Although work is a central fact of life, its popularity as an artistic subject has waxed and waned over the course of the past 150 years. Not surprisingly, labor first seriously began to interest a broad spectrum of European artists following the Revolution of 1848. Workers had appeared sporadically in art prior to the nineteenth century (particularly in Northern Europe), but they usually played minor roles. With the Church and the aristocracy as their principal patrons, artists for the most part painted portraits of the upper class or grand themes from religion and history. However, the rise of bourgeois capitalism not only altered the terms of artistic patronage, but also generated social and political upheavals that artists felt compelled to address. After the 1848 Revolution, laborers came to embody the nascent spirit of democracy and to constitute, for the first time, a primary subject for major paintings and sculpture.
Though most artists were born into—and supported by—the middle class, the turn to proletarian subjects was often a protest against the inequities of modern bourgeois society. Realism, the dominant style of the period throughout Europe, was likewise a protest against the falsifying idealizations of the past, part of a quest for literal “truth” that paralleled the scientific explorations of the period. Artists sought to represent contemporary life honestly, in all its aspects, and the worker was seen as the quintessential modern subject. Even those artists who were not overtly political bowed to an egalitarian spirit that commanded them to accord all social strata equal attention and dignity.
Despite artists’ shared allegiance to realistic truth telling, the images of labor that emanated from late nineteenth-century Europe reveal a variety of stylistic and sociological orientations. Honoré Daumier, with a relatively light touch, used caricature to deflate bourgeois pretensions. Jean-François Millet’s romantic depictions of toiling peasants championed a seemingly timeless connection to the soil at the very moment when rural folkways were rapidly being overtaken by industrialization. Adolph von Menzel’s factory workers are similarly ennobled by grueling physical labor, though they, too, may soon be replaced by machines. Käthe Kollwitz, on the other hand, did not see work as ennobling. Her peasants are depicted as brutalized, exploited animals, and her urban workers are prey to abuse, poverty and unemployment. Though Kollwitz thought workers were intrinsically beautiful, right-wing critics reviled her choice of subject matter and her unvarnished approach.
The elevation of labor as an artistic subject in the second half of the nineteenth century reflected two key unifying concerns. The first of these concerns was a need to see art as inseparable from—and therefore accountable to—its social context. On a more personal level, many artists shared a desire to distance themselves from their middle-class milieu and to ally themselves with forces they found both nobler and more just. Liberal intellectuals saw themselves as a separate class of “brain workers” who had somehow transcended their bourgeois origins and therefore could lead the way toward a new, egalitarian era. However, such socially-oriented visions diminished with the advent of Symbolism and then modernism. Artists who engaged humanistic issues at the turn of the twentieth century were inclined to address them in idiosyncratic, individualized terms. Formulating a modern pictorial vocabulary may have been perceived by some as subversive, but most modernist pioneers were more concerned with aesthetics than with politics.
Nevertheless, early modernism encompassed an inchoate protest against bourgeois values that was only waiting to assume a political dimension. This pivotal transformation was wrought by World War I and its revolutionary aftermath. The sheer brutality and senselessness of the war forged a new bond between the artist-soldier and his working-class comrades-in-arms, while at the same time opening a chasm between the fighting masses and the wealthy capitalists who had cravenly sent them to the slaughter. The privations of war generated the proletarian alliance necessary to topple the Russian Czar in 1917, and when the German regime fell a year later, it was widely assumed that a Communist revolution would follow. In both the U.S.S.R. and Germany, many avant-garde artists rallied to the socialist cause.
Artists initially sought to remake art according to Marxist principles, assuming that the proletariat would naturally respond. This creative enterprise entailed a number of sometimes overlapping theoretical formulations. Almost everywhere, socialist artists were committed to print: posters were handy to get out the word, and multiples countermanded the bourgeois preciousness of the unique art object. Stylistically, too, artists sought to create work that eschewed all signs of individuality. In Cologne, the Group of Progressive Artists, whose members included Gerd Arntz, Hans Schmitz and Augustin Tschinkel, invented a visual language of flat, black pictographs. Revealing no trace of the artist’s touch, these easily read symbols transformed people into anonymous ciphers, defined only by their surroundings and the trappings of their professions. Photomontage, invented more or less simultaneously by George Grosz, John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch in Germany, and by El Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis in the U.S.S.R., was likewise seen as an impersonal, revolutionary artistic tool.
