Ben Shahn was one of the foremost Social Realist artists of the
1930s. At the outset we have to recognize that this movement arose in response to the
political/esthetic directives of Stalin's government. The original Constructivist style
that emerged with the victory of the Bolsheviks was basically outlawed and Soviet artists
either adapted to the new agenda or left the country.
Ironically, while the style became identified with the cultural and political retreat of the Soviet Thermidor, in the west--particularly the United States--it reflected an upturn in the revolutionary movement. Nobody needed to dictate to artists that they should serve the revolutionary movement. The objective forces of history were sufficient to do that. In David Shapiro's introduction to his "Social Realism: Art as a Weapon," a collection of articles by artists and critics both for and against the movement in the 1930s, there's a useful summary of Social Realism:
"Social Realism is not an art of the studio--rarely does one see a painting of the model, costumed or nude, and even less frequently is a still life encountered. Social Realism's only landscapes are at least partly cityscapes--a decaying mining village, or shacks along the railroad tracks. A variety of genre painting, Social Realism takes as its main subject certain significant or dramatic moments in the lives of ordinary poor people. The moments in their lives selected (and it is always a moment in someone's life--it is hard to think of Social Realist painting that does not include a human being) are almost always those that in some way focus on the indignity or pathos of their situation--the hard work they perform. the inadequate rewards they receive for it, or the miserable conditions they work under. There is almost always, implied or explicit, a criticism made of the capitalist system. With this as their subject matter, Social Realists perforce showed those aspects of American life that were the least 'pretty.' Not for them to glory in the soaring mountains, or, for that matter, in the soaring skyscrapers. Instead, they painted the people in the slums, the industrial suburbs, the factory towns, and sometimes on the farm. When rich people appear, they are the objects of satirical derision: art patrons unable to understand the pictures they look at, dowagers attending opera for snob reasons only, millionaires dining in splendor half the world goes hungry."
This is the esthetic world that Ben Shahn emerges from. Along with other notables such as Philip Evergood and William Gropper, Shahn was part of the CP-dominated cultural front that the Trotskyist intellectuals derided. This was not art, but propaganda, according to the precepts of Meyer Shapiro and Clement Greenberg. Such easy dismissal must be critically re-evaluated, as Alan Wald, a post-Trotskyist literary critic, has attempted to do in the literary field, with particular emphasis on the "proletarian novel". We have to consider the possibility that, for all its flaws, Social Realist art has much more to say to us today as people who are striving to transform the world. Rather than being some kind of one-dimensional cartoon, the work of Ben Shahn has the sort of humanitarianism that is the inner essence of all attempts to transform the world.
Shahn was born in 1898 in Kovno, Lithuania, the first of five children of a traditional Orthodox Jewish family. His father was a woodcarver and cabinetmaker. Sometimes we can lose sight of how oppressed Eastern European Jews were in this period. They faced discrimination and violence everywhere they turned. When the Russian Revolution of 1917 declared war on all forms of anti-Semitism, Jews instinctively turned toward the new government. In a fascinating oral history collection titled "Followers of the Trail: Jewish working-class radicals in America," author David Leviatin presents the testimony of Harry M.:
"At that time there was truly no antisemitism. It was forgotten. We were proud, we were equal citizens, we could travel anywhere we wanted, we could get any job we wanted, we were free to live wherever we wanted. No discrimination. The Jews were very happy. Antisemitism didn't show except in reactionary circles. Those that were in the counterrevolutionary movement, they blamed everything on the Jews. It's not a question of a Russian being a Communist. Jew and Communist was synonymous, and that was their propaganda.
"But Jews had their full rights, like everybody else. They were the leaders, they were the members of the soviets, they were the members of the government. The Gentiles that were with the Red Army had no opposition to it. I think there was even a law then that if you abused a Jew or used the words 'dirty Jew' you were getting six months in jail."
The subjects of Leviatin's book are literally the social base of Ben Shahn's artwork. They were working-class New York Jews of the Communist Party, now in their 80s and 90s, who founded a summer camp in 1929 called "Followers of the Trail." Most were garment workers, who had fled Russia before the revolution, as Shahn had. There were a network of such summer retreats throughout upstate New York, where workers and their children would escape the summer heat. They sang Soviet folk songs, attended meetings to hear about the Spanish Civil War, picked berries, and played pinochle. When I was a young child growing up in this area, these workers were still vigorous and outspoken. They were the same old-timers who would fill Union Square Park in NYC on Sunday afternoon to argue about politics. Now it is filled with young lawyers and investment bankers rushing to their dinner engagements, talking on their cell phones.
While Shahn was not an observant Jew, Jewish identity remained prominent in his work from the beginning to the end. This was expressed in many different ways, but primarily it had to do with the immigrant experience, which he was part of himself. Jews had not yet been assimilated into American society and Shahn was anxious to express their vulnerability, which he felt despite his success in the art world. Even before Shahn had become famous for his Sacco and Vanzetti series, his first socially conscious work took Alfred Dreyfus as the subject.
