Radical Art: Printmaking and The Left in 1930s New York Helen Langa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
At a recent talk in a New York city union hall, the veteran labor educator Harry Kelber recounted his first job in the mid-1930s. The boss of a small food store lined his employees up Saturday evenings after a typical twelve-hour day. Reviewing the week's receipts, he singled out the person with the fewest sales and fired him on the spot. The remaining employees stood silent and kept their jobs. Kelber himself was so incensed that he helped organize the store as a union local, although in the process his union friends roughed up those who crossed the picket line. The strike succeeded. The defeated boss's only proviso was that Kelber himself find a new job. He briefly joined the Communist Party.
Social Realist prints of the period, the subject of Helen Langa's impressive new book, had little time for the complexities of the Kelber story. (While many of the New York city printmakers were not in the Party, they sympathized with it, especially in the early years of the New Deal, when government programs were still in formation.) seeking a more egalitarian society, lithographers, and other printmakers working on socially conscious art for the Graphics Division of the Federal Art Project eagerly took advantage of the fact their work could be easily reproduced-at government expense-for mass distribution.
Langa illuminates their creation of nothing less than an iconography of hunger, racism and lynching, fascism at home and abroad, unemployment, and allied social and economic ills. Theirs was an enterprise to rouse the conscience of the compassionate and rekindle the energy of the forgotten. In a more optimistic spirit, they also inscribed the benefits of New Deal work relief, the resurgence of basic industries such as steel, rubber, and automobiles, and the leisure activities of the many who frequented dance halls, amusement parks, and department store sales.
Langa demonstrates beautifully, however, that these clear-cut goals and direct-action illustrations of a nation during hard times "challenge viewers to tease out the complex intellectual, moral, and political struggles of a transient historical moment" (224). Artists who had to choose between a revolutionary and democratic message found ways of inscribing both. While these talented American printmakers stopped short of the Mexican muralists' pleas for social revolution, they inserted subtexts of revolt in many ways.
Selecting highly effective and finely wrought examples of social viewpoint art, Langa demonstrates the struggles of their creators to balance stylistic experimentation with an art that would reach rather than alienate masses of people who had never been to a museum or a gallery. Printmaker-artists such as Raphael Soyer, Mabel Dwight, Hughie Lee Smith, Aaron Douglas, and Kyra Markham, rather than follow a party or New Deal line, worked out signature modern approaches to the themes of the day while experimenting with processes to make their art more accessible to a wide population. …