Art With Humanitarian Aims

BEN SHAHN By Frances K. Pohl With Ben Shahn's writing Pomegranate Artbooks Paper: $35 Cloth: $50 168 pp.

ONE thing that can be said for certain about Ben Shahn is that he was an artist with a social conscience. He believed that art that lacked this dimension - of moral responsibility, of compassion for humanity - lacked an essential component.

But to categorize in any precise way the art of this Lithuanian-born, American Jew-ish artist is not an easy matter. In 1961, he observed in an interview: ``I've been called a surrealist; I've been called an expressionist; I've been almost called a cubist, a primitive, a social realist, an unsocial realist, etc., etc. So I don't know where to put myself.''

In fact, it must be to Shahn's credit that he cannot be pigeon-holed. There is perhaps something of each of the labels to be found in his work. On the other hand, he was clear about the one thing that he was not. He was not an abstract artist. He did, however, apply the word ``abstract'' to his work as a verb: He ``abstracted'' his ideas for a painting, by which he seems to have meant that he strove to arrive at the elemental and essential in his imagery.

Shahn almost always expressed himself in images of figures in settings, and he searched, sometimes by long self-critical interplay between himself and his developing painting, for what would seem the most telling and emotionally stirring relationship between the figures and their settings. If he worked from memory or from a photograph, in his final picture the imagery always moved out of mere realism and into the imaginative realm. In later paintings, he often worked in the symbolic without preliminaries.

The rudiments of painting or drawing or printmaking - colors, shapes, forms, lines, relationships of near and far, the sense of pictorial space, balance of composition - all served Shahn as tools, but not as ends in themselves. For these rudiments to become the self-sufficient totality of a painting was, in his view, simply not going far enough with the potential of art. Such a limited aim would abandon the human element that, he felt, was all-important.

In the 1950s, Shahn emphatically voiced his fervor on behalf of what he called ``humanistic art.'' For one university audience, he set out the polarities as he saw them: ``Of our fine art there are two main streams, one humanistic, necessarily asking the question, `to what end?', greatly concerned with the implications of man's way of life; the other, the abstract and nonobjective, absorbed in its own plastic problems, and not involved with the human prospect.''

Though it is certainly questionable that abstract art was ever concerned exclusively with ``its own plastic problems,'' it was perfectly clear where Shahn's own concerns lay. Even he concluded that ``it is not the survival of art alone that is at issue, but the survival of the free individual and a civilized society.'' It is revealing that he did not oppose abstract art by simply advocating realism. Realism alone was not inevitably any more humanitarian than abstraction.

What it came down to in the end was ``dedication.'' Shahn set forth this idea in an interview with writer Selden Rodman: ``Truth in art,'' he said, ``as in the sciences, is unqualified. It's above expediency or special ends. It's wherever the free intelligence finds it. Whether on the most trivial level or on the most humanly profound level, its artistic discipline is confined to its own intentions. Not to irrelevant social aims. Not to irrelevant aesthetic laws. It's not in the finality of truths discovered either. It's in a kind of dedication - an ability to be attached to objectives wholly outside of any self-concern. Lots of our economic and scientific truths may look absurd centuries from now. But not the true work of art. The kind of dedication which is innate within it doesn't change.''

Shahn was conscious throughout his career, which started with his first public recognition in the early 1930s and continued until his death in 1969, of swimming against the current. It was not comfortable, but to him it was right. He could never abandon the conviction that art must confront the feelings and lives of ordinary people.

This conviction took him into areas of endeavor that, to the kind of artist who works alone in his studio while the world outside does whatever it does regardless, would have seemed anything but dedication to the pure ends of art. He depicted various famous cases of injustice, like the Dreyfus Affair, the 1920s murder trial in Massachusetts of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the mistrial of the labor organizer, Tom Mooney in 1916. He made posters and murals in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt's ``New Deal.'' He made anti-Nazi posters during World War II.

So it was not always true that Shahn's work avoided espousal of ``social aims,'' though presumably when he did make such works that were openly persuasive, socially idealistic, or even propagandist, he did not believe such aims to be ``irrelevant.'' Over the years, he changed his practice of such public art to a more private symbolism. Yet he still felt that the separation of art from concern with the world's attitudes and problems was quite misled. He would cite Giotto (an artist he continually voiced his admiration for) to challenge those artists who believed that a work of art had to be so universal that it should be completely independent of reference to a specific event.

