[The first portion of this essay appeared in our previous issue, ATC 177, and is online at >www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/4467.]
THE FORM OF visual art illustrated in New Masses and exhibited at the John Reed Club’s art exhibitions that corresponded most closely to Mike Gold’s literary practice, and that of the worker writers, was represented by artists such as Philip Reisman and Raphael Soyer. Not coincidentally, both were like Gold the children of Jewish immigrants, though unlike them Gold was born in the United States.
Reisman — whose father worked in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side — quit high school after his first term and took part-time jobs as a soda jerk and waiter while studying at the Art Students’ League. In 1927-28 he learnt etching from Harry Wickey and made his own printing press out of “an old colander machine.” Over the next two years he made 62 etchings, around half of which were scenes of working-class life on the Lower East Side. Two of these — A Worker’s Clinic and The Working Class Mother — were illustrated in New Masses in August 1928, and three more were published in the magazine in the early ’30s.
Reisman also probably showed two prints at the November 1932 exhibition at the American Contemporary Art Gallery, “Twenty John Reed Club Artists on Proletarian and Revolutionary Themes” and five at the Club’s “Social Viewpoint in Art” exhibition in early 1933. I say “probably” because from the title alone one can’t be sure of a work’s medium and sometimes Reisman treated the same motif in both print and oil painting.
Some of Reisman’s prints are strikingly close to Gold’s imagery in Jews Without Money: I quote Gold:
“The street never failed them. It was an immense excitement. It never slept. It roared like a sea… People pushed and wrangled in the street. There were armies of howling pushcart peddlers.” “In the maelstrom of wagons, men, pushcarts, street cars, dogs and East Side garbage, the mothers calmly wheeled their baby carriages. They stopped in the shade of the Elevated trains, to suckle their babies with big sweaty breasts.”(1)
This is precisely the realm of social phenomena depicted in The Working Class Mother (fig. 2) and Peddlers Under the “L” (both 1928).
Reisman’s prints lack dexterity. His figures are often disproportioned and not convincingly articulated, his perspective structures are haphazard and almost invariably out of true. Yet this crudeness maybe gave the prints the quality of immediacy and authenticity Gold was looking for in Workers’ Art. Moreover, Reisman’s work found some surprising admirers. Alfred Stieglitz bought some of his etchings and Lincoln Kirstein praised his paintings for their authenticity in the avant-garde magazine Hound and Horn.(2)
Politics seldom enters Reisman’s prints directly — we get a taste of it in the mutilated veterans performing tricks on bicycles in Exercise and Keep Cheerful and the satirical reference to Hoover in the title — but the representation of a meeting in Union Square (fig. 1) suggests no more than a generalized solidarity and is equivalent to Gold’s weak conversion experience on the last page of Jews Without Money.(3)
Raphael Soyer, my other example, came from a modest middle-class background. His father was a scholar and teacher, and the Soyer family lived in the Bronx, not the Lower East Side. Like Reisman he supported himself with part-time jobs while studying first at the Cooper Union and then at the National Academy of Design. So far as I can discover, Soyer exhibited only three works at the John Reed Club exhibitions — although in his recollections he emphasized how important the club had been in helping him “to acquire a progressive world outlook.”(4) He showed a lithograph or a drawing with the title No Help Wanted at the 1932 show, and an exhibit titled Park Bench in early 1933. I haven’t found a catalog for the third exhibition in which he showed.(5)
Far more technically sophisticated than Reisman’s prints, Soyer’s Waterfront (fig. 3) — a 1934 lithograph based on a painting he had made in 1932 — is highly calculated in the way it uses perspective and chiaroscuro to suggest listless inactivity and boredom in a stilled and oppressive dockyard landscape. The vertical axis of the idle crane contrasts with the recumbent posture of most of the figures. The advertising slogans are irrelevant in a world without work. Steep perspective lines bring us to an abrupt halt in a striking contrast between dynamism and stasis.
The title Park Bench suggests the motif of Soyer’s important 1934 painting In the City Park — a motif that was already schematically present in a lithograph of 1930 — although that image depicted Washington Square, not Union Square. In the City Park is likely to be the same painting as On the Public Square that Soyer exhibited at a commercial gallery on 57th Street in 1935. This too illustrates Soyer’s gift for using what seem orthodox naturalistic devices to unsettling effect.
