Reading Red: Art & Social Revolution

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

Alan Wald

THROUGHOUT MUCH OF the 20th century, distinguished painters and muralists were habitually adjoined to revolutionary movements, sometimes producing monumental works expressive of socialist dreams, as well as of the aims and struggles of working people and anti-fascist fighters. One thinks immediately of Spain’s Pablo Picasso (1881- 1973), Mexico’s Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and the Russian avant-garde of the early Soviet Union.

But what of the United States? Is there a comparable legacy here? Who are the artists, what are their achievements, and how might they be evaluated?

Between the publication of Donald Drew Egbert’s pioneering Socialism and American Art: In Light of European Utopianism, Marxism and Anarchism (1952; revised and expanded, 1967) and the year 2000, there was only a rivulet of books on the subject matter. These were primarily limited to addressing sundry aspects of radical iconography in the Great Depression. Among the most noteworthy are Cécile Whiting’s Anti-Fascism in American Art (1989) and Barbara Melosh’s Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater (1991).

Artists on the Left

In 2002, however, there appeared Andrew Hemingway’s Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926-1956, a work surpassing all previous scholarship about Marxism and the visual arts in the United States. Hemingway, a Reader in the History of Art at University College London, provides an imposing synthesis in order to assemble a mosaic of individualized but confederated periods, careers and achievements.

Artists on the Left is a majestic study that sets a high standard for Marxist as well as all other scholarship, furnishing a research method and conceptual perspective elevating debate and understanding to a new plane. Moreover, this is a gorgeous volume, copiously illustrated with paintings, murals, and cartoons.

Hemingway roots the art of the committed cultural workers in the precise context of political strife that assisted in animating their visions, and without which their achievements can be neither appreciated nor understood.

His decision to employ the term “Communist” in relation to many mid-Twentieth Century artists — rather than simply “Left,” “Progressive,” or just “Radical” — is a refreshing move. This specificity assists in discerning more distinctly the sort of coherence and direction that characterized their cultural work, especially in regard to the artists’ vision of the inspirational Russian Revolution and the prevailing interpretation of Leninism.

Of course, the corollary to a candid use of the controversial term “Communist” is that the artists’ political affiliations and degree of involvement must be handled with subtlety and prudence.

Broad statements about “Stalinist art” may be simpler to expound, but they obscure the complex forces actually at work in the United States. Yet the category of “Stalinism” is crucial; the challenge is to handle it with care, inasmuch as a half- truth can become a lie.

In this respect, it is worth summarizing Hemingway’s double- edged view. He is outspoken that “The issue of Stalinism cannot be evaded in a study of this kind, and I do not agree with those historians of the American left who wish to discard the term because it has too often served as the cover for kneejerk anti-Communism in the U.S.”

To further clarify, Hemingway defines Stalinism broadly as “the policies and actions of the Soviet state and its satellites under Stalin,” and also “a distinctive form of pseudo-Marxist discourse that was fostered and partly enunciated by the Soviet leader from which it takes its name.” (4)

Turning next to the United States, Hemingway affirms that the U.S. Communist movement was subordinate to the USSR. Yet he also insists that the CPUSA fought “its own struggles under circumstances the Soviet party did not make.” In effect, the Communist movement was a focus for genuine aspirations for socialism, even though these were “warped through its dumb subservience to Moscow.” (4)

Institutions and Choices

What this means for the artists under discussion in Artists on the Left is that, even if the individual artist were a Party member or a personal admirer of Stalin, the outcome in relation to his or her art was not necessarily the practice of a “Stalinist aesthetic.” The artists, after all, were working in a society they regarded as pre- and not post-revolutionary, and they generally believed it necessary for their art to “draw on native American conditions — otherwise it could be neither popular nor effective.” (4)

In a compelling Introduction, too long to be fully quoted here, Hemingway makes his “Argument” that connections with the Communist movement varied according to the artist, and that the forms of cultural activity described then and now as “revolutionary art” and “social art” were fundamentally produced by the artists themselves — even if Communist institutions and ideology helped to create the milieu in which these artistic approaches thrived.

That is, Hemingway’s book “is premised on a model of individual agency that stresses the role of institutions and ideology in defining the parameters of subjective choices.” (3) His method focuses primarily on institutional and informal networks (publications, organizations, art shows, conferences), yet also allows for discussion of particular works as well as the survey of certain of the artists’ professional lives.

