Thursday, 20 April 2017 09:15

A weapon in the class struggle: American artists and the Communist Party

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A weapon in the class struggle: American artists and the Communist Party

Jane Kallir focuses on the relationship of 1930s American artists to the Communist Party. 

In the 1930s, the Great Depression’s far-reaching economic impact lent credence to the Marxist belief that capitalism was doomed. Membership in the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA) swelled, and artists became increasingly politicized. The near total collapse of the art market fostered interest in alternative modes of patronage. Recognizing that, even in good times, the elitist art establishment showers its favours on a mere handful of creators, artists cultivated new audiences and a broader relationship with society at large. At the heart of this quest were issues that bedevil artists to this day. Whom does art serve? By whom and by what standards should it be judged? For a brief period, artists tried to conjure an art world beyond the reach of the capitalist marketplace.

A weapon in the class struggle

From the outset, the Communist Party, both in America and abroad, viewed art as “a weapon in the class struggle,” but the specifics of its aesthetic program were subject to vagaries of interpretation and the shifting priorities of the Soviet leadership. In addition to using art for propaganda purposes, Communists hoped to develop a distinctive workers’ art, free of “bourgeois decadence” and the conflicts engendered by capitalism. In the U.S., these efforts were initially driven by the Party’s culture magazine, New Masses, and its offshoot, the John Reed Club. Founded in 1929 and named after a cofounder of the CPUSA, the John Reed Club aimed to unite “cultural workers” in furtherance of the “international revolutionary labour movement.” Responding to “a crisis in art as deep, if not as obvious, as the economic crisis,” Club members would wrest control of culture from the elite and re-establish it on a sounder social footing.

JK John Reed club

Demonstration by the John Reed Club

In keeping with the directives of the Communist International (Comintern) , the John Reed Club initially disdained any sort of association with the bourgeoisie. But after Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin adopted a more expansive tone designed to enlist the support of Western democracies in fighting fascism. The new Party line, dubbed the Popular Front, was announced at the Comintern’s Seventh World Congress in August 1935. At around the same time, a representative of the CPUSA’s Central Committee advised the John Reed Club (of which there were by now about thirty chapters) to broaden its reach by bringing “intellectuals into closer contact with the working class.”

Over the course of the spring and summer of 1935, leaders of the John Reed Club’s New York branch met repeatedly at the ACA Galleries to discuss forming a more inclusive artists’ association. Stuart Davis was appointed executive secretary; Hugo Gellert, Louis Lozowick, Ben Shahn and Lynd Ward were also among those who helped craft the new organization’s agenda. Its goals included improving ties between artists and the general public, encouraging government patronage, support of expressive freedom and opposition to war and fascism. An initial “Call for Artists” was published in New Masses in October 1935, and in February 1936, the American Artists’ Congress held its first public meeting in New York City.

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American Artists' Congress by Stuart Davis, 1936

The American Artists’ Congress was one of many Communist “front” organizations (a concept derived from the term Popular Front) that proliferated in the 1930s and thereafter. Although artists such as Gellert, William Gropper, Lozowick and Raphael Soyer had early ties to the Communist Party, a front organization by definition aimed to attract less radical associates. Party discipline could be harsh, and membership required frequent meetings as well as participation in seemingly endless pickets and demonstrations. Many artists therefore preferred to remain “fellow travelers,” rather than join up.

Abstraction vs. realism

In the interest of preserving “collective solidarity,” the Artists’ Congress refused to take sides in the stylistic debates then roiling the art world. Abstraction, comprehensible neither to the proletariat nor to most Americans, 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 exigencies 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.

Nonetheless, many artists on the left were partial to modernism. Lozowick incorporated Cubist elements in his depictions of the urban scene and was taken to task by 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.”