The lack of clear spatial markers beyond scale, the cut-off of the foreground figures, the complex array of heads, the woman’s face on the billboard seeming to stare at us over their faces, are examples.(6) But Stephen Alexander, the New Masses art critic, gave it only lukewarm praise. Like “an increasingly large number of artists,” Soyer had been “strongly affected by the tragic spectacle of unemployment.” But his images of faces that showed “despair and resignation” did not “constitute a healthy tendency in revolutionary painting.”(7)
As Alexander’s critique indicates, in effect, art that represented proletarian miseries, however empathetically, might not meet the measure of Revolutionary Art, partly because it was often hard to distinguish from the small scenes of contemporary life by numerous artists working in a naturalist mode, loosely indebted to the Ashcan School, who did not subscribe to Communist politics.
Others involved with the Club also claimed proletarian identities but combined this with a more muscular concept of Proletarian Art that could also be classed as “Revolutionary.”
Jacob Burck was probably the paradigmatic proletarian artist of the New York John Reed Club.(8) Born Yankel Bochkowsky in Poland in 1904, Burck grew up in Cleveland where he attended the Art School before moving to New York on a scholarship in 1924. He began making cartoons for the Daily Worker in 1927 and in 1929 became the paper’s staff cartoonist.(9)
The Communist Party prided itself on its cartoonists and from 1926 to 1930 published annual volumes of Red Cartoons printed on good quality paper.(10) In the early 1930s Burck, Fred Ellis, and William Gropper were the foremost of these. Another cartoonist, Robert Minor, who was a member of the Communist Party’s Executive Committee, had provided the rationale for such art in an article of 1925 titled “Art as a Weapon in the Class Struggle” — a formulation that was a popular catch phrase in the years of the Third Period line.(11)
Such art impressed beyond communist circles. In 1934 the critic Sheldon Cheney wrote of the illustrations in the communist press, “there is nothing in the ‘regular’ press to approach the vitality of the drawings appearing in such newspapers as The Daily Worker and such magazines as The New Masses. I speak not of the human content alone, but of that joint plastic-formal and human-feeling expressiveness which alone can make this sort of thing lastingly significant.”(12)
Burck was singled out for special treatment in 1935 when the Daily Worker published a 250-page volume of his cartoons under the title Hunger and Revolt, with 11 essays by prominent communists and communist sympathizers including the British Marxist John Strachey and the French author Henri Barbusse, whose great autobiographical novel of the First World War, Le Feu (1916), was an international bestseller.
In his Introduction Barbusse claimed that the images in the book were not exaggerated but exact representations of the “monstrous beings” that made up contemporary reality: “It is necessary that you penetrate to this reality, that you see the truthful core of these presentations.”(13) A further illustration of Burck’s status was that in the fall of 1935 he traveled to the USSR for a spell of 18 months working as a cartoonist for Pravda.
But while Burck’s cartoons were one of his qualifications as a revolutionary proletarian artist, they weren’t the only one. Within the John Reed Club Burck had a reputation as a formidable polemicist who was widely read in the “history and theory of art.”(14) His occasional pieces in the Daily Worker certainly show him as a capable writer, and in 1935 he published an article “For Proletarian Art” as part of a debate in the American Mercury.
Burck did not counsel jettisoning the example of bourgeois artistic traditions, as Gold sometimes seemed to advise authors. Burck’s challenge for the proletarian artist was “to bring to life, with the aid of revolutionary social thought, the inanimate body of technical principles developed by the best of bourgeois civilization.” Even good examples of “art for art’s sake” could embody sound aesthetic principles, while Revolutionary art in an “unpalatable plastic state” could be called neither art nor propaganda. But the day of individualistic bourgeois art was over, the proletarian artist had to create an art informed by the collective social philosophy of Marxism.(15) In some mysterious way, that would presumably issue in new form.
The new form for collective philosophy, to Burck and many of his comrades, was the mural. This was partly because of the imposing example the Mexican Mural Renaissance provided of a modern revolutionary art seemingly directed at a mass audience.
