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Tag Archives: Ben Shahn

Maybe “crisis” isn’t the right word. Maybe most people don’t see out current situation as a crisis. I certainly do, but perhaps I’m just a radical of some kind.

I’ve always had a strong interest in art as a catalyst for social change and felt some obligation as an artist to use whatever talents I have to support the causes I believe in. If you had read my posts on Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange, you might have gotten the impression that I feel a lack of social consciousness in the Art World  today. Artists with agendas like Shahn and Lange don’t seem to me to be as visible as they once were. This could be a perception issue since I’ve only experienced America since 1957 and only really paid attention to these things for about the past 10 years or so.

My interest in this topic is piqued yet again by a couple of things. First is this post on the Huffington Post website from G.Roger Denson, the same G. Roger Denson I criticized awhile back for his observations on Facebook/Gustave Courbet controversy,(if  you want to call it that – I don’t know how much attention it got beyond that one article and my post). I’m anxiously awaiting  his follow-up posts on the art of The Left because this first one was so interesting. I’m curious to find out what he might have to say on current leftist art, however he might choose to define it.

Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States. (Frida Kahlo -1932)

The second is the outpouring of creativity falling on the head of the now-infamous pepper spraying cop, the fascist from University of California – Davis who casually pepper-sprayed a group of harmless protesting hippies and assured himself an induction into the Stupidity Hall of Fame should one ever be built.

Pepper Spraying Cop Does Matisse (Anonymous - 2011)

Back in the 1930s, when Frida Kahlo was painting that self-portrait, there seemed to be a lot of politically-driven art around. It was overt. It was in your face. And it was a part of the mainstream art of the time. Deigo Rivera was celebrating labor in huge murals on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Art. Ben Shahn was memorializing the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, executed for murder. This was pre-World War Two, pre-McCarthyism, pre-Cold War. It was an era when political dissent was tolerated a little better in this country, before we demanded conformity and ostracized those who fell outside the muddled middle of American society.

I’m sure there are artists doing intelligent work with a political edge to it these days, but we don’t see much of it. Art today is about money. The art world accepts causes as a matter of obligation and elevates a few representative artists here and there, but things like war, poverty, greed, starvation, and disease make for uncomfortable conversation at cocktail parties and who needs that?

The internet gives us these spontaneous flashes of creative brilliance like the pepper spraying cop. It’s powerful stuff, but how lasting will the impression be?  Will we quickly move on to something because of our short attention span? How will the history of art, written mostly by isolated academics and rich people, view our time 50 or 100 years in the future?


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.