Social Realists Unit 7
Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933 and tried to pull together a country which had nearly been destroyed by the Great Depression. Agriculture was in desperate straits as markets crumbled; the nation's breadbasket was a dust bowl.

Twenty five percent of the labor force was unemployed. Once-busy cities were grinding to a stop.

Roosevelt worked to rally a demoralized people with his inaugural address: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

The New Deal put the U.S. on the road to recovery. Business which suffered a $2 billion loss in 1932 had a $5 billion profit in 1936, but labor was still behind (5 million people were out of work) and totalitarian regimes were gaining power abroad.

Many artists rejected fashionable, intellectual abstractions; they wanted to paint perfectly real, recognizable subjects.

- American Scene painters emphasized virtues of idealized rural past

- Social Realists attacked head-on the injustices and dehumanization of industrial and urban life.

The latter included Ben Shahn, Raphael. Moses and Isaac Sover, Reginald Marsh, Philip Evergood, Peter Blume, Jack Levine and George Tooker.

From 1933 on, artists were assisted by variety of government bureaus: Farm Security Administration, Federal Housing Administration and especially Works Progress Administration.

architects: design housing projects

photographers: record tragedies of ruined farmers and eroded land

writers: record state and regional histories

composers and playwrights: produce symphonies and plays for people who previously had known only second-hand recorded music and movies

painters: cover walls of public buildings with murals, supply pictures for small-town museums, schools, traveling exhibits

The Federal Art Project was abandoned in 1943 after 3,600 artists created 16,000 works in 1,000 cities.

Murals illustrated familiar scenes appropriate to their settings in bus and airline terminals. radio stations, schools, housing projects: trains pulling into stations, crowds at work, events in history of transportation and communication. Unfortunately, many were destroyed or painted over. The artists were influenced by

1) fresco painters of Renaissance
2) Mexican mural painters such as Diego Rivera and Jose' Clemente Orozco.
more about Rivera
Diego Rivera Web Museum
Diego Rivera Mural Project
more about Orozco

The latter influence involved:
1- vigor of style
2- protest against economic and social injustice
3- images strong in allegorical or religious meaning

American artists became convinced art should serve higher purpose.

The WPA made important contributions even though few murals or other art of any consequence have survived. It radically altered the relationship of art and artist with the art audience and society. Effects of the WPA included:

1) no formal distinction between abstract and
representational art - both equally "American."
2) opportunity to paint full-time - sense of professionalism.
3) providing materials and time - develop skills and
technique to new level.
4) throwing artists together - esprit de corps (brotherhood).
5) sponsorship of exhibitions and classes - aroused
consciousness of art throughout country.
6) murals for large walls - large-scale paintings of later

These artists sometimes took active roles in politics. In 1936 they organized the Artists' Congress dedicated to propagandizing antifascism.

One of principal themes involved the worker and his plight. Social Realism emerged from a graphic tradition of magazine illustration and poster art, sometimes consisting of little more than stylized drawing. Art was seen primarily as a means of communicating a social message.

American Scene: caricatures
Social Realists: cartoons

For some artists, the reality of the 1930s was too oppressive to deal with realistically, so they excaped to personal fantasy (such as Surrealists).

Social Realists believed that art was an integral part of society.

The artists came from a wide range of backgrounds, from exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities to Jewish and black ghettos. Their styles were also different.

Social Realism did not mean they used realistic technique. They frequently heightened colors for emotional impact, exaggerating features and distorting physical scale for emphasis while using technical devices of posters and advertisements which were easily understood by the public.

Social realists showed what was wrong with America with the hope that it could be changed.

Go to this page for sample quiz for Unit 7

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Annunciation - NMAA
Raphael Soyer (1980)

Ben Shahn
Raphael Soyer
Reginald Marsh
Philip Evergood
Peter Blume
Jack Levine
George Tooker

Jacob Lawrence
William Johnson

In the Eye of the Storm