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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Social Realism

Jersey Homestead Mural, 1936, Ben Shahn
As artists today, we sometimes long for the times in the past when the work of painters had an impact upon their own world at large. We long for a time when a major painting might "shake up" the social and political powers by awakening within the general population some spark of outrage that would, in turn, bring about some long-needed demand for change, thus improving the overall well-being of generations to come. WOW! Wouldn't it be great if a painter could do that today? Sadly, it's not going to happen. A painter hoping to do such work today would find himself holding one-man shows in his own attic. A gallery attempting to promote such work today would have to serve some very good cheese and extremely expensive wine to garner much of a crowd at an opening. A collector of such work would have to be either very gullible or very shrewd beyond all reason, caring little about contemporary tastes or what his or her heirs might do with the stuff when he died. It's unlikely any major museum would be much interested in such a bequest.

Nazi Interrogation, 1936, George Grosz
Today, an artist hoping to make such an impact would hardly choose paint on canvas. He'd probably go with film or video, or more likely, a Web site where his disturbing visual creation could be seen easily by millions in a medium allowing them to manipulate the work and respond to it electronically. Still we can reminisce. Alas, those were the "good old days." Those were the days of Social Realism. didn't know it had a name? Not only that but it had artists, men such as Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn  (top), Jack Levine (below), George Grosz (above), and others. We might more accurately call it Depression Art, because it coincided almost perfectly with the economic and social turmoil of the 1930s, before television usurped art's visual impact and movies were still shackled by the iron hand of self-imposed censorship and the Hayes Commission.

Gangster's Funeral, 1952-53, Jack Levine,
perhaps the funeral of Social Realism as well,
attended (but not mourned) by TV and
Abstract Expressionism.

Social Realism was the last great art movement before the Abstract Expressionists took over and moved creative expression into the esoteric, intellectual, and aesthetic stratosphere where artists painted only for other artists, critics, or cultured effetes. It was a time when Hopper could paint a corner coffee shop at two a.m. and cause people to realize how cold and lonely urban life could be in the midst of a population numbering in the millions. It was a time when Shahn could paint his outrage at a lack of safety precautions causing underground mine disasters in West Virginia, or the outcome of a famous trial with The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. (In contrast, we saw no such paintings after the OJ Simpson trial, did we?)  It was a time when Jack Levine could bring the light the political corruption that took place just beneath the surface of polite society as in his The Gangster's Funeral.  George Grosz captured the same look in the ugly, fat faces of his 30s Nazis. Today, we painters make no pretense about changing anything more serious than the public's taste for teal and mauve. We wouldn't dare paint anything predicated on offending "political correctness." Today, despite our nostalgia for the "good old days," we are a spineless bunch.

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