Social Realism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Social Realism
During the 1920s, American artists searched for a greater importance within society. The presence of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco in New York City, together with the widespread teachings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, served as inspiration to the emerging artists. Later, with the lingering effects of the Great Depression of 1929, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided many struggling artists with patronage, a sense of community, and the mandate to paint realistically. Within the above historical context, a very large and diverse group of artists later called the Social Realists joined together to publish magazines, organize unions, convene artists' congresses, and publicly agitate for the importance of their revolutionary work, the role of the artist within society, and radical anti-capitalistic change for America.
New Masses and the John Reed Club (1931)
In the 1920s, several artists committed to leftist politics launched New Masses, a radical cultural publication that was tied to Communist Russia. These revolutionary artists also established the John Reed Club. The club's name paid tribute to American journalist John Reed (1887-1920), the author of Ten Days That Shook the World who chronicled the Russian Revolution. The John Reed Clubs (60 in total throughout the United States) promoted the establishment of a proletarian society through their cultural events. Among the better-known members of the Club were Max Weber, Hugo Gellert, William Gropper, Moses Soyer, and Raphael Soyer. According to later reminiscences by involved artists, it was through the John Reed Club that they developed a progressive worldview. Teachers at the John Reed Club in New York City included the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, theorist Lewis Mumford, art historian Meyer Schapiro, artist Ben Shahn, and Louis Lozowick who was the main theorist of the group. The John Reed Club never dictated a specific artistic style or subject matter, yet mandated that artists align themselves with the poor and dispossessed, fight for racial justice, and oppose fascism.
Museum of Modern Art and Social Realism
The early 1930s saw the opening of several key museums and art galleries that went on to exhibit the art of the Social Realists, such as both New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1930, Diego Rivera had a one-man show at MoMA, which included the artist painting portable murals on site. Many of the Social Realists visited the revered Rivera as he painted. Two years later, MoMA presented a highly controversial exhibition inviting artists, including Social Realists, to create mural studies for potential projects. Ben Shahn, Hugo Gellert, and William Gropper did not hold back in their biting social criticism. Shahn's The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931-32), as well as caustic satirical works by Gellert and Gropper that attacked the moneyed, heads of state, and social elites, or in other words, the social types who controlled society and sat on MoMA's Board of Directors. Their works created a storm of criticism that Gropper triumphantly chronicled in his New Masses article "We Captured the Walls!"
The Popular Front
The Russian Communist Party announced the political period known as the Popular Front in 1935, aiming to create a united political front to eradicate fascism that, with the election of Hitler as Germany's Chancellor in 1933, was seen as a greater enemy than capitalism. Under the slogan "Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism," the Communist Party sought to unify left and liberal Americans. The Popular Front was more welcoming to liberal artists who worked for social equality, rather than for the radical transformation of America into a socialist state. This historical event, driven by Russia, impacted American artists by allowing the progressives who were not extreme radicals to join the cause. A greater number of artists took up the theme of anti-fascism in their art and lessened the hardline commitment to worker-based art and imagery.
The Artists' Union and Art Front
A great concern during the 1930s was labor unions and labor organizing. Social Realists who considered themselves to be workers established their own labor union called the Artists' Union. The Artists' Union was an affiliate of the dominant labor union of the time, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Bernarda Bryson, Ben Shahn, and Stuart Davis, among other members of the Artists' Union, together agitated for permanent federal art programs and better wages for artists under the New Deal. They were also part of the fight against racism, fascism, and war. Art Front was its radical magazine, complete with articles, photographs, essays, and illustrations.
The American Artists Congress
The American Artists Congress convened in 1936 and Social Realists were among the hundreds in attendance. This was part of the Popular Front's attack against global fascism with the rise of Adolf Hitler and, even locally, with Father Charles Coughlin stirring anti-Semitic sentiments. In addition, artistic censorship was on the mind of many with Nelson Rockefeller's infamous cancelations of Diego Rivera's mural in Rockefeller Center (1933) and Ben Shahn's mural for Riker's Island Penitentiary (1934). Pressing social events of the day held sway rather than aesthetic debates. For example, African-American painter Aaron Douglas criticized socially conscious artists for using African Americans as symbols. An exiled artist from Nazi Germany reported on the events unfolding in Europe. The economic plight of artists was also an issue passionately discussed. The Union successfully inspired artists, giving them a sense of social importance and of being part of a greater, global community.
Social Realism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Despite disparities in style, painters, sculptors, illustrators, and printmakers all were committed to realism and figuration; in fact, it's hard to imagine a Social Realist work that did not focus on the human condition and the human figure. Also common amongst these diverse voices was their commitment to labor, which explains the emphasis on idealizing the worker in art. The artists sought common cause with their subjects and sought to use "art as a weapon," in the words of Diego Rivera, to radically transform society.
The Glory of the Heroic Worker
Unlike the Ashcan School artists, where members of the working class were social outcasts, Social Realists envisioned the worker as a social hero. Empowering the worker physically and making him the focus of artwork communicated the centrality of the laborer to a new worker-based society. Greater emphasis was placed upon the industrial worker over the agricultural worker since this paralleled the economic shift from a farm-based economy to an industrial society. Clad often in workers' overalls holding tools, their jaws squared and faces firm and determined, the worker-hero is shown as the backbone of America and the means to a better future. Occasionally, the worker-hero is shown adjacent to his wife who is rendered diminutive to him in stature, wearing emblems of domesticity such as an apron and subordinate to his authority. Much rarer are images of women as industrial workers.