Notwithstanding the fervor with which German and Russian artists greeted the new political age, their ostensible alliance with the proletariat quickly broke down. From the pure abstractions of the Russian Constructivists to the Expressionistic and Dadaist distortions of the Germans, the avant-garde produced imagery that the masses found at best incomprehensible and at worst offensive. In the early 1920s, the Constructivists decided to turn their attention from art to the design of utilitarian objects. The Soviet regime, looking for a more accessible visual style, reverted to realism, which had previously been rejected on account of its bourgeois associations. Among all the new styles, only photomontage proved sufficiently intelligible to a broad, unsophisticated public. Unsullied by any retrograde connotations, this technique dominated the posters produced under Stalin in the late 1920s and ’30s.
As the Communist revolution took hold in Russia, the creation of visual propaganda was subjected to increasingly doctrinaire state control. Solidifying support for the new government, after the bloody post-revolutionary civil war had been won by the Reds, demanded an outpouring of sunny images. Farmers and industrial workers were portrayed in nothing less than heroic terms, and Soviet production was effusively extolled. In Germany, where the entrenched capitalist faction was forcefully reasserting itself, left-wing artists painted a much bleaker picture. Grosz, Lea Grundig, Kollwitz and others catalogued the rampant injustices of the reigning social order, depicting German workers as pitiful, downtrodden victims. Increasingly, this attitude was frowned upon by Moscow, which deplored both the negativism and the creative independence of their German comrades.
Beyond the thorny issue of artistic freedom under Communism lay the equally touchy (but less often discussed) matter of artists’ primary class allegiances. The nineteenth-century ideal of the artist as a special class of “brain worker” found some echo in early Soviet cultural policy. Leon Trotsky, one of Lenin’s close collaborators, viewed artists as a kind of worker elite: manual laborers who, because of their talent and training, might qualify as inspirational leaders. This was the viewpoint adopted by Trotsky’s friend, the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Rivera was one of a number of muralists employed by the Mexican government in the early 1920s to proselytize on behalf of the recent revolution. After the Mexican government took a reactionary turn in 1924, many of these artists looked to the United States for commissions. Although Rivera did not abandon his leftist leanings, his subsequent work for clients such as the Ford Motor Company and the Rockefellers highlights the difficulty that artists in a capitalist society had sustaining an ideologically pristine identification with the proletariat.
On the other hand, the fact that capitalists such as Ford and Rockefeller would hire a Communist like Rivera in the first place highlights the manner in which America’s democratic populism softened the European concept of class conflict. Because the U.S. lacks an aristocratic tradition, social distinctions are defined by what is perceived as a flexible continuum of wealth, rather than by rigid class boundaries. Whereas the European bourgeoisie has been widely reviled, the American middle class is the group that U.S. citizens, rich and poor, most readily identify with. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, labor became a national preoccupation, and workers were seen as heroic symbols of patriotic unity. Take away the Marxist references, and a Communist mural easily became a paean to American capitalism.
One of the most successful meldings of artist and worker occurred in Depression-era America. The collapse of the American economy after the stock market crash of 1929 destroyed, in one fell swoop, much of the capitalist infrastructure that had previously sustained an insular art world. Suddenly no different from other unemployed workers, artists became instantly politicized. The specific hardships engendered by the Depression merged with a more generalized desire to reform the injustices believed to be inherent in the capitalist system. Many artists rallied to the cause of Proletarianism, the Americanized version of Communism. And just as artists now saw themselves as workers, so workers were seen as potential artists. The Marxist periodical New Masses encouraged laborers to engage in all manner of creative enterprises and ran a regular column headlined “Workers’ Art.”
