Academic journal article American Studies International

From Bohemianism to Radicalism: The Art of the Liberator

Academic journal article American Studies International

From Bohemianism to Radicalism: The Art of the Liberator

Article excerpt

"For my part, I find it difficult to understand the man, calling himself an artist, who is satisfied with things as they are. The beauty and wonder (old, old words) of the external world forever compel and attract; but I find it impossible to be content with contemplating it in the midst of so much poverty and so many lies." (1)

The Liberator, an American cultural and political magazine was in existence from March 1918 to October 1924; a time of great political change, marked by the end of World War I and the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. The New York based monthly was one of the most important documents of American radicalism and became a critical bridge between the bohemian idealism of the pre-war generation and the radical activism following the war. In its seven years of publication the Liberator and its artists dramatized the shift from a general opposition to conventions and socialist reforms toward active engagement in specific communist related programs. During its first six years, the magazine was independently owned and operated, maintained its own identity and avoided any explicit partisan affiliation. In 1923 the Liberator was turned over to the Workers' Party, the official name of the Communist Party of America. The magazine then shifted from idealistic theory toward a proletarian-committed art, until ultimately in 1924 it merged with the Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial to become the Worker's Monthly.

While reporting on the news from Russia and abroad, the magazine continued to devote itself to cultural events attempting to balance politics and culture by providing graphic arts. Art, at times, complimented a political report, on other occasions it directly accompanied an article, defining ideas of proletarian art and propaganda art. However, for the most part the art had nothing to do with political events and was featured as independent works, which varied from scathing attacks on capitalists to light hearted scenes of leisure. Even in the Liberator's final year when art was subordinate to politics, the illustrations were never solely journalistic. Despite the pro-Bolshevik and anti-capitalist diatribe of the editors, the visual imagery of the magazine reflected a commitment to artistic self-expression and experimentation regardless of style or content. The editors desired to make their socialist ideology appealing and relevant to American life and their major emphasis was to relate socialism to the tenets of true democracy. The seemingly unnatural correlation between socialism and democracy became a key element in the Liberator's campaign to create a climate receptive to the socialist transformation of American life. Socialism and communism had a fluid definition at the time and were based on the individual application of its editors.

Among the long list of prominent artists who appeared on its pages were George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, William Gropper, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Reginald Marsh, Robert Minor, Diego Rivera, Boardman Robinson, Maurice Sterne and Art Young. Artists of the Liberator represented the struggle of the radical artist-intellectual to define a role for art in society and for themselves in the 1920s. This article seeks to provide the foundation for an expanded discourse on the identity of American artists of the 1920s and to shed light on the socially committed artists who helped support and define American culture of the late 1910s and 1920s.

Framing the Liberator

Though the relation of art and politics in the 1930s is widely studied, scholarship on political American art of the 1920s is virtually non-existent. Studies addressing the socially engaged American artist privilege the period before the Liberator, namely the Ashcan school, or the period following the Liberator, Social Realism of the 1930s. Aside from Milton Brown's seminal survey of 1955, American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression, literature from this period focuses on the influence of European modernism. …

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