Dox Thrash, Untitled, ca. 1940/The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The hundred or so works on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Art for the Millions, all date from the 1930s and early 1940s. They show the various ways that artists and left-wing organizations reacted to and inflected the social and political movements of the time. The images also show how the Left has evolved in the past century in its attitudes towards America; towards labor; towards machinery; towards race and gender; and towards the challenge of changing the world. Protest is a constant; what is protested and who protests is not.
In the first of the exhibition’s three rooms, dedicated to “Leftist Politics and Labor,” three huge posters from the Communist Party greet the visitor. One advertises the party’s paper, The Daily Worker; another the Communist Party, declaring its agitation “For a Workers and Farmers Government.” A third from the CP-affiliated Workers Defense League encourages citizens to “Vote Communist” in 1930.
Display cases contain a number of party publications, including the Labor Defender, New Masses, and the Yiddish magazine Der Hammer. Though the American Communist Party was never an organization of the size and influence of the German or French parties, it was unquestionably a central presence in the protest movements of the Depression era and had important supporters among artists.
If some artists included in the show, like William Gropper, are best known for cartoons of fat capitalists smoking big cigars, others, like Hugo Gellert, were able to create propaganda paintings that still have a raw power. His male figures are characteristically muscular, but Gellert makes an important political point by adding a woman to a group of three idealized worker-communists.
Even though there’s an interesting drawing by Riva Helfond of women working at a curtain factory, this show is dominated by pictures of muscular men at work: rock drillers, asphalt workers, dock workers, building workers, welders, mostly with little individualization, but always hard at their tasks. Two exceptions are Ben Shahn’s Welders (1943), a close-up dual portrait of a Black and a white worker, and Elizabeth Olds’s Miner Joe (1942), a simple portrait of a man in a miner’s helmet.
This sacralization of labor and the worker is a relic of an era long-since gone. Political art today would not glorify white workers. The American Communist Party doesn’t even exist anymore, and the emblematic figures of protest post-Occupy are women, Black, Latino, gay, and transgender people.
The most famous critique in the 1930s of the effects of machinery on man, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, is represented by a clip of Chaplin unable to stop performing his repetitive labor. Catastrophe, a painting by Doris Olds, takes the threat of modernity even further. Painted just a short while before the explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin, it shows a blimp exploding over a New York reimagined as a Breughel painting, all frenzy and gigantic buildings, the passengers of the damaged blimp floating to earth on parachutes. Modernity is a hellscape. But modernity in the 1930s was also a promise of paradise. The exalted predictions of the 1933 and 1939 World Fairs are displayed. Sleek deco cocktail shakers and radios suggest a happier vision of everyday modern life. This is even clearer in the series of posters by Lester Beall for the Rural Electrification Administration. These stunning works, with their uncluttered design and bold color schemes, some subtly using just red, white, and blue, underline the ways electricity improves lives, through radio transmissions to homes, washing machines, electric light, running water, and the easing of the rigors of farm work.
Art for the Millions also underlines another significant difference between the Leftism of the 1930s and now. “Cultural Nationalism” is the theme of one gallery, and it shows the ways in which committed artists sought to ground their work in American folkways and history. The inspiration for much of this patriotic imagery can best be explained by a slogan of the Communist Party: “Communism Is Twentieth Century Americanism.” Betsy Ross and George Washington were viewed as heroic figures. The Regionalists, those artists of the rural heartland, are presented here by their emblematic member, Thomas Hart Benton, with a farmer tilling his rolling land—an idyllic image of a white settler colonialist that is simply unimaginable coming from a left-wing artist today.
At the same time, the Left of the 1930s, led by the Communists, aggressively fought anti-Black racism. An Arnold Rothstein photograph of a large Black family in front of their tumbledown shack in Arkansas, a Hale Woodruff lithograph of a Black man climbing the steps of a decrepit row house in Atlanta, and a photo of sharecroppers at work graphically remind us of the era’s grinding poverty. A maquette of Lift Every Voice, a sculpture by Augusta Savage, shows a group of young Black people arranged in the form of a harp, singing the Black national anthem, and Raymon Steth’s brilliant Evolution of Swing, (1939) takes us from Africans dancing to drums and Black stevedores working on the Mississippi river to suave tuxedo-clad big band musicians in an urban Black nightclub.
Still, all was not exploitation and revolt in the 1930s. A young Philip Guston was hired to do a mural for the Queensbridge Houses in New York. Here we have a despairing mother with her children, a defeated man resting his head on a surface, another man idling on a stoop, and a woman upright in her coffin.
It’s a marvelous counterpoint to the hopeful images that dominate this enlightening show. It’s also a reminder that the heroic representation of workers at work and in combat with capitalists in the 1930s coexisted with a lingering, and profound sense of despair.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.