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.