Whatever happened to Social Realism? (by Kathleen Loomis)

My art book group was reading about Ben Shahn, the great Social Realism artist of the mid-20th Century, and the question came up, is there any Social Realism in today’s art world?  That movement, you will recall, pictures ordinary people, especially the poor and downtrodden of the world, and implicitly criticizes the power structures that keep them down.  It includes a lot of great art, on both sides of the ocean.

George Luks, St. Botolph St., 1922

Ben Shahn, Demonstration, 1933

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

One of the most enduring projects of Social Realism was the monumental effort by the U.S. Farm Security Administration to document poverty during the Depression.  Many unemployed artists, including Ben Shahn, worked for the FSA and produced photos that we all recognize.

Ben Shahn, Boone County, Arkansas, 1935 

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

The poor we still have with us, but at least within the realm of painting, there seems to be little interest in High Art lately in documenting their lives.

What happened to Social Realism after its heyday?  We thought of several factors.

First, Abstract Expressionism made realistic painting seem so old-fashioned.  And subsequent trends in art — Pop, Conceptual, Minimalist, whatever — seemed equally bent on distancing themselves from anything from previous generations.  Painters who did stick with the old traditions, such as Andrew Wyeth, may have been popular with the public but were never fully accepted by High Art.

Second, irony came to rule American culture, making it uncool to be earnest or sincere.

Third, photography seemed to be a much better way of depicting the details of real life, and proving that extreme conditions aren’t just a figment of the artist’s imagination.  The FSA photos themselves were Exhibit A for that argument, and photographic documentation of the poor and marginal continues strong today.  You name the fringe group, there’s a photographer who has documented it.  For instance, teenage drug addicts in Tulsa, Oklahoma — Larry Clark (below).

 LGBT — Catherine Opie (below).

Workers in third world countries — Sebastião Salgado (below).

Turkish transvestite prostitutes — Kutlug Ataman (below). Although I neither know nor care much about Turkish transvestites, I confess to having sat for well over an hour transfixed by this video, which went on much longer.

Amputees from Colombian drug wars — Miguel Angel Rojas (below).

There’s obviously no dearth of art photography documenting the ragged edges of society, and if we’re unaware of either the art or the reality, it’s not for lack of somebody trying to enlighten us.  But the preferred form changes with the times.

So imagine my surprise as I was googling away to find paintings made in this very decade in the good old Social Realism style.

Max Ginsburg, Foreclosure, 2011

Had the man worn work clothes and the little girl a raggedy cotton dress, nothing in this scene would distinguish it from a painting of the 30s.  “I choose to paint realistically because I believe realism is truth and truth is beauty,” Ginsburg writes on his website. “I believe that realism can communicate ideas strongly.”

Although this approach is out of fashion, the desire of the artist to document the situations of the non-elite clearly continues.  It will be interesting to see whether photography in its turn will become old-fashioned as a means to accomplish this, and if so, what genre will take its place.



5 Responses to “Whatever happened to Social Realism? (by Kathleen Loomis)”

  1. 1 mcooter3 May 8, 2014 at 11:09 am

    Would you call the series of tapestries by Grayson Perry, “The Vanity of Small Differences”, social realism? He investigated the issue of “taste” of lower, middle, upper classes in Britain in a series of tv programmes about the making of the tapestries. (The six were woven to his designs in Belgium.) The programmes seem still to be available to “registered users” –
    Hopefully you can at least see the clips. Or there’s this trailer for the programmes –

    See the tapestries at

    Is this 21st century social realism? (Keep the British context in mind….)

  2. 2 clairan May 8, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I have long been a fan of Shahn’s work. I became aware of it when I went to Syracuse University which had commissioned him to make a mural with his choice of subject. He devoted it to Sacco and Vanzetti, about whom I had researched and written.



    There was an exhibit of his work here in Hyde Park (the neighborhood in Chicago I live in) a few years ago at the Smart Museum.

    We need more of this realism now when the rich are getting richer and the poor and middle classes are being shafted.

  3. 3 mcooter3 May 6, 2014 at 4:22 am

    Back in 1997 a London artist called Tom Hunter made a series of images – photographs – based in the social realism of his own life in a squat in Hackney, one of the poorer parts of town. They are very resonant of Vermeer paintings (the subject is often by a window). Titles include “Woman reading a possession order”, “Girl writing an affidavit”, and “The art of squatting”. See them at http://www.tomhunter.org/persons-unknown/

    These images came to mind when I saw the Max Ginsburg painting – again, the “realism” seems to hark back to earlier high-art sources in the way it’s executed. Is the irony intentional? I feel a bit of dislocation between this form of realism, and the 19th-century paintings depicting the lives of poor people (Millet, Van Gogh, etc). Was it that seeing images of the lives of the poor or marginalised was a novelty then, in a context of history painting and portraits of the nobility, whereas nowadays, among the surfeit of images of all sorts everywhere, we’re familiar with “realistic” depictions?

  4. 4 Andy May 5, 2014 at 7:59 am

    What a wonderful post – thank you. Social realism is one of my favorites, especially the work by Mexico’s Oaxaca School (Diego Rivera, Rodolfo Morales, etc.). I hope this style is revived and celebrated once again. It’s so important.

  5. 5 Paet May 4, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    I have seen realism come back to the art world but not much social realism. But I do think that it will be returning soon. There is just too much frustration and pain in the world for it not to return. It probably will not be bought by the 10% who usually buy the art.

    I have several pieces that will be in a show in June. The people that will be seeing it are mostly like me and I may well be able to sell my pieces to them. But in a general gallery I doubt that they would even be shown.

    I’m sure many of us who are socially conscious have many pieces of work that they make just to release their frustrations. But I think they never plan to show them.

    But, given how this country is going, the time will come when we will have to bring them out of hiding and begin making statements about who and what we see in our neighborhoods, our cities, countries and places around the world.

    The odd thing is that it seems that the artists have forgotten that their art work can really bring messages in dramatic ways that cannot be done in other ways. We just have to begin looking and working on this type of art and begin a new movement. The world is in flux and the artist can capture that in ways that the word, photo or film cannot. Use of color, placement on the canvas and etc. and putting the feeling of the artist into the work can really move people and make them think!

    I am already planning to do more of this. We do need this type of art to get people thinking again. Too many heads in the sand and too many getting all their info from the talking heads. It’s time that reality comes back both through art and the statement it makes.

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