Sympathy for the "Forgotten Man"
Social artists most often depicted society's outcasts and the marginalized, such as the urban poor, racial minorities, immigrants, and ghetto residents. Often these men were pictured alone without the safety and sanctity of the family unit. Social Realists gave attention and voice to these "forgotten men," as they were called, with empathetic imagery of their struggles. These outcasts appear as the direct opposite of the worker-hero because the former lacks neither personal agency nor power to control his destiny. Instead of being upright and muscular, his body collapses down into itself and is comprised of more rounded forms: a slacken head, slumping shoulders, bent knees. In this manner, his body communicates a forlorn sense of hopelessness and destitution.
The Struggles of Rural America
Overwhelmingly, Social Realism was an urban-based movement created by urban-based artists. However, with the Dust Bowl and other traumatic events caused by poor land management, the sharecropper system and absentee landowners were within the realm of social commentary. The pairing of the agricultural with the industrial laborer was a potent social and political theme of the time and Worker-Farmer political parties were being established. Such artwork, which highlighted the rural poor, ruined lands, and devastation of nature, vehemently countered the chauvinistic Regionialist artists (John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton) who championed the sanctity of rural America, the natural landscape, small town life, and the farmer.
Modernist Connections: Social Surrealism
While Social Surrealists worked alongside the Social Realists, the latter claimed to be the political outspoken art style, yet in fact, it was the Social Surrealists who worked in the more radical style. Radical politics and radical times necessitate a radical form of art, and in the 1930s to mid-1940s, Surrealism was one such form of painting. They believed that liberation of the mind and liberation of the individual would lead to the end of political and social oppression. Social Surrealists used key stylistic techniques of European Surrealists, such as condensing time and space, perfecting a montage of elements, and juxtaposing objects in an illogical manner. For example, Oswaldo (Louis) Luigi Gugleimli expressed his concern with Manhattan's impoverished neighborhoods with a sense of empathy that he developed from growing up in a poor Italian immigrant section of the city. Philip Evergood's body of work has been referred to as both Social Realist for his subject matter and Social Surrealist for his exaggeration of figures, heightened colors, and vivid brushstrokes.
Socialist Realism in Russia and Germany: Totalitarian Art
The Social Realists' openness to a variety of styles and subjects stands in stark contrast to Soviet Socialist Realism, which sought to uphold the Russian political structure through stridently didactic images of workers painted with great uniformity. In both Russia as well as Germany, doctrinaire imagery of the heroicized, classically inspired body promoted Joseph Stalin's and Adolph Hitler's social visions. In Germany, Hitler encouraged the painting of the nude with hyperrealistic perfection to communicate the perfect Aryan body. In contrast, the nude was never a mainstay of American Social Realists, whose figures were based more upon genre painting than classical ideals.
Later Developments - After Social Realism
The Changes in the Political Landscape
Starting in the 1930s, the United States government became dramatically less supportive of Russia, which was once the country's ally. This chilling of international relations and attacks against communism directly impacted artists and art movements. Due to persistent rumors that "reds" had taken over the Federal arts programs, the government established the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1938, which investigated numerous artists, among other individuals and groups, searching for possible communist infiltrators. This threw shockwaves throughout the artistic left. An even deeper blow was the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact, which caused many artists to give up their idealization of Russia as a utopia. While some remained blindly supportive of Stalin, others became more committed to FDR and democracy. With the start of WWII, America's economy kicked into recovery and many industrial jobs became available but were still racially segregated. This postwar prosperity for some Americans also distanced many people from the Soviet model.
The Replacement of the Avant-garde
It is popular to think of Abstract Expressionism as the sole art form of the mid-1940s and 1950s, totally eclipsing realism and political content in art. But this wasn't the case. In fact, many artists such as Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, and Isaac, Moses, and Raphael Soyer, among numerous others, continued to exhibit their works during the Cold War era. Some artists, such as Philip Guston, did see their work evolve into abstraction. It is true that Social Realism was no longer the art of the avant-garde, but it did not vanish. However, the John Reed Club, the Artists Union, and Art Front ceased to exist in part due to internal factions and in part due to the awareness of the Holocaust and the acceptance by many that Stalin was a murderous despotic dictator, rather than a heroic figure.
However, realism and socially conscious art making never died, but these continue to be strands within contemporary art that include names such as Sue Coe and Mike Alewitz. Coe creates narrative series of prints and paintings that address difficult issues such as rape and injustice to women. Alewitz, who witnessed the killing of four young people at Kent State, has gone on to become a muralist for labor unions, social causes, and political actions. He is perhaps America's leading political muralist. In terms of scholarships and exhibitions, starting in the 1980s with publications by Alejandro Anreus, Matthew Baigell, Andrew Hemingway, Patricia Hills, Helen Langa, Diana Linden, and JonathanWeinberg, there has been a resurgence of interest in Social Realism.