The many masks of modern art

Something very wonderful happened in American art during the 1930s and early 1940s that we are just now beginning to appreciate again. It wasn't anything grand or noble, although grandeur and nobility played their parts in it, and neither was it of any real interest or significance beyond our shores. As a matter of fact, there are those who claim the whole thing was an artistic aberration, and that, while it may have had some value in a social and political sense, it had little or none as art.

What it was bore several names: social realism; depression art; art of the WPA; social-protest art -- as well as names specifying the exact kind of art it was. Thus, it became known, in a more limited sense, as urban realism, Regionalism, the American scene, even, for a particularly narrow and focused type of art, magic realism.

But whatever name it went by, it always had several basic characterizations. It depicted American life and landscape in a realistic fashion, and paid little or no attention to modernistic theories or ideals. And it did so with compassion and sympathy for the ''little people'' and the oppressed -- and with anger and judgmental fury against those in power, those who corrupted, and those who manipulated human lives for profit.

It was, in its simplest and most typical manifestation, social art, for it dealt primarily with people living out their daily lives, and did so in a fashion that stressed human and social values more than formal or aesthetic ones.

Now that, of course, is precisely where most of the resistance to this kind of art comes from, especially on the part of formalist critics who insist that any art not primarily concerned with formal values is at best illustrative art, and, at worst, not art at all.

This formalist argument was largely ignored during the pre-World War II period, however, partly because the American art world was feeling wonderfully free of dominance by European modernism, and partly because of art critic Thomas Craven's passionately evangelical defense of home-grown American art. Craven, and to a lesser degree, Thomas Hart Benton, thundered and railed against modernism, abstraction, and the ''effeminate'' excesses of modern European art in general. Their voices, combined with a remarkable upsurge of interest in art produced by and for small rural and crowded urban communities, resulted in a general agreement that red-blooded Americans should only paint or sculpt truly American themes and things.

With the end of World War II, however, things began to change rapidly and dramatically. By 1946 or so, the era of social art was basically at an end, Craven was almost forgotten, Benton's reputation had begun its long slide downward, and a new form of painting that would be known as Abstract Expressionism was about to take center stage.

While it lasted, however, social art had a major impact on American society and upon Americans' perceptions of themselves. Thanks largely to the WPA, which attempted to cope with unemployment and economic stagnation by putting artists to work on various projects, art, for the first time in this country, became truly available to the general public. It found its way into the most remote rural regions and into the most overcrowded of urban communities in the form of murals in local post offices and other government buildings, exhibitions of paintings (produced by both professionals and unskilled local artists) as well as fine prints by celebrated printmakers. These prints were often put up for sale for as little as $5 each.

It has been estimated that roughly thirty-six hundred artists created sixteen thousand works of art under the auspices of the Federal Art Project alone and that those paintings, sculptures, and prints were seen in a thousand cities and towns. These federally sponsored and funded projects -- as well as the cultural climate they fostered -- were of profound significance in helping shape an entire future generation of artists. Arshile Gorky, Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, Jack Levine, Philip Guston, and Jackson Pollock -- to name only a few of the more outstanding figures -- were among those whose art had roots in the social art of this era.

It is my opinion that the solemn, moody, and fiercely ''honest'' qualities of Abstract Expressionism in its early days derived to a considerable extent from the spirit of the social art of the 1930-45 period and that, without this brooding and passionate heritage, the art of Pollock, Rothko, Kline, would have been quite different from what it was.

At any rate, the American painters, sculptors, and printmakers responsible for social art took great pride in the fact that what they produced could be understood and appreciated by everyone. There was very little, if any, feeling on the part of these artists that what they were painting was ''above the heads'' of the farmers who came to see their shows or of the laborers who stood beneath their post office murals.

Even such a celebrated painter as John Steuart Curry accepted advice from farmers on how to make corn look more ''real'' and on how to give a wagon full of hay a more authentic look. And Ben Shahn, who at this time was as much a photographer as he was a painter, worried as much about getting the hat on a worker to look appropriately old and worn as about the compositional structure of his paintings.

It was a time when picturemaking was largely a matter of storytelling; of the affectionate recording of local places or events; the portrayal of social injustices; the glorification of labor and the simple life; the depiction of the effects of natural disasters such as sandstorms and floods; and the projection of political ideals. If abstraction reared its head at all, it was in the patterning of such modernist trained painters as Benton and Lozowick, and in the geometrically designed murals which dogma decreed had to be severely flat in order not to ''violate the flat integrity of the walls.''

It's not that ''art'' was forgotten, only that it was perceived in a different way. If such an artist as Benton turned against modernism, it was not because he couldn't understand it, or hadn't enjoyed doing it, but because he saw its goals as shortsighted and self-serving. And the same was true of many others who found in social art a chance to use their talents for what they understood to be the greater good of mankind.

The wonderful thing is that so much of this art was alive, pulsating, passionate -- and socially, politically, and humanly authentic. If that weren't the case, I doubt very much that the current revival of interest in this art would be taking place. Why else, but for its lively and passionate authenticity, its sharp and clear reminder of a time when life was quite different, would it now be the subject of various museum and gallery shows, and have stirred the interest of collectors and dealers? Such interest cannot be the result of social art's extraordinary formal qualities or for its stylistic experimentations, since such things were, at best, of secondary importance.

Among the hundreds of painters working quite successfully at that time was a Polish-born New Yorker named Philip Reisman. In any exhibition of social art, his paintings stand out for their intense emotional focus, their lively handling of paint and the complexity of their composition. He was never afraid of any subject, be it the Ku Klux Klan or Nazi Germany, or of any complicated and hard-to-paint city scene. We feel, while looking at his paintings, that he painted as directly and as freely as he walked and talked, and that what we see in his canvases actually happened and actually looked pretty much the way it is depicted.

Unlike the vast majority of social artists of 1930-45, however, Reisman is still busily at work today. His recent canvases may not be quite as angry as some of those painted over forty years ago, but they are still every bit as much concerned with the depiction of what he sees and feels, with a vision of art that communicates experience in the most direct and immediate fashion possible. And with the creation of an art that places human and social values above purely formal or experimental ones.

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