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Ben Shahn (1898 – 1969) is dead, of course. He was an artist who’s work spoke of the controversial issues of his times. He was not always on the right side; an avowed socialist who ended up on a bunch of “un-American” lists in the early 1950s (that age of McCarthy paranoia), he was far outside the mainstream of American political thought even during the 1930s. But he was a champion of the poor, the working class, the downtrodden, the exploited, and it was clearly reflected in his art. He had a community of artists around him feeling the same way.

He was a painter and a photographer who contributed heavily to the archives of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic record of human misery during the Great Depression, along with some of most celebrated photographers in American History (Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, among others). During that period of national peril, artists responded with candor and with compassion. I don’t see much of that going on these days, especially within the cozy boundaries of the “art world

Shahn was active in the coal camps of Appalachia during the 1930s with both paintbrush and camera. Among his better-known paintings of the period is Scott’s Run,  West Virginia, a place where he painted as he was shooting for FSA. I don’t know what this image says to you, but to me it doesn’t look like a place where people are having very much fun. It captures the bleak repetitiveness of the coal camps of the 20s and 30s, likely similar to the one in neighboring Pennsylvania where my mother spent the first few years of her childhood.

Scott's Run, West Virginia, Ben Shahn (1937)

Far more disturbing to me, at the deepest possible level, is Miners’ Wives, painted more than 10 years later. Capturing the agony of a woman who has just learned that she’s lost her husband, it was inspired by the Centralia Mine Disaster of 1947 that claimed 111 lives. It takes me beyond imagining that pain, I can almost feel it.

Miners' Wives, Ben Shahn (1948)

Things aren’t much better in coal country than they were in Shahn’s day, and millions are suffering the effects of our current “recession,” if that’s what you want to call it, yet the American art world is pretty much silent on these things, and the American people don’t seem to have much appetite for it anyway. Too busy watching Ice Road Truckers, or maybe reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond on TVland, I suppose. The images of our time are more along the lines of idiots dressed up like Ben Franklin running around bitching about Islam and socialism.

Are that different than we were 70 or 80 years ago? I think we are, and by different I don’t necessarily mean better.

This isn’t so much about whether you like Ben Shahn’s work or not. It’s about an artist’s responsibility to the culture from which he has emerged (or she, obviously). Are we obligated to care about things like this, or am I just a closet socialist in a ruthlessly capitalist society? I don’t have the answers, but I sure wish I had the skills and talent to raise the questions, and a receptive audience to pose them to.

RXM

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3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] wrote of social realist painter Ben Shahn’s work last year in this post. Today, on the anniversary of his death in 1969, I want to shine a little light on his work as a […]

  2. […] production that was intended to shock the conscience of America. I’ve already written about Ben Shahn a few months ago. Today, on the anniversary of her death in 1965, I want to turn my attention to […]

  3. […] other day, I posted about artist Ben Shahn, who was as American an artist as I can imagine even though he was born in Lithuania. Today, […]

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