Diego Rivera’s criticisms of the USSR and his associations with both Trotsky and the Communist Party’s Lovestonite Opposition made him a problematic model.(16) In a review of Rivera and Bertram Wolfe’s book Portrait of America in the Daily Worker in 1934, Burck attacked Rivera’s murals in the United States as “not much more than Sunday supplement rotogravure layouts compared with his compelling paintings of the Mexican Revolution.”(17)
However, many American Communists were drawn to the example of José Clemente Orozco — especially his Dartmouth College Murals; and despite his notorious apolitical stance he maintained friendly relations with New Masses and the John Reed Club. In 1935 the New Masses art critic described him as “the greatest artist of our time in the Western hemisphere.”(18)
David Siqueiros — the only committed Stalinist among Los Tres Grandes — spoke at least three times at the John Reed Club when he was in New York in 1934 for his exhibition at Delphic Studio and also spoke at the communist Film and Photo League.(19)
In its disjointed space, expressive distribution of lights and darks, and schematic facial features, the visual idiom of Burck’s 1934 lithograph The Lord Provides resembles that of Oroczo’s print Out of Work — which was one of four works by him shown at the John Reed Club’s Social Viewpoint in Art exhibition in 1933.(20) For all Burck’s denunciation of Rivera, the flowing rounded forms of the demonstrators supporting their dying comrade in Death of a Communist resembles that of Rivera’s figures in Drillers (1931), one of the portable fresco panels the artist had shown at his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art from December 1931 to January 1932.(21)
Death of a Communist was exhibited at the Society of Independent Artists’ Annual exhibition in 1932, and although almost certainly an oil painting, it has an upturned composition and very limited markers of pictorial depth that suggest a mural conception.(22) Revealingly, Cheney referred to it as a “mural.”
Amongst the nearly 1,000 works on exhibition at Grand Central Palace, Burck’s picture certainly caught the attention of Margaret M. Salinger, the reviewer for the College Art association’s magazine Parnassus.
“Communism dominates the interest of many of the exhibitors,” she wrote, and “the large picture by Jacob Burck… though poor in color, is strong and solid in its drawing and its action, and sets the note for this large group of paintings.” Although this judgment finds no echo in the other reviews of the show I have seen, Death of a Communist was praised in one of the most prestigious art magazines of the period.(23)
Unfortunately, we are not in a position to evaluate Burck’s work of this time. The fate of his five large panels on the theme of socialist construction in the USSR under the First Five Year Plan — which were shipped to Moscow for the office of Intourist — is unknown.(24) But they appear to have been blandly affirmative and to match the notion of “revolutionary romanticism” that Zhdanov and Gorky recommended at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934.(25)
It seems unlikely that Death of a Communist and related works survived Burck’s turn against communism in the late 1930s, or the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s attempt to deport him in the early 1950s for having entered the country illegally on his return from Moscow in 1936.(26)
The year 1935 marked the high point of the Communist Party’s attempt to forge a proletarian revolutionary art in the United States. In that year the party’s publishing house International Publishers — which had shown little interest in literary and artistic material(27) — published a substantial anthology of short stories, poetry, reportage, plays and criticism under the title Proletarian Literature in the United States, which went through three printings.(28) A New Masses competition for a novel on a proletarian theme was won by Clara Weatherwax’s Marching! Marching!, which, whatever its shortcomings, was certainly an attempt to conceive an experimental novel with a collective subject.(29) And in October New Masses marked the start of a new volume with a Revolutionary Art issue. However, the signs were not altogether auspicious.(30)
The one-page introduction to the New Masses issue, “Revolutionary Art Today,” is attributed to “Thomas S. Willison.” This is almost certainly a pseudonym and in my view the text was probably written by Meyer Schapiro, or by someone close to him. Certainly whoever it was had a high level of art-historical knowledge.
After comparing the situation of modern painters with that of writers, the author historicizes the lack of interest in the human subject in the work of Matisse and Picasso in terms similar to those Schapiro used in his paper on the “Social Bases of Art” given at the American Artists’ Congress early in the following year.(31) While their style had “historical necessity,” it did not have “the eternal validity that is claimed for it.”
But art was not simply a “synthesis of form and subject” and the talented modernist could not just inject a new content into his art. Part of the problem was that no “classic representations” of the “most striking and common aspects of the world he wishes to render” had yet been established. Thus when artists depicted “the demonstration, the picket line, and the unemployed, or… obvious personifications of the capitalist class,” they rendered them as spectacles: “the appearance or composition of the scene predominates over its inner life.”
Commonplace naturalism akin to the photographic snapshot also would not do. The artist “must develop, if he wishes to attain the desired intensity or comprehensiveness, formal devices which, while foreign to the snapshot appearance, are capable of widening and deepening the scope of the meanings in a representation.” The revolutionary cartoon and mural were exemplary, because while they were “much less realistic than the corresponding easel pictures and often recall the creations of abstract art… they are, in consequence, far more compact or extensive, pointed or thorough in their realism.”(32)
The 28 works illustrated hardly met Willison’s expectations. Indeed, one detects a note of disappointment in the issue’s Editorial. The magazine had reported in September that 250 artists had been invited to contribute; but in the event around 100 submitted works, which were judged by a committee of eight that included the modernist Stuart Davis along with familiar names such as Burck and the cartoonist Russell Limbach.
