the "experts" (ha!) say the recession is over.  Right.

Check out this article from The Australian on a new exhibit at the Museum of Sydney:

The hungry mile
Christopher Allen
From: The Australian May 15, 2010 12:00AM

Skint! Making Do in the Great Depression
Museum of Sydney.
Until July 25

ANYONE who has wondered why a grandmother saves old bits of soap or hates to see food wasted should see Skint! Making Do in the Great Depression, at the Museum of Sydney.

Set up in the gallery that recently housed the Martin Sharp extravaganza, this could hardly be more different; less a collection of art, in fact, than of images and artefacts that together convey a vivid sense of the ordeal our grandparents lived through, and that marked them forever.

The show is particularly timely considering the recent and apparently still unresolved global financial crisis.

If markets and even governments were seized with panic as the crisis reached its climax, it was because they saw the spectre of depression looming, the nightmare of an economy slowing to a halt, of markets shutting down, of unemployment exploding and of asset values collapsing.

Although these are economic phenomena that in theory should be purely mechanical in nature and therefore susceptible to technical intervention, in reality there is little that is rational about such reactions. It is a crisis of confidence and you can never be sure that any given measure will restore confidence.

At any event, the Depression was a collapse that ran out of control for several years, probably because it was a worldwide event; unlike the situation today, there was no foreign market with an insatiable appetite for our products to keep us working. After the stockmarket crash of October 1929, the market kept falling for three more years, and unemployment eventually reached 30 per cent of the workforce.

There was none of the welfare infrastructure we have today: the loss of jobs meant acute poverty and -- something that today we associate with developing countries -- hunger. Families survived on bread and dripping, rationing luxuries such as sugar, condensed milk and golden syrup. Butter and eggs were scarce and meat was poor. Children were fed first but, even so, were sometimes undernourished.

Government payments were instituted, officially called the sustenance dole, but popularly shortened to "the susso", reflecting people's reluctance to use the shameful word itself and their preference for a slangy, semi-humorous euphemism.

Recipients of government aid in Sydney, as we learn from the exhibition, had to queue to collect their coupons from Circular Quay, then walk to Central railway station and queue again for their rations before walking home with them. This was once a week.

Soon intermediaries started to swap the coupons for supplies, then, as we see in contemporary photographs, corner stores competed with these traders, discounting their products and warily extending credit in an effort to hold their customers.

It is the picture of an economy shrinking, like a drought-stricken river dwindling to a creek. People could not pay their rent and were evicted on to the street; there is a picture of a returned serviceman and his wife and children standing on a footpath beside their few belongings piled up under a tarpaulin.

Another photograph shows a man in ragged clothes, camping in the Domain. He sits in the entrance of his makeshift tent, reading a pamphlet titled How to End Capitalism and Inaugurate Socialism.

There is a particular pathos in such images when we consider that these men, born in the last years of the 19th century, were the first generation of Federation, growing up in the early days of the new Commonwealth, as did both my grandfathers, with a sense of opportunity and of responsibility; this same sense had taken them to World War I, and their hopes and sacrifices must have seemed bitterly rewarded.

Conditions began to improve during the 1930s, but as the decade wore on the threat of fascism and Nazism became ever harder to ignore, as did the increasing likelihood of another terrible war.

The irony is that for the generation that grew up in the Depression, World War II would at last provide full employment; it was a stimulus package with a vengeance.

Even for those who still had work, conditions were often precarious, and many lived in dread of being laid off, while others survived from one casual job to the next or suffered the indignity of putting up their labour for hire every day on the docks, waiting at the Hungry Mile at Darling Harbour while foremen picked the strongest and most reliable labourers.

Above them rose one of the few symbols of hope: the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a massive technological and industrial feat, with its promise that the energy and spirit of the nation were not extinguished. The exhibition includes a linocut by Adelaide Perry of the bridge in October 1929, the month of the Great Crash on Wall Street.