Three Critical Decades

Although Hemingway provides some brief background about the origins of the Communist movement, and an epilogue about the aftermath of the era, the heart of the book focuses on the dominant phase of U.S. Communism, which was also the major phase of the organization of the socialist and working class movement.

This commanding epoch is not conceptualized by Hemingway as the 1930s, customarily accentuated as the “hey-day” of American Communism. Although the 1930s played a peculiar and pivotal role in the formation of the tradition, Hemingway concentrates on a thirty-year era from the emergence of a dynamic and growing cultural Left in the late 1920s, all the way through the High Cold War and then the crisis of the international Communist movement in 1956-1957.

An attempt to resituate the radical cultural tradition beyond the 1930s was convincingly argued in preceding studies such as Paul Buhle’s Marxism in the USA: From 1870 to the Present Day (1987) and Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996).

Their crucial efforts to burst the bonds of more constrictive periodization need to be embraced, yet the new breadth of vision came at the cost of relinquishing some of the insight into the actual changing dynamics of the Left within that larger framework.

Moreover, the longer-range view of Communism tends to induce a lopsided evaluation of the Popular Front as predominantly a liberation from sectarianism and subordination to the USSR, rather than a shift in the terrain of ingrained contradictions.

Nonetheless, Hemingway is in agreement with Buhle and especially Denning that in cultural matters “the experiments of the Popular Front have remained crucial, since that was the era of most creative thinking.” (279)

Hemingway’s Artists on the Left convincingly breaks this quarter century into three sub-groupings, in some respects recalling earlier scholarship about Communism but also revitalizing the discrete components by displaying their complexity, contradictions and interconnections. These periods are:

1) The ultra-revolutionary “Third Period” of the first half of the 1930s, in which pro- Communist artists grappled with an alleged proletarian aesthetic, organized around the Communist-led John Reed Clubs, and laid the groundwork for Federal Arts Projects.

2) The post-1935 creation of the Popular Front with its theme of a “People’s Art,” its focus on anti-fascism, and its further involvement in the Federal Arts Project.

3) The era of the “Grand Alliance” of the USA and USSR against the Axis in World War II, followed by disintegration of the movement under the blows of McCarthyism as well as the trauma of the Khrushchev Revelations and the Soviet repression of the uprising in Hungary. (Hemingway traces some of the individuals and publications up to the early 1960s.)

Yet Hemingway is not merely engaged in the exercise of recovering Left-wing painting that has been neglected due to institutionalized “social amnesia” in the United States. He also fuses this project with an effort to demonstrate an effective materialist history of the Communist movement in relation to the visual arts, ultimately aiming to promote a reassessment of the political legacy under the formula “From a Better History to a Better Politics.” (282)

Proletarian Art and Modernism

Finally, Artists on the Left is an effort “to explain how a whole range of artistic production came to be consigned to museum stores and hidden away in little known private collections.” (3) One key aspect of this multifaceted book is simply to re-establish the presence of striking artwork that appeared in the pages of the Communist press and in exhibitions organized by the pro- Communist cultural workers.

If one’s mental image of “proletarian art” is of work predominantly dour and gray, the reproductions and descriptions provided by Hemingway are an effective antidote — starting with Wanda Gag’s “wonderful image of rearing skyscrapers,” in the March 1927 issue of New Masses, and the photographs by Tina Modotti that fronted four issues of that journal in 1928-29.

Even in the Daily Worker, there were artists who “represented an attempt to adapt experimental modernist techniques to graphic satire and political illustration.” (11)

Among the men and women represented and discussed by Hemingway are Hugo Gellert, Fred Ellis, Louis Lozowick, Phil Bard, Mitchell Siporin, Jacob Burck, Joe Jones, Joseph Solman, Walter Quirt, William Gropper, Eitero Ishigaki, Isabel Bishop, Reginald Marsh, Harry Sternberg, Philip Evergood, Hideo Noda, Peggy Bacon, Lydia Gibson, Sara Berman, Raphael Soyer, Aaron Douglas, Victor Arnautoff, Russell Limbach, Elizabeth Olds, Ida Abelman, Alice Neel, Edward Millman, Thomas Hart Benton, Charles White, Ben Shahn, Harry Gottlieb, Anton Refregier, Charles Keller, Antonio Frasconi, Jack Levine, Jacob Lawrence, Anthony Toney and Robert Gwathmey.

Publications discussed include the New Masses, Daily Worker, Art Front, Mainstream and Masses & Mainstream.