Some able revolutionary artists had not submitted, the Editorial noted, and then observed: “The reproductions… give only a partial view of the character of the art of American revolutionary painters and of artists who are concerned sympathetically with the same materials, but who are not revolutionary in standpoint.”(33)
Considering the 28 works illustrated by Willison’s criteria there was little that was “revolutionary.” The images of homeless and unemployed men by Raphael Soyer and Nikolai Cikovsky were highly accomplished examples of modern naturalism, but, as we’ve seen, such art was seen as lacking in revolutionary credentials. Through markers of an impending walkout Selma Freeman injected a hint of what critics often referred to as “the will to struggle” in her Strike Talk, (fig. 4) but it remains essentially a genre painting — as does George Picken’s Strike.
If Joe Jones’ Demonstration (fig. 5) seems to offer more, both formally and ideologically, it is partly because the artist’s rather crude — but nonetheless quite effective — modernist approach to pictorial space brings the work closer to a mural conception. Similarly, Siporin’s The Powderly Circular: Cyrus McCormick and Terence V. Powderly (fig. 6) — one of the remarkable series of drawings on the theme of the Haymarket Martyrs for an unrealized book of lithographs — were certainly related to his ambitions as a mural painter.(34) And Joseph Vogel’s America (fig. 7) is clearly a mural sketch.
The fact was, of course — and this remained unstated — that modest sized easel paintings, the market basis for most painters’ livelihoods, did not lend themselves to strong political statements. The character of paintings as a commodity form did not enter the discussions.
Neither did the concept of avant-garde. And this despite the fact that advanced work in cinema, theatre and music that treated revolutionary themes in technically innovative ways was readily available to American communists in New York and other northeastern cities. A skim through advertisements in the Daily Worker turns up showings of many of the most important Soviet films of the period: Eisenstein’s Potemkin and October; Pudovkin’s Mother and Storm Over Asia; Dovchenko’s Earth; Protazanov’s Aelita;(35) and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera,(36) among others.(37)
Equally impressive was the presence of advanced exercises in the political aesthetic from Germany. Pabst’s 1931 film version of Brecht and Weil’s Threepenny Opera was shown in April 1933 at the RKO Cameo at Broadway and 42nd Street, at the same time as Brecht and Slatan Dudow’s Kuhle Wampe, oder: Wem gehört die Welt?, with music by Hans Eisler, was showing at the nearby Empire Theatre.(38)
Brecht and Eisler were both in New York in person in 1935; there were concerts of Eisler’s music and Brecht’s Mother was performed by the Theatre Union. The theoretical positions of both were quite extensively reported.(39) Although there is less evidence of interest in German photography, painting and the graphic arts, Willi Münzenberg’s Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ) was certainly available in the years around 1930.(40)
On September 24, 1934 Siqueiros spoke on “the Future of Film“ at a symposium of the Film and Photo League; Meyer Schapiro was one of the panelists.(41) But although Burck reviewed Pudovkin’s Mother that same year,(42) I have found no published reflections by American revolutionary artists during the Third Period years on the profound challenges that developments in photography and film posed to notions of realism in the traditional visual arts — challenges that artists such as Dix, Grosz and Siqueiros so profoundly registered.
By comparison with communist criticism of literature, theatre and film in this period, commentary on the visual arts seems very thin, with the exception of Meyer Schapiro’s contributions. Whereas developments in Soviet literature were reported in detail, developments in the visual arts received scanty coverage. New Masses did not carry regular art criticism until the latter part of 1934,(43) and while Stephen Alexander’s art reviews are not without interest or insight, they offer no sustained reflections on the technical and formal challenges facing revolutionary art.
Communist critics, it seems, could write in quite complex ways about the challenges posed by the stream of consciousness novel, Eliot’s poetry, and Schoenberg’s music, but not about Cubism or Surrealism. Statements like Burck’s about the need to build on the technical discoveries of modernist painting did not rise above generalities.(44)
It was not until the 1934-35 years that writers capable of a more sophisticated technical criticism began to appear, first in the pages of the Artists’ Union magazine Art Front and later in New Masses. I am referring particularly to the critics Charmion von Wiegand and Charles Humboldt, and to artists such as Stuart Davis.(45)
The evidence suggests that there were strongly conflicting tendencies among communist-aligned artists during the Third Period years, but that those who were dominant in the New Masses and John Reed Club circles until 1933-34 were like the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) and their painter counterparts in the Association of Revolutionary Artists (AKhRR) in the USSR, those who asserted most violently their proletarian and revolutionary credentials and decried as mere fellow-travelers those whose works did not produce an immediate effect of militancy or political utility.