Immigration was perhaps the number one subject for American Jews in 1939, when Shahn painted a mural for the St. Louis Post Office. The Nazis passed the Nuremburg Laws in 1935, which legally disenfranchised Jews who were now classified as non-citizens. Shahn brushed aside state government suggestions to paint about St. Louis history. Although the mural did address regional history through the westward migration of the 19th century, the main focus of the mural was European immigration and the plight of the Jews. He contrasts images of families beginning a new life with babies and bundles in hand, against images of concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire.
As David Shapiro pointed out, this kind of mural art was not created in studios for the private collector. The primary medium was the public mural and no other event captures the revolutionary mission of Social Realist artists than the Rockefeller Center mural, which pitted creator Diego Rivera against the young Nelson Rockefeller. Shahn not only worked on the mural, but fiercely defended the right of the artists to define the subject matter, including portraits of Lenin and Trotsky.
Howard Greenfeld's new biography of Shahn, titled "Ben Shahn: an artist's life," details his role. Rivera had hired Shahn, after discovering his Sacco and Vanzetti series. The relationship between Rivera and Shahn mirrors the one between Siqueiros and Pollock, with shared enthusiasms over politics and artistic style. While Pollock eventually veered off into the sort of "art for art's sake" studio-based work that Shahn eschewed, Shahn never lost sight of his original mission.
The theme of the mural was to be "Man at the Crossroads." Rivera interpreted this as a choice between capitalism and socialism and left no room for ambiguity in the original sketch for the mural. It seems that 1930s Social Realists allowed themselves maximum flexibility, as Shahn's encounter with the St. Louis Post Office indicated. Rivera and Shahn were cut from the same cloth. Social justice meant more than the petty concerns of their patrons, either private or public.
The capitalist side of the mural alluded to unemployment and gambling, while the socialist side depicted workers holding banners high, singing and smiling as they marched down the road. Shahn helped Rivera fill in the details of the unemployment piece in the mural by bringing in photos of a violent demonstration on Wall Street. Rivera painted directly from the photos, which depicted mounted police ready to attack.
Rockefeller had a change of heart as the mural neared completion. Since the portrait of Lenin "might seriously offend a great many people," he asked Rivera to substitute it with an "unknown man." Rivera came up with a counter-proposal. Instead of Lenin, he would be happy to include a famous figure out of America's revolutionary past and offered a choice of Lincoln, John Brown, Nat turner, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips or Harriet Beecher Stowe. Ben Shahn was not happy with this proposal and protested to Rivera.
On May 9th, workmen covered the mural with wood planks. The building was surrounded by mounted cops, who seemed to have leapt from the unemployment section of the mural. Five days later, a "United Front" committee sprang into existence to protest the banning of the mural. According to Greenfeld, "a near riot broke when the various factions--among them the official Communists and dissidents like the Trotskyites and the Lovestoneites--noisily attacked one another." Shahn assumed leadership of the protestors, restoring peace by announcing that representatives from the fifteen organizations that made up the United Front would picket Radio City between six and eight the following evening. A man after my own heart.
Shahn's political and ethnic concerns were knitted together on the occasion of his move to the Jersey Homesteads in 1936. This housing cooperative was to be built in conjunction with new garment shops in the area, so as to allow New York's primarily Jewish workforce to work in more humane conditions than they had ever experienced. The Jersey Homesteads was the dream of Benjamin Brown, a Ukrainian Jew who had emigrated to the United States and worked his way through agricultural school in Pennsylvania. Greenfeld describes him as having an "obsessive interest" in setting up cooperative settlements throughout the United States. I suspect that Brown was strongly influenced by the Jewish agricultural cooperative movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. In a move that paralleled the Zionist movement, many Jews thought that their emancipation was only possible through a return to the land. Agricultural colonies were launched in Argentina, upstate New York, New Jersey and Palestine. The farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists. The Russian Revolution tended to focus Jewish left-wing efforts on the urban, trade union movement from 1917 onward, but it is clear that the Jersey Homesteads retained aspects of these earlier experiments.
At the Jersey Homesteads, Shahn was free at last from outside interference. There were no Nelson Rockefellers around to dictate who was "politically correct" or not. (In reality, political correctness has been the dominant feature of capitalist society from its inception. It only became an issue when the left wing decided to assert itself in the 1980s.) The most glaring challenge to Shahn's artistic freedom would occur in 1938 when Shahn decided to feature Walt Whitman prominently in a mural for the Bronx Post Office. Whitman, it turned out, was on the Catholic Index, because of his "irreligion." Although no other reasons were put forward, one can only surmise that it had much more to do with Whitman's sexual orientation than anything else.
Rightwingers were mobilized to hassle Shahn. One day a woman complained to him that he was defacing the post office with all those "Communist workers" on the wall. This was a particular offense to her because her ancestors had fought in the American revolution. He got so angry that he kicked over a paint bucket. He then told her that his ancestors had fought in the battle of Jericho, but he didn't go around bragging about it.