JK Stuart Davis Abstraction 1937

Abstraction by Stuart Davis, 1937

Davis’s commitment to social justice was expressed primarily in written polemics and organizational activities. The latter in fact usurped so much time that his artistic output declined noticeably in the 1930s. Other politically oriented artists expressed their convictions more directly in paintings, drawings and prints. Gropper and Lozowick (a Ukrainian immigrant) visited the Soviet Union and returned with visions of a dawning workers’ paradise, which artists compared to what New Masses termed “hell on the Hudson.” The inequities of the capitalist system—the brutal suppression of striking laborers, the lynching of African Americans, the unjust execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti—were explored in searing detail. Hortatory posters and cartoons spelled out the issues. Images of heroic workers, bloated fat cats and corrupt politicians viscerally illustrated the divide between labour and capital, while the privations of the Depression were another common subject.

The Artists’ Union is formed

If the Depression-era art world remained divided on matters of style, content and ideology, there was relative unanimity regarding the artists’ economic plight. Artists insisted they be accorded the same benefits as other unemployed workers. In 1933, members of the John Reed Club organized the Unemployed Artists’ Group and issued a manifesto demanding that the government “eliminate once and for all the unfortunate dependence of American artists upon the caprice of private patronage.” In 1934, the Roosevelt administration established the Public Works of Art Project, the first of several New Deal programs designed to aid artists. The Unemployed Artists’ Group subsequently changed its name to the Artists’ Union, which throughout the 1930s represented artists in occasionally violent negotiations with their government employers.

The need to remedy capitalism’s failings created common ground between the U.S. government and the radical left. “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.”

Implicit in all the arts programs established by the Roosevelt administration was the belief that art is integral to a functioning democratic society and therefore an appropriate target for government intervention. Holger Cahill, who ran the WPA’s Federal Art Project, heralded a welcome return to the “tradition of art patronage which existed during the Renaissance and Middle Ages.” Cahill, Watson and their government colleagues recognized not only that the capitalist art market had failed, but that it fostered an unhealthy distance between artists and the general public. Artists would be reintegrated into the social fabric through the government’s employment initiatives, and public appreciation of art would be furthered through local arts centers and other educational programs. Bringing the artist “into…closer touch with his community,” Watson said, would “result in a…deeper interpretation of American life in art.” Art should be judged by its “serviceability to the community.” Davis concurred. “Art values,” he said, “are social values.” By mutual agreement, artists of the left and their WPA sponsors favored accessible art forms such as murals and prints over easel painting.

The tide turns

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.

Many of the issues that united left-wing artists during the Depression ceased to be of relevance after World War II. The demise of the government’s prewar patronage programs returned control of artistic production to the capitalist marketplace. Under these circumstances, it seemed ridiculous for artists to identify with other manual laborers, and easel painting once again took precedence over more accessible forms like murals. Most devastating to the American left was the government’s aggressive hunt for alleged Communists, which escalated with the Cold War. Artists who had perhaps drifted into, and then out of, the Communist Party, who had been loosely affiliated sympathizers or just members of the broadly inclusive American Artists’ Congress were all suspect.

The mainstream museums that had supported left-wing artists in the 1930s and ‘40s quietly dropped them from their programs. The Museum of Modern Art was accused of kowtowing to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist demagoguery by shifting its focus almost exclusively to non-objective art.

Postwar formalism entailed a pronounced contempt for the democratization processes that had previously preoccupied the art world. Greenberg wrote off the masses as “more or less indifferent to culture.” Bypassing the art establishment, Shahn, Baskin and more recently Sue Coe engaged a broad public directly through prints, books and illustrations, but it didn’t matter, because that public didn’t matter. And yet, as Coe makes clear in her vast body of work, the inequities produced by unrestrained capitalism are as socially destructive today as they were in the 1930s. The problems of poverty, unemployment, political corruption and racism remain unsolved. What most Americans, including nominal Communists and fellow travellers, wanted during the Depression is what most Americans still want and need: the fulfillment of the democratic promise, equality of opportunity and justice for all.

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Jane Kallir

Jane Kallir is co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne, New York.