Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 19, 2004
Helen Langa Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 350 pp.; 104 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0520231554)

In recent decades the field of American art has seen a renewed interest in the art of the 1930s and, in particular, the work of artists who expressed a leftist political perspective. Fueled initially by the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, this scholarship examines a decade when activist or political art achieved legitimacy in the eyes not only of certain segments of the art world, but also of significant individuals in the federal government and, to a certain extent, the general public. A recent and welcome addition to this growing body of literature on leftist art of the 1930s is Helen Langa’s Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York.

Langa sets out to examine printmakers in New York City who focused on what she calls “social justice themes.” Such themes, around which her chapters are organized, include workplace conditions and the struggles to unionize, resistance to racial injustice, and the threat of international war and fascism. She focuses her attention on artists employed by the Graphic Arts Division of the Federal Art Project and views this federal sponsorship as a key factor in the growth not only of printmaking in general, but of socially conscious printmaking in the 1930s. She argues that “within the complex political and intellectual matrix of New York’s art world in the 1930s, theories of cultural democracy, proletarian identity, social justice, and leftist revolution coincided in ways that stimulated social viewpoint printmakers to develop new thematic and aesthetic strategies” (41).

Langa presents a nuanced reading of the relationship between artists and the left in the 1930s. She describes this decade as the halcyon days of the left in the United States, yet she also looks at the limits of this left, especially the manner in which it addressed issues of race and gender. For example, she investigates the reasons for the paucity of people of color in the Graphic Arts Division and delves into the conflicts between the American Communist Party (CPUSA) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) over the most effective strategies to end lynching. She also addresses the questions of gender and race in depictions of wage labor—how few images there were of women wage laborers; how the foregrounding of women in garment-worker images allowed artists “to avoid depicting similarly oppressed men as physically weak or psychologically vulnerable” (96), as the heroic, muscled male worker was the preferred image; how there were few images of white and African American workers laboring together; and how African American artists seldom depicted any kind of labor subject. Thus, one of the reasons for the demise of social viewpoint art in the early 1940s, according to Langa, was the inability of leftist institutions “to realize the ideals of egalitarian camaraderie that undergirded their activist goals, because gender and racial or ethnic stereotypes continued to prevent white women and artists of color from achieving full equality with their white male peers” (204).

Langa looks closely at the complicated intersections between artist activists and the federal government under the New Deal. She situates leftist art of the 1930s within the general call by the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party and its supporters for a “cultural democracy.” “Art for the people” was a central principle of this cultural democracy, and at a time when the public sphere had yet to be completely permeated by advertising, prints in particular were presented as a viable art “for the people.” Produced in multiples and inexpensive in price, prints could enter people’s homes more easily than paintings and thus were seen as a more “democratic” art form. The Graphic Arts Division, which opened February 1936, provided crucial material support for printmakers, in the form not only of wages but also of equipment and technical expertise. It also lent greater legitimacy to printmaking as an art form and enabled the formation of a small but committed community of printmakers.

Yet printmakers faced a particular conundrum in their attempts to reach a mass audience. While they celebrated the more “democratic” quality of prints, based in their broader circulation and lower prices, they also went to great lengths to insist on the “originality” and “fine art” quality of their work. “Both approaches,” writes Langa, “reflected contemporary ideals of cultural democracy by suggesting that ordinary citizens could collect signed original works that were at the same time fine art objects and mass-produced commodities available for a national audience to appreciate” (48). Unfortunately, technical limitations (the number of prints that could be produced from a single plate or stone) prevented most prints from being produced in large enough numbers to truly constitute “mass production.” Yet many leftist artists believed that, even if only for a brief moment and under less than ideal circumstances, the Graphic Arts Division brought the possibility of a collective audience for fine art with a radical, if not revolutionary, message within reach.

One of the most significant challenges faced by Langa was to bring into some kind of recognizable order a body of work and a collection of artists that seem to defy clear categorization. When is a work of art, or an artist, representative of the “left” in the United States? Must an artist be a member of a particular political party, or at least a fellow traveler? Must a painting or a print contain an iconography that clearly defines a leftist political agenda? What, in fact, demarcates this “left,” particularly in the 1930s, when a more politically conservative Regionalist and Urban Scene art was also claiming to represent “the people” with its images of farms and crowded city streets?

According to Langa, the artists in her book are all brought together by “an idealized view of social justice that many American artists associated with leftist theory during a time of political and social upheaval in the United States” (8). Thus, Langa has chosen to interpret the left rather broadly and includes several prints that might today at first seem only marginally leftist. She does this because she believes that the pervasiveness of leftist ideas in the 1930s allowed even the most seemingly insignificant details in an image to be read by like-minded audiences as a reference to “Marxist analyses of the transformation of raw materials into economic commodities through productive labor,” a labor that workers themselves needed to control (6). This broad definition of the “left” makes sense when one looks at the porous borders of leftist organizations and parties in the United States in the 1930s and the predominance of the discourse of workers’ or peoples’ art. The artists chosen by Langa effectively represent the aesthetic debates that engulfed such organizations during this decade.

Related to this decision to interpret the left in broad terms is Langa’s struggle over what phrase to use when referring to the graphic work of leftist artists. Her account of the changes in the terminology used to describe the work of these artists is revealing of the impact of politics on art-historical scholarship as well as art production. Langa decided to label the prints she examines “social viewpoint art” rather than the more common “social realism,” arguing, as several have done before her, that “social realism” was not a term used by artists or critics during the 1930s to describe the kinds of images of concern to her. Rather, “social viewpoint” was used to describe this type of imagery, at least in the first half of the 1930s. After 1935 and the founding of the Popular Front, when the CPUSA tempered its more militant rhetoric in the interests of establishing a broad left-liberal coalition against fascism, the phrase “social viewpoint,” tied as it was to radical political views, drops out of favor with Popular Front artists and critics in discussions of contemporary art. Instead, the word “social” was used in a more generic sense in order “to imply leftist analysis without overtly referencing it” (5).

In the 1970s “social viewpoint” was rejected because of its association with leftist ideologies and “social realism” adopted instead to distinguish this particular type of work from Urban Scene and Regionalist imagery, which was assumed to be lacking in any overt political meaning, as well as from Soviet socialist realism. Yet “social realism” was a decidedly ambiguous term, seemingly conflating and confusing issues of style and content. “Does ‘social realist’ refer to modified forms of academic pictorial technique used to depict ‘social’ themes,” asks Langa, “or is the realism related to an artist’s decision to address raw and vexing problems of modern social life?” (6). In addition, it is misleading to imply that scenes of urban and rural life that portray happy, idealized workers are not political. And to suggest that leftist artists adhered only to styles deemed “realist” or “naturalist” ignores the varied visual vocabulary adopted by these artists, a variety clearly evident in the illustrations included in Langa’s book.

Thus, Langa chose to revive the term “social viewpoint art” “because it emphasizes the centrality of artists’ political and intellectual perspectives in shaping works that were intended to convey complex social analyses and also avoids confusion over the different senses of ‘realism’ ” (6). In so doing she helps us locate the artworks under consideration more firmly in a particular moment in history and appreciate more fully the complex dialogues and debates of which they were a part.

Frances K. Pohl
Professor, Department of Art History, Pomona College