Biden needs to recruit artists in the fight against anti-vaxxers.
How a New Deal-inspired program could put artists back to work and take on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy—and more.
Among many small ones, there are two major challenges in the way of us finally beating this pandemic. In the short term, we have to vaccinate 70-90% of Americans—230 million people—to achieve herd immunity and outrun the virus’s ability to mutate. In the long term, we have to address the fact that the bottom half of our economy has been paralyzed by its economic carnage. These twin challenges are gargantuan—the worst this country’s faced since the Great Depression—and require a whole-of-society approach to solving them.
It’s become cliché at this point to say that we need solutions on the order of the New Deal. But there remains a lot to learn from FDR’s slate of policies to tackle the Depression. In scale, the Biden-Harris Administration’s $1.9 Trillion American Rescue Plan does rival its counterpart—but it must also meet the moment in scope. The New Deal was intentionally multi-faceted, including everything from agricultural price schedules to programs reinvigorating the American workforce. And that meant all of the workforce.
One of the most important programs administered under the New Deal was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The government spent what would be the equivalent of $1.4 Trillion as a proportion of today’s GDP to put people back to work through a host of programs doing everything from sawing lumber to building roads and bridges to...making art. Indeed, Federal Project Number One under the WPA was specifically designed to employ artists, musicians, actors, and writers.
Importantly, artists were put to work in service of the public—documenting the lives of Americans living through the Depression, as Dorothea Lange did for the Farm Security Administration, or driving messages that were critical to the health and welfare of an ailing America. The WPA art program commissioned an estimated 2000 posters, public service announcements about everything from making sure to wash a wound so it doesn’t get infected to extolling fruit to brushing teeth.
The program underwrote some of the most iconic art and artists of the era. Jackson Pollock would make seminal contributions to abstract expressionism through his painting and Lange’s photos from the period would capture the Depression’s face, launching a new form of “documentary” photography.
But the WPA Arts program wasn’t without its controversy—many opposed direct federal funding of the arts. When asked about the project, Secretary of Commerce and close FDR confident Harry Hopkins said, “Hell, they’ve got to eat, too.”
So do artists today. And they’ve been pummeled by the pandemic. Careers in the arts aren’t known for job security—but in a pandemic where public concerts have gone silent, art galleries can welcome only a few at a time, and comedy clubs are closing across the country, our country’s artists are struggling worse than ever. COVID relief interventions—like unemployment insurance—miss folks whose employment consists of gigs and contracts that don’t often register as employment to begin with.
But we need artists now more than ever.
Over 30% of Americans say they won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine and vaccine hesitancy threatens our ability to reach herd immunity and end this pandemic. Until now, our approach to tackling vaccine hesitancy has been either telling people to “just trust the science” or trotting out nerds like me to explain the details. As adept as I think myself to be at making complex science approachable—dare I say fun—we, the nerds, simply lack the reach or cultural heft that we need to really make our message resonate. And frankly, public health has struggled with messaging throughout this pandemic—sometimes using absolutism in ways that undermine the public’s trust in us.
We need to think differently, go bigger, and go deeper. We need our message to penetrate the culture—while artists are out of work. Perhaps there’s an obvious solution here?
Imagine murals all over major cities and billboards in rural towns that capture the key message of what this vaccine offers people, America, and the world. Imagine a series of poems that engage with the history of exploitation by the biomedical establishment among Black folks and the realities of what COVID-19 has done to Black communities now. Imagine a documentary team telling the stories of the heroes who developed this vaccine—Black and white, women and men, LGTBQIA+ and straight, Athiest, Muslim, and Christian. Imagine recording artists creating the kinds of jingles that stick to your mind—a sort of intellectual vaccine to hesitancy.
We need all of this and the US government should commission it through a new Federal One project that puts artists back to work to fight vaccine hesitancy.
We need to translate and shape the message about how vaccines can bring this pandemic to a final close in as many ways and through as many mediums as possible. We need our artists who can pick up this message and move it. We can’t afford to have them on the sidelines because we need them on the frontlines. And we have an opportunity to put them to work leading the effort to inspire Americans to take the vaccine.
Currently, the American Rescue Plan—the Biden-Harris Administration’s $1.9 Trillion COVID-19 relief package—earmarks about $160 Billion toward vaccine deployment. While I support the many ways they are intending to use these funds, it would be worth taking a page out of the New Deal and Great Society playbooks to invest some of this money into a Federal Arts Program to take on vaccine hesitancy. Empowering artists struggling through this pandemic to carry the message of vaccine safety could go a long way toward finding the eyes and ears that a million nerds like me don’t stand a chance of reaching.
The arts unite people—they have the potential to bring us together in moments of strife through beauty, meaning, and purpose. As a nation emerging from this pandemic, and reckoning with its unequal economic consequences, the crisis of our democracy, and the necessary fight for Black lives, we’ve never needed that more.