Magazine article Tikkun

Art for the People's Sake

Magazine article Tikkun

Art for the People's Sake

Article excerpt

Art for the People's Sake Bram Dijkstra. American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 1920-1950. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003.

Bram Dijkstra's latest book should be compulsory reading for all red-diaper babies and fellow travelers-for all those, in short, whose intellectual, cultural, and social roots can be traced to the Depression and the mass movements of the 1930s and 1940s. Dijkstra plucks out of the dung-heap of history a body of paintings that captures the sweep and tensions of that period more effectively than any written text-a time when dissent and critical inquiry were lauded as consistent with First Amendment rights and when belonging to the Communist Party could be trendy and not necessarily branded with die Mark of Cain. The visual examples he dredges up from the swampland of cultural and historical neglect shed light on a wide range of interconnected political and sociological issues critical for an understanding of twentieth-century American history.

Dijkstra's title, American Expressionism, is designed to turn traditional art criticism of this era on its head. The artists Dijkstra studies are more typically described as "social realists" or "surrealists," and dismissed as the impoverished siblings of the avantgardist Abstract Expressionist movement, which has dominated critical thinking about the period. Yet, as Dijkstra points out, both movements of the era agreed upon the principle of "Expressionism," a term invented during that era to dialectically oppose the nineteenth century's Impressionism. Early twentieth-century expressionist artists embraced a proactive approach to painting in opposition to the passivity implied by the impressionists. Artists strove for a "freedom of expression" in the liberation of the brush technique, the freedom to exaggerate what the eye espies in nature. Daringly grouping both realists and surrealists under this rubric, Dijkstra limns as expressionists all those who not only exaggerated natural forms, their spatial relations, and colors but who mainly bent, twisted, pulled, and stretched their figurative elements until, even as they approached the brink of formlessness, they yielded something of the pain of everyday life. It is as if these artists work to reveal all the contortions and uncontrollability of the society whose inconsistencies they sought to disclose.

Where the "social realists" and "surrealists" differed from their Abstract Expressionist counterparts was not so much in technique as in content. As the name implies, Abstract Expressionist work had little recognizable content, especially as first generation artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline moved into their mature work. The "American Expressionists," in contrast, clearly (if exuberantly) depicted the world in which they lived.

The "American Expressionist" painters Dijkstra studies-many of them emerging from the immigrant communities of Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia that had comprised the general labor force-came to see themselves as "workers" in their own right. Aided by the work-relief schemes of the New Deal government such as the Federal Art Project, these artists were thrown together collectively and organized themselves in organizations like the Artists' Union, launched in 1934 to facilitate collective bargaining in state projects, and in the American Artists Congress, a Popular Front group that actively engaged in fundraising for the Spanish Republic. These unions often joined with other labor organizations, emphasizing their solidarity with the American working class. Their attempt to link some modernist experimentation with the thcmatics of the class struggle differentiates their form of expressionism from that of their European counterparts.

Of interest to TIKKUN's readership, a majority of the artists represented in Dijkstra's book arc Jewish, either brought over as kids from Eastern Europe or born in America of recent immigrants. In addition to their isolation as lefties, they also had to endure the barbs of the prevalent anti-Semitism. …

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