Institutions described include the John Reed Clubs, Federal Arts Project, American Artists’ Congress, Artists’ Union, American Artists School, American Group, ACA Gallery, Victory Workshop, Graphic Workshop, and the Committee for the Arts, Sciences and Professions.

Hemingway not only recapitulates the celebrated disputes about proletarian art and the authority of the Soviet Union’s theory of “socialist realism,” but also the impact of Mexican revolutionary art, the ideology surrounding Federally-sponsored Art, the controversial Waldorf Conference, the impact on art of the post-World War II literary debate precipitated by screenwriter Albert Maltz, and the impact of the political crisis of 1956-57.

Japanese-American artists and African- American artists receive special note. Hemingway displays a stunning mastery of a huge amount of neglected printed sources — radical journals, newspapers, internal reports, and even flyers and brochures for events. Yet he also stands apart from scholars, Right and Left, who intervene in Communist history for polemical reasons, merely to mine these sources for evidence by which to prosecute their cases.

Artists on the Left sifts through the materials to let the contradictions speak for themselves. Hemingway then combines these published materials with oral histories, the examination of correspondence, and of course his own fabulous commentaries on the art.

The result of such painstaking labor is a work of art itself, remarkable for its fashioning of all of this material into a lively and coherent narrative that manages to incisively characterize developments while paying careful attention to details.

Artists on the Left is not simply an encyclopedia or a list of key names, but living history that offers a critical perspective. While the reproductions of paintings, graphics, and sculpture in the book speak for themselves in terms of demanding reclamation as authentic art, Hemingway also provides nuanced appraisals without adhering to any particular aesthetic dogma.

At times he is harshly critical, as in his judgment of Hugo Gellert’s 1934 Capital in Lithographs:

“Capitalists are bloated money bags, labor power is clenched fists, the fertility of the earth is a pregnant woman.  The sequence is overwhelmingly banal, and Gellert’s only sign for the potential power of the working class is a distended and grotesque male musculature. With their small square heads and enormous fists, his workers look like storm troopers in overalls.” (49)

(At this point I must confess that years ago I purchased a used copy of Gellert’s volume, and on occasion peruse it in secret with great amusement.)

Yet Hemingway is not out to rank artists according to some hierarchy of aesthetic taste.  His view is that “aesthetic judgments are always impure and cannot be either effectively or usefully detached from other aspects of the subject’s experience and world-view.” (282)

Thus a more characteristic representation of Hemingway’s strategy of evaluation can be seen in his consideration of Raphael Soyer’s decision to represent nudes in the early 1950s “without any intimation of eroticism:”

His women are usually depicted as standing rather than in the reclining poses historically associated with seductive and post-coital situations that [Alice] Neel tended to employ for her nudes. They pose as if in a life class, and in spaces that are clearly recognizable as the studio. Rarely do they look towards the spectator, but rather appear to stare past him or her, as if absorbed in their own interior life, their naked persons matter of factly presented as part of a job of work. Often, they seem to project that “kind of moody emptiness” that Soyer saw as characteristic of individuals alone in the city. (244)

What this commentary reflects is not a “Marxist” political translation of the art, but Hemingway’s historical materialist negotiation of particular background factors pressing on Soyer’s artistic consciousness.

One of these factors was the gendered “power relations implicit in the artist/model relationship and encoded in traditional artistic forms.” Another was the “sense of women’s oppression [gained] from his involvement with the Communist movement and [Soyer’s] politically conscious wife,” yet mitigated by the lack of “any developed critique of the visual imagery of gender” in Party cultural circles.

In sum, the early Cold War nudes can only be fully apprehended if they are simultaneously understood as outgrowth of Soyer’s more Communist-inspired painting of women shop workers in the 1930s, and his images of dancers that portray them as workers, which “contain classically voyeuristic motifs of semi-dressed young women, as do more private works such as the Montclair Art Museum’s “After the Bath” (1946), which shows a woman with an exposed breast drying herself.” (243)

Abstract Expressionism Debate

Hemingway’s ultimate judgment about the reasons for the unfair decline in the reputation of the artists and of the kinds of art that comprise the pro-Communist tradition is largely based on a sharp polemic against the art theory developed to justify abstract expressionist painting during the Cold War. Hemingway characterizes this aesthetic as:

“the arid and narrow version of modernist theory codified after the Second World War, and its absolutist pretensions — an erosion which through an absurd pseudo-Hegelian logic claimed that the historical destiny of the aesthetic was concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of artists (almost invariably of European descent) in one or two cities in the United States, who alone were capable of art of universal significance.” (281)

This theory is most famously associated with the one-time Trotskyist art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), the premier advocate of painter Jackson Pollock. In subsequent years, the aesthetic precepts of the Greenberg school were modified but not replaced.

