Category: Modernism

Charles White: Let The Light Enter

In April of 1967 the Heritage Gallery of Los Angeles published Images of Dignity, a monograph on the life and work of the great African American artist Charles White (1918-1979). I acquired a copy of the book just a year later when I was fifteen-years-old, the hardback volume providing one of my first insights into the works of White, American social realism, and the very idea of political engagement in modern American art. I have no hesitation in crediting White as a major influence in my life as an artist.

Opening this past January 10, and running until March 7, 2009, New York’s Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presents the important retrospective – Charles White: Let The Light Enter, Major Drawings, 1942-1970. The gallery’s biography on White opens with the following quote from the artist, which makes clear why he was such an influence upon me and why I continue to hold him in such high esteem:

“I am interested in the social, even the propaganda, angle in painting; but I feel that the job of everyone in a creative field is to picture the whole scene. . . I am interested in creating a style that is much more powerful, that will take in the technical end and at the same time will say what I have to say. Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent. If I could write, I would write about it. If I could talk, I would talk about it. Since I paint, I must paint about it.”

I will mostly dispense with listing the biographical details and accomplishments of Mr. White since the artist himself wrote eloquently of his life and times in an autobiography that now appears on the Charles White Archive website. Instead I am going to focus on two aspects of White’s career that have considerable relevance to the present: his relationship to the Works Progress Administration in the U.S. during the Depression Era, and his connection to the socially conscious Mexican Muralist Movement of the same period – which has been another source of endless inspiration for me. In light of discussions on the possibility of there being a new federal arts program under the Obama administration, White’s overwhelmingly positive experience with the WPA provides food for thought, as does his having found common cause with the Mexican school of socially engaged art.

Drawing by Charles White

[ Awaken from the Unknowing – Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper. 1961. In this drawing White implores the viewer to read, knowing that literacy is essential to the people’s advancement. Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

White was a 20-year-old living in Chicago, Illinois, when in 1938 he was employed by the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Art Project (FAP) Easel Painting Division, which was no small matter since until that time the young artist barely managed to survive by doing odd jobs – when he could find them. In a 1965 oral history interview conducted for the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art, White credited the FAP program with having enabled him to survive as an artist through very hard times. He also recognized the program for having expanded his range of artistic skills and knowledge, commenting that the FAP was “almost a school.” White said the following in his autobiography concerning having worked in the FAP:

“Looking back at my three years on the project, I see it was a tremendous step for me to be able to paint full time, be paid for it, although the pay was the bare minimum of unemployment relief. The most wonderful thing for me was the feeling of cooperation with other artists, of mutual help instead of competitiveness, and of cooperation between the artists and the people. It was in line with what I had always hoped to do as an artist, namely paint things pertaining to the real everyday life of people, and for them to see and enjoy. It was also a thrill for me to see so many accomplished artists at work, and to be able to learn from them.”

White eventually switched from the FAP’s Easel Division to its Mural Department, where he learned the basic skills needed to create monumental mural works. In 1939 FAP gave White the responsibility of creating a large mural for the Chicago Public Library. He chose for his mural the theme of outstanding African American leaders, and so painted Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Booker T. Washington. Today the 5’ x 12’ oil on canvas mural hangs in the Law Library of the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. Creating murals was a lifelong passion for White, and my home city of Los Angeles is blessed with the very last one he painted – a work produced in 1978 and located at the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Exposition Park Branch of the L.A. Public Library.

Here it is necessary to mention White’s relationship to the Mexican school – that fusion of muralism, printmaking, and easel painting driven by social concerns. “Los Tres Grandes”, the three greats of Mexican mural painting: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, had all visited the United States by the early 1930’s. In the wake of their U.S. visits they left behind a number of fabulous public murals, but also an enthusiastic network of American artists they had influenced through workshops, lectures, collaborations, and direct mentoring.

In 1941 White met and married Elizabeth Catlett, a remarkable artist in her own right. The two traveled to Mexico City in 1946, where they created prints with El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP – Popular Graphic Arts Workshop, founded in 1937), the foremost print collective in the country at the time. It was at the TGP that White learned the art of lithography, which became an enduring passion for him. At the workshop he met and worked with the likes of Diego Rivera, Pablo O’Higgins, and Leopoldo Méndez. In White’s own words, “One of the honors of which I am most proud is that of having been elected an honorary member of the Taller.” Catlett also did several of her most memorable prints while working at the TGP; and some of the collective’s prints, including works by Catlett and Méndez, made their way into Gouge – the Los Angeles Hammer Museum’s stunning exhibit on printmaking in the 20th century (now showing until Feb. 8, 2009).