``You guys,'' he is recorded as saying to a group of such artists, ``are just afraid of being emotionally involved in anything bigger than yourselves! ... Is Giotto's `Entombment' more meaningful if you don't know who's being buried...? Has Picasso's `Guernica' nothing to do with the senseless destruction of war? Every work of art means more to one the more one knows about its subject.''

Shahn would not abandon the resonance that occurs between a painting and what the viewer brings to it as previous knowledge or experience. All the same, he did progressively work on a more subconscious level - more ``Surrealist'' even at times - as if moving from the specificity of a Giotto depicting the story of Jesus to the more general and allegorical approach of ``Guernica.''

Indeed, he went further, and made allegorical pictures that were meant as disturbing criticisms of the status quo or of what he felt was broadly wrong with his times, not even attached to a notorious event like the bombing of Guernica. He gave titles to such works as ``Epoch'' and ``Age of Anxiety.''

The gradual change in the artist's work is helpfully charted in a new book, ``Ben Shahn,'' by Frances K. Pohl. That this is the ``first monograph in twenty years'' on the artist is an indication of the degree to which a reputation can fall out of favor.

In 1954, Shahn, along with Willem de Kooning, represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. His work was given intelligent analysis in Sam Hunter's 1959 book ``Modern American Painting and Sculpture.'' Ten years later, although he was honored with one reproduction in Barbara Rose's book ``American Painting,'' the author was brief and dismissive of him in her text, lumping him together with other painters who ``continue the Ashcan School tradition of searching the city for picturesque themes.'' She called them ``academic'' and said they hoped to make ``paintings as great as those of the Renaissance'' by attempting ``to use Renaissance techniques like tempera.'' ``Unfortunately,'' she concluded, ``all they usually achieved was a pastiche of the styles of the past.'' In the 1986 edition of H. W. Janson's ``History of Art,'' Shahn didn't even warrant a mention.

Shahn may not have been ignored quite as entirely as this suggests, partly for the very reason that many of his images have had an uncannily potent way of establishing themselves in general consciousness - which was exactly his intention. Such pictures as ``Liberation,'' in which three children swing with fantastic abandon round a pole with a background of bombed buildings, is one of those visual achievements that can lodge indelibly in memory. So is his 1939 painting ``Handball,'' with youths playing against a blank wall in a deprived area of New York City.

His images of Sacco and Vanzetti, and of different people connected with the Tom Mooney scandal, also fix themselves in the mind with their combination of satire, sympathy, and documentation-in-retrospect. (He painted this series in 1933, long after the event, although the unfortunate protagonists, Mooney and Billings, remained in prison until 1939).

This new book is a welcome representation of Shahn, both of his art and his highly intelligent writings about art. Although he emerges as an intensely serious artist, Barbara Rose's charge of excessive ambition is unfair. If he invoked the name of Giotto, it was surely not to claim that he was that artist's equal.

But Shahn still stands out as an artist who obstinately pursued his own goals regardless of whether they were acceptible to the taste-setters of the art world or not. He was commercial, propagandist, or populist as it suited him, openly so, which may well have been more honest than some of his contemporaries who paradoxically wanted, but did not want, success. He was never an artist who proposed the comfortable or the hedonistic in his art, but his expressiveness was not meant to be obscure.

Shah's various paintings of musicians, in line with most of his work, have to do with the anguish and longing of humanity rather than serenity or joy. He himself compared his depictions of jazz with the colors and forms into which artists like Henri Matisse or Stuart Davis translated this evocative subject. Shahn's approach seems much closer to a cartoonist's or a book illustrator's, yet it has no less a capacity to make the viewer almost hear the sounds issuing from clarinet or trombone.

One subject or image that persistently recurs in Shahn's work in a great variety of manifestations is the hand. The human hand became a uniquely expressive instrument of his vision. One way to investigate the feelings and intentions of his art is to turn the pages of this new book and look for the hands - hands gesturing in protest or despair, hands playing music, hands plunged into pockets, hands clasping, clutching, embracing. In the extraordinary eloquence of finger and knuckle and fist, Ben Shahn's art found unforgettable means and meanings. And nothing could be less ``abstract'' - or more human - in its significance than a hand.

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