The art community’s socially oriented position helped shape the various art programs run by the U.S. government in the 1930s under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. Partly because the artists themselves demanded it, the Roosevelt administration treated them like common laborers, assigning them to projects that paid hourly wages, in addition to doling out more conventional commissions. The W.P.A. also literally brought art to the people, both by dispatching commissioned artists throughout the country, and by establishing Community Art Centers to hold art classes and host exhibitions. Many of the more politically radical American artists of the early ‘30s—including Philip Evergood, William Gropper and Ben Shahn—painted murals for the W.P.A.
Like the Mexican, Russian and German regimes, the Roosevelt administration discovered that art is a powerful social tool. Public commissions could be used to cement national identity, and posters hailed the success of the government’s various programs. As in Europe, it became evident that a realist style worked best. Photomontage, employed by Lester Beall in his posters for the Rural Electrification Administration, also proved a popular success. And straight abstraction, it turned out, was better tolerated than the realist distortions perpetrated by the Expressionists and the Surrealists. As the decade of the 1930s wore on, artistic styles began to acquire specific political connotations. The fact that both Stalin and Hitler detested modernism lent its adherents increased moral weight. On the other hand, the socially conscious realism practiced by many W.P.A. artists, steeped as they were in early ‘30s radicalism, acquired a Communist taint.
The apotheosis of modernism as America’s national aesthetic credo was completed after World War II.
Granted, there were some right-wing congressmen who (not incorrectly) identified modern art with prewar European socialism. In order to become politically acceptable, modernism had to be Americanized—as it was through the cowboy persona of Jackson Pollock—and stripped of all ideological associations. American proponents of “art for art’s sake” lauded abstraction as the antithesis of Nazi and Soviet propaganda. Because it was ostensibly content-free, abstract art proved an ideal repository for the projected values of democratic freedom and ultimately became a cornerstone of America’s Cold-War-era cultural policy. Though Pop Art in the 1960s reintroduced representational subject matter, modernism never again directly engaged social realities in the manner that was common, both in Europe and the U.S., before World War II. The capitalist system had recovered from the Depression, the insular art world had re-established itself, and most artists were content to go back to serving the upper classes. Sue Coe has been one of the few contemporary artists to maintain a concerted activist stance. Labor has figured prominently in her work, while fading from view on the larger art scene.
The dogma of “art for art’s sake” notwithstanding, however, art is seldom politically inert. During the period of social upheaval and crisis that stretched from the mid-nineteenth- to the mid-twentieth centuries, avant-garde artists routinely abandoned their bourgeois class allegiances to identify with the proletariat, in the hopes that a united front would yield a more just world. Artists recognized the potential power of their work, and governments responded accordingly, viewing art either as a means of asserting control, or as a destabilizing threat. Depoliticizing art was one way of neutralizing its disruptive capabilities. But as the American State Department’s use of abstraction during the Cold War demonstrates, even supposedly apolitical art can serve political ends. Although artists throughout history have usually worked for the rich, this does not mean that art is merely a dispensable luxury good. The economic and social ramifications of art are considerable, even (or perhaps especially) when these ramifications are being fervently denied. The stark dwindling of the worker as a subject for contemporary art—at a time when globalization is transforming the labor market at home and abroad—speaks volumes about the level of denial that is necessary to sustain our current socio-economic order.
We would like to convey our heartfelt thanks to the many colleagues and friends who contributed works to this exhibition. Special mention must be made of Andrew Breslau, who first called our attention to Giacomo Patri’s classic picture novel, White Collar, and to the artist’s son, Piero Patri. White Collar, a Depression-era attempt to dramatize the common interests shared by white- and blue-collar workers, served as the inspiration for the present exhibition. We would also like to thank Merrill Berman, who was as ever extremely generous with his advice. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for the posters and all other works.
Franz M. Jansen
Jean François Millet