True enough, due to the African-American and feminist challenges of the 1960s, two of the artists from the Communist-led tradition — Jacob Lawrence and Alice Neel — were later able to break through the wall of silence to receive sustained scholarly studies and national exhibitions. Hemingway believes, however, that these exceptions occurred primarily because of the “political and cultural values associated with particular identity perspectives.” (281)

A similar argument against the pernicious effects of abstract expressionism and its theorists was the subject of a book-length study by Serge Guilbaut back in 1983, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War.
In 2003, an updated version formed the conclusion of Bram Dijkstra’s American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 1920-1950, a brilliant analysis that runs somewhat parallel to Hemingway’s.

Dijkstra’s focus, however, is not on the political category of Communism but the presentation of an argument for a unique form of United States “expressionism” (art depicting the emotions aroused, rather than objective reality) to which many pro-Communists, Populists and other radicals were drawn.

Dijkstra’s particular concern is those artists who grew up in urban ghettos and who were from family backgrounds in Eastern and Southern Europe, or who were African American and Asian American. His cast of characters overlaps considerably with Hemingway’s, and he treats this art as specifically “American” in its use of color systems and distortions of forms.

In Dijkstra’s view, too, abstract expressionism became the post-World War II instrument of right-wing business and government interests aimed at rolling back the social idealism of the preceding decades. Through the machinations of the art world, the work of the innovative left-wing expressionists was doomed to minor status once the latter became inaccurately amalgamated with the disparaged schools of regionalism and socialist realism.

Retrieving the Left

Whether the legacy of abstract expressionism and its defenders is so completely beyond the pale as to be unredeemable by any future socialist cultural workers is a question that requires further investigation. In the meantime, a swelling number of books about specific artists and geographic regions in the Left tradition surrounds the publication of the surveys by Hemingway and Dijkstra.

The University of North Carolina Press has produced two of the most handsome, Michael Kammen’s Robert Gwathmey: The Life and Art of a Passionate Observer (1999) and Samantha Baskin’s Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (2004). Indispensable for African American art is Amy Helene Kirschke’s Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance (1995).

Rockwell Kent, a fellow traveler of the USSR whose mystical regionalism places him outside the purview of Dijkstra’s American Expressionism, is the focus of Constance Martin’s Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent (2000).

Two exquisitely illustrated volumes with a West Coast focus are Anthony W. Lee’s Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals (1999) and Mark Dean Johnson’s At Work: The Art of California Labor (2003). The last mentioned is particularly noteworthy because it traces the theme of labor-oriented art multiculturally as well as from the late 1920s through the 1990s.

Murals for the Revolution

In regard to the continuity of the tradition, it is edifying to take note of the vibrant painting of labor activist and socialist Mike Alewitz, the subject of Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz (2002) by Alewitz and Paul Buhle.

Alewitz openly proclaims his allegiance to the traditions of the revolutionary Mexican muralists and the early Soviet avant- garde, as well as inspiration from many artists in the tradition of the United States cultural Left. His parents kept a Robert Gwathmey print on their apartment wall. A biographical narrative explains that Alewitz was a student at Kent State University in the 1960s who became active in SDS, the leading radical organization of that era.

He was next drawn to the Trotskyist groups Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party, where he was introduced to professional art work while participating in the “industrialization” program of the SWP. Alewitz eventually parted ways with the SWP following a dispute over the contents of a mural he painted for the SWP’s Pathfinder Press in New York City in 1989 (see Insurgent Images, 17).

This volume is published by Monthly Review Press, the foremost radical publishing house in the United States, and intersperses photographs from the activist political life of Alewitz with reproductions of his most influential murals.

Among the arresting features of this multi-faceted portrait of the artist are his international affiliations, his successful efforts to collaborate on many of his projects, and his capacity to felicitously blend an amalgamation of styles and references in his work. A choice illustration from Insurgent Images is Alewitz’s 1989 mural for the P-9 United Food and Commercial Workers strike in Austin, Minnesota.

Emerging from discussions with militant workers, the final version of the P-9 mural forcefully fused art from the Russian Revolution with images of strikes from the 1930s to address labor struggles of a new generation. In his life as well as his murals, Alewitz corroborates the notion that the hopes and dreams of an earlier generation of cultural workers, like IWW songwriter Joe Hill, “never died.”

ATC 117, July-August 2005