There was little basis for developing an aesthetically compelling art practice in this position; but in any case by 1935 the ground was sliding away under the feet of Revolutionary Art’s sectarian proponents. There were two factors at work here.
First, in the Soviet Union the policy of attacking bourgeois specialists and the accompanying Cultural Revolution were abandoned in 1931; indeed policy went into reverse. In the following year, RAPP was closed down along with AKhRR and all other artistic groupings by the so-called April Decree. The new slogan of “Socialist Realism” began to enter critical discourse around all the arts and effectively became the official party line with the Soviet Writers’ Congress in August 1934.
These developments filtered through into the pages of the Daily Worker and New Masses; the Soviet Writers Congress was extensively reported and its proceedings were partially published in English translation in 1935. In 1934, Joshua Kunitz, the party’s leading expert on Russian literature, published six articles in New Masses that began under the title “Literary Wars in the USSR,” to explain why RAPP had to be dissolved despite the services it had performed.(46)
The second and related factor was the dissatisfaction of senior party cultural organizers with the activities and character of the John Reed Clubs. One symptom of this is the complaint of the literary critic Granville Hicks in New Masses at the end of 1934 that John Reed Club members throughout the country were spending their energies putting out little revolutionary magazines that cost huge energy but often lacked a clear function.
Hicks thought the situation smacked of “Bohemian individualism and irresponsibility” and was “entirely incompatible with the serious tasks of revolution and the intelligent discipline of revolutionaries.”(47) Twelve months earlier, a New Masses editorial had praised these magazines as the “first seeds of the genuinely profound and variegated revolutionary culture” that heralded proletarian victory.(48)
Hicks’ comment heralded the change of line announced by Alexander Trachtenberg for the Central Committee of the Communist Party at the John Reed Club Convention in Chicago in September 1934. The delegates were effectively told that they should organize a National Congress of anti-fascist writers within the next eight months, and the artists should follow with a similar conference for artists. These organizations were to end the “opposition between the intellectuals of our movement and the party organizers.”(49)
Many of those present in Chicago may not have realized that this was also the end of the John Reed Clubs. Although the decision to phase out the Clubs and replace them with the League of American Writers and the American Artists’ Congress was not part of Popular Front tactics — the Popular Front wasn’t announced until Dimitrov’s speech to the Seventh Comintern Congress in August 1935 — it clearly anticipated them.(50) The needs of anti-fascist solidarity with sympathetic artists and writers of liberal and progressive views trumped the ambitions of those quixotically striving to build a proletarian revolutionary culture in the United States.(51)
Was a flourishing movement to forge a Revolutionary Art cut off in the bud by Communist Party fiat? I don’t think so. As we have seen the numbers involved were very small, and the theoretical and practical problems raised by such a project were never effectively addressed. In the end, Gold and his artist allies were deluded by their anti-Trotskyism — that reflex of triumphant Stalinism which they encountered at the Kharkov conference — into thinking that Trotsky’s judgment on Proletarian Culture was invalid.
Actually, the case Trotsky made against “Proletarian Culture and Art” in Literature and Revolution was never answered. The proletariat had no artistic culture,(52) Trotsky argued, for if it had taken centuries to create the great achievements of bourgeois culture, how could a class as immiserated and starved of cultural and intellectual resources, with so little access to the “apparatus of culture — the industries, schools, publications, press, theaters, etc.,” possibly be expected to create one in a few years when they were either involved in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow bourgeois class rule or, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, striving to build the material conditions of socialism?(53)
While Trotsky had a keen sense of art’s relative autonomy, Gold seemed to have none. Style was not born with a class, Trotsky argued, a class found its own style in complex ways by working on the materials of previous class cultures.(54) It was “impossible to create a class culture behind the backs of a class” by force of will.(55) Exponents of proletarian art simply espoused a “reactionary populism.”(56)
In 1938, Meyer Schapiro used this term to denigrate the work of the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, whose art was widely condemned as racist and reactionary by communist critics and of whom Burck wrote a stinging critique in 1935.(57) Whether Schapiro’s appropriation of the term was conscious or unconscious, the elision between Regionalism and Proletarian art points to an important truth. Making art from what was imputed to be the standpoint of the proletariat could not in itself deliver new artistic forms, any more than Benton’s fantasy of making American art for Americans.
Both Burck and Benton confused their individual volitions with historical forces. Both failed to grasp that modernism had changed the stakes of the artistic field in bourgeois societies irrevocably.
Abbreviations: NM = New Masses; DW = Daily Worker
September-October 2015, ATC 178