AMERICAN ARTISTS AND THE COMMUNIST PARTY
A Talk With Jane Kallir
Galerie St. Etienne, Midtown NYC
This exhibition mirrors a time in American history, when average people questioned our country’s direction. It looked as though capitalism was failing and other modes of government and lifestyles were being given a chance. The arts was viewed as a means to support these new ideologies and connect with a broader society. Just like today, people are questioning how to engage the common man or woman as well as the educated class. In the early 1920s and 30s, Communism was starting to take root and possibly grow. But abstraction (which was embraced at that time in NYC’s art world), was a problem for both hard-line Communists and conservatives. Soviet critics considered modernism a bourgeois affectation, and right-wingers considered it un-American. There was also a general sense that abstraction, associated with prewar French Cubism, had had its moment, and that the urgent need of the present demanded a return to realism. Stylistically, the gritty work of the social realists and the idealized landscapes painted by the more reactionary Regionalists were quite similar.
Many artists on the left were partial to modernism. Louis Lozowick incorporated Cubist elements in his depictions of the urban scene and was taken to task by the Communist publication New Masses for being “arty.” George Grosz, a member of the German Communist Party who had begun teaching at the Art Students League shortly before Hitler’s election and wisely decided to stay on in New York, was a significant influence. The exaggeration and emotional intensity of Expressionism shaped Gropper’s scathing caricatures, as well as the graphic language of Ward’s wordless novels and the painterly pathos of Philip Evergood and Jack Levine. Stuart Davis was at pains to reconcile Marxist ideology with his personal allegiance to abstraction. “In its internal form and its external relation to reality,” he hoped, “modern art could stimulate radical change in the political and economic structure of America.”
The need to remedy capitalism’s failings created common ground between the U.S. government and the radical left. The “New Deal” was a gambling metaphor, derived from a political cartoon illustrating a poker game among a “crooked politician,” “big biz” and a “speculator.” Roosevelt believed the Depression had been caused by excessive speculation, and that a sound economy rests on productive labor and earned wages. By this reckoning, artists in a market economy are speculators in their own work, hoping for windfall profits that may or may not materialize. “The number who attempt to become artists have no discernable ratio to the demand for art,” explained Forbes Watson, an advisor to the Public Works of Art Project. Paying artists a steady wage would transform them from gamblers into honest professionals. “It may sound dull and bourgeois to remove the artist from the high plane of romantic finances…down to the lower work-a-day plane,” Watson averred. “On the contrary, knowing what is going to happen to him materially [frees] his imagination.”
The radicalization of the American art world was not without its critics, nor was Roosevelt’s New Deal uncontroversial. The conservative Art Digest, which favored Regionalism, branded the American Artists’ Congress a “potential tool of the Communist Party.” In 1938, Martin Dies, chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, began attacking the WPA for suspected Communist infiltration. Roosevelt’s progressive allies suffered a significant defeat in the mid-term elections that same year, and support for the government’s art programs subsequently diminished. In 1940, as the nation began preparing for war, Cahill suggested that the Federal Arts Project redirect its energies to decorating military bases and designing propaganda posters. The Arts Project limped on in this mode until 1943, when it was shut down along with the rest of the WPA.
Excerpts from Galerie St. Etienne