From that time, as we know from photographs, from the paintings of Grace Cossington Smith and the etchings of Jessie Traill, the span kept rising until its completion in 1931 and official inauguration in 1932; it was known as the Iron Lung because of the direct and indirect employment the project provided in Sydney and NSW.

Apart from the misery of hunger and homelessness, unemployment and shortage of money meant idleness and boredom. Inexpensive distractions were sought out, from dancing to playing draughts, as we see in a photograph of a group of men watching two players in a park.

Sex has always been a free source of pleasure for the poor, although what is free at the time can have burdensome consequences if another pregnancy ensues, and the exhibition includes a little display of contraceptive devices and products, most of which are mysterious to us today.

Children, despite all the shortages, seem to have suffered the least. Their parents tried to keep life as normal as possible and to conceal the extent of their own anxiety or distress. And children, as we know and can see in several photographs, are much better than adults at amusing themselves with almost nothing except their imaginations.

Among the most evocative displays are toys made from recycled materials: a billycart made of old palings and pram wheels, or a bicycle similarly cobbled together from two different wheels, bits of wood, and cow's horns for handlebars.

Furniture, too, was improvised, from fruit crates and other ready-made elements, rustic parallels of modernist modular design. Clothes, especially for children, were made from hessian sacking or cut-up sugar bags, ingeniously dyed, sewn and patched with decorative bits of printed fabric.

At the end of the exhibition there is a section where visitors can write brief remarks and reflections on cards and slot them into racks for others to look at. The responses make interesting reading and seem to be divided between old people who recall the period and schoolchildren moved by their glimpse into a world so far removed from their own experience.

One man relates how his father was advised by a factory manager, on the eve of his 19th birthday, that he would be laid off when he reached 19 and had to be paid a higher wage; "Think about it," the manager counselled. The boy did, remained officially 18 for three years and kept his job.

Many comment on the solidarity of the time, the spirit of mutual aid in a period of universal need.

The other general lesson drawn by old and young alike is how little we need to survive and even to be happy; the contrast makes the bulimic consumerism all around us look absurd as well as indecent. The trouble is that it is not only individuals but whole societies that end up addicted to this voracious appetite for the superfluous.

Economically speaking, it is certainly disturbing that so much of the contemporary global economy depends on the American working class buying consumer goods they don't need with money they don't have from the Chinese, who ultimately fund the process by purchasing American bonds.

But morally, too, there is something distasteful about excessive consumption and about the way people are induced to take on debt in the process. Advertisements urge us to borrow the money we are told we need to enjoy ourselves; freedom and spontaneity are the promise, but the reality is the servitude of indebtedness.

This is a good example of the way systems generate a self-serving ideology; it isn't a conspiracy, just something that is the logical consequence of the way a consumer economy works. That ideology is, however, articulated particularly by one sector of society and that is the advertising industry.

The implicit axiom of this ideology is that our level of consumption is an index of our level of wealth, success and happiness. It is a version of the almost instinctive drive to eat as much as we can, with the dim sense that if we eat more we are more, an instinct that may promote survival in the age of cavemen but leads to self-destruction in a world of iced doughnuts.

Consumerism, in the same way, gives the illusion of wealth, since people feel prosperous when they are purchasing and consuming goods. In reality it destroys wealth, which consists in accumulating assets and reducing debts. Contrary to the advertising mantras, it is not spending money but having money that equates to freedom in our economic environment.

The spread of consumer ideology to art is particularly ugly. Because contemporary art is so contaminated with fashion, many theorists are instinctive collaborators. Twenty years ago they enthusiastically began to speak of the art industry; today we often hear about art being consumed.

There are two distinct points to be made about this unpleasant turn of phrase. The first is that art is indeed like food at least in this respect: there is too much junk and fast art, and not enough good and slow art.

The art market celebrates abundant production and consumption when the vast majority of what is made is really without any value.

But ultimately the model of consumption itself is antithetical to the aesthetic experience.

Consumption implies using up and discarding. What we do in the presence of good art, or literature, or music, is on the contrary to attend to it; not to consume it but to yield to it, to open ourselves to its suggestions, to give of our experience and receive understanding in return.

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