Drawing by Charles White

[ Dreams Deferred – Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper. 1969. The title of this drawing refers to the 1951 poem by African American poet, Langston Hughes – What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

During their sojourn in Mexico City, White and Catlett were invited to stay at the home of David Alfaro Siqueiros, where they lodged in the top floor of the muralist’s residence. White’s time in Mexico was revelatory, providing him the confirmation that his chosen path in art was the correct one to take. He felt kinship with the radical populism of the Mexican artists, whose fiery works embodied the very idea of social realism in art. White and Catlett would divorce in 1948: she stayed in Mexico for good, while he moved to New York City. There he began to associate with like-minded artists such as Antonio Frasconi, Leonard Baskin, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Moses and Raphael Soyer, and other giants in American social realism. Eventually Mr. White settled in the city of Los Angeles, where he became an influential drawing teacher at Otis Art Institute.

What I always found so impressive about White was that he never abandoned his artistic vision in order to follow the dictates of what was fashionable. Despite the ascendancy and near total dominance of abstract art in the 1950s, followed by the successions of Pop, Minimalism, and all the vacuities of Postmodernism – White remained true to his style of figurative social realism. Part of his memoirs recount his lonely isolated struggle in the 50s against abstraction, of “going against the tide of what everyone was claiming to be ‘new’ and ‘the future'”, and we are all the richer for White’s perseverance.

But White’s courage went far beyond his flying in the face of what was trendy in the art world. He came to reject careerism in art, regarding celebrity as anathema to the higher ideals of art. The spirit found in the following passage of his memoirs should be held aloft as a banner by those artists and their supporters who ardently believe in art as a tool for social transformation;

“I no longer have my hopes and aspirations tied up with becoming a ‘success’ in the market sense. I have had a measure of success in exhibits, some prizes and awards, although not as much as I might have gotten had there not been certain ‘difficulties’ presented by my speaking as part of the Negro people and the working class. Getting a marketplace success or recognition by art connoisseurs is no longer my major concern as an artist. My major concern is to get my work before common, ordinary people; for me to be accepted as a spokesman for my people; for my work to portray them better, and to be rich and meaningful to them. A work of art was meant to belong to people, not to be a single person’s private possession. Art should take its place as one of the necessities of life, like food, clothing and shelter.”

Charles White: Let The Light Enter, Major Drawings, 1942-1970, at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. January 10 – March 7, 2009.

1930s: The Making of “The New Man”

Those fortunate to see the latest exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, 1930s: The Making of “The New Man”, will not only have the opportunity to feast their eyes upon some of the greatest artworks of the 20th century – they will be given ample evidence of how artists once responded to calamity and social crisis. On view until September 7, 2008, the exhibit presents over 200 paintings, sculptures, and photographs from world renowned artists the likes of Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, John Heartfield, George Grosz, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Rodchenko, Walker Evans, Salvador Dalí, Philip Guston, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, Otto Dix, Henri Matisse, and others too numerous to list here.

My general praise of the exhibit however, does not come without criticism. There is an inexcusable lack of women artists represented in what purports to be “a new look at this important historical era”, and I am dubious of the museum’s premise for the exhibition; which stresses how “in the 1930s, biology became a force for change”.

In the 1930s those on the left and center of the political spectrum used the metaphorical phrase, “a new man”, to articulate a belief in the betterment of society and the advancement of humanity, not through eugenics, but by the application of economic policies and scientific progress. The popular expression was optimistically tied to modernist conceptualizations of communal development and a utopian future. It was the Nazis who twisted the concept of biological determinism into a nightmare of forced sterilizations and mass killings in the pursuit of racial purity. For the National Gallery of Canada to suggest that 1930s modernism on the whole was fixated on biology as “a force for change” is indeed a bizarre stretching of the facts.

My misgivings regarding curatorial approach aside, I feel the National Gallery of Canada has brought together an amazing number of profound works for their “New Man” exhibit, and I would like to comment on two of my favorites. Those with an appetite for more information on the art of the 1930s should purchase the exhibition catalog.

Aficionados of surrealism will be happy to know that L’Ange du Foyer (Fireside