As WWII began, and as the Soviet Union became less of a pole of attraction for many Americans, Shahn was not immune from the same sort of depoliticization that affected Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist school. He turned away from murals, which actually were being commissioned less frequently, and began to turn his attention to studio paintings. The political themes became more muted, although there was never a retreat from the horrible realities of the 1940s.
It didn't matter much that Shahn had adapted to political and artistic realities by the late 1940s. He had been tagged as a Social Realist and the political and artistic establishment had decided to marginalize such people.
The most dramatic expression of Shahn's isolation was his reception at Black Mountain College, over a four week visit to the college in the summer of 1951. He was to teach an art class upon the invitation of Charles Olson, the president of the college. Although Olson had fostered modernist experimentation at the school, he still had strong attachments to the New Deal politics of his pre-writing days. Olson had been a high official in FDR's administration, before obsessions with Moby Dick had convinced him that his true vocation was poetry.
Shahn was an icon of his Olson's youth. Olson, who was one of the most moody and curmudgeonly characters of 20th century literature, drew Shahn aside to comfort him when he discovered that his wife had developed a breast tumor. He told Shahn that he would stand with him against "all these little shit painters" at the college. In the next breath Olson dressed Shahn down because his art had stood still for more than three years.
One of the nastiest little shits at Black Mountain was fellow faculty member Robert Motherwell, the ex-Trotskyist and bourgeois figure who had made the initial connections between heiress Peggy Guggenheim and the painters in his group in the 1930s. Motherwell, like Pollock, had become a real big shot and scourge of all the left-wing artists. At a conference held at the MOMA in 1947, Motherwell red-baited Shahn as "the leading Communist modern artist in America."
This was the "party line" of the Abstract Expressionists and their hangers-on: give credit to Shahn's achievements while belittling him as a curiosity. In a Nation Magazine review of a Ben Shahn retrospective at the MOMA in that same year, ex-Trotskyist Clement Greenberg wrote maliciously:
"On the whole Shahn's art seems to have improved with time. The later pictures become more sensitive and more painterly. That his 'social consciousness' has at the same time become less prominent does not, in my opinion, play much of a role here; it is simply that Shahn gains better control of his medium as he goes along. Yet there has been a certain loss of vigor. Nothing improves on or repeats the shock of Handball. There is an attempt to strengthen and vary color, but to little avail. Shahn, more naturally photographer than painter, feels only black and white, and is surest of himself when he orients his picture in terms of dark and light. All other chromatic effects tend to become artificial under his brush.
"This art is not important, is essentially beside the point as far as ambitious present-day painting is concerned, and is much more derivative than it seems at first glance. There is a poverty of culture resources, a pinchedness, a resignation to the minor, a certain desire for "quick" acceptance--all of which the scale and cumulative evidence of the present show make more obvious. Yet Shahn has a genuine gift, and that he has not done more with it is perhaps fault of the milieu in which he has worked, even more than his own."
This "milieu" that Greenberg refers to contemptuously are immigrant Jewish garment workers, who defined not only Shahn's own esthetic and political principles, but his own as well at an earlier time in his life. Shahn took all this in stride and continued to create works that were addressed to the masses rather than the art market. Although he--and nobody else--could make paintings about the labor movement any more, he did dedicate himself to raising people's consciousness about the dangers of nuclear war. Deeply distressed by Hiroshima and the nuclear arms race, Shahn illustrated a series of articles in Harpers Magazine during 1957 about Japanese fishermen who had been exposed to radiation in the waters off Bikini atoll. This new cause consumed him with the sort of passion that the labor movement had inspired in him decades earlier.
I am not interested in Shahn's place in the hierarchy of great artists. I don't have the background to "grade" him and this sort of competition is frankly expressive of the degradation of late capitalism. Contests to pick the top 50 novels or artists of the 20th century are argued out with the same frenzy as those involving who are the top 50 basketball players.
What does interest me are the two contrasting social roles of artists. Jackson Pollock starts out in the same manner as Hecht, but ends up as an alcoholic careerist. The appetite for success can never be completely satisfied in bourgeois society. The commodity not only raises expectations in the consumer that can never be satisfied, it also frustrates the producer of the commodity who has to compete with other producers for a chimerical market. If this profit-maximizing mechanism ever grinds to a halt, the system would fall apart. It is a system based on the treadmill of desire. Like rats, we rush ahead trying to snatch the piece of cheese that is always an inch in front of our nose.
Shahn had very little interest in this sort of pursuit. Although he believed in his work, he believed in social justice and peace more. Jackson Pollock's death by automobile accident in some ways marks the end of an era: Abstract Expressionism in its ascendancy. What follows it is art stripped of any overarching esthetic or political goals. People like Andy Warhol capture this postmodernist--and I use this term advisedly--mood perfectly.
In my next post, I want to explore how the radical art movement of the 1930s lingered on into the 50s and early 60s and shaped our contemporary culture. This story of how this reconfigured popular front culture influenced not only the new poetry movement, but other artistic forms as well, is a fascinating story. In a very real sense, the political and cultural world of the left wing of today has its roots in the Social Realism of the 1930s. My final post will consider the world of pop art, the avant-garde and the artist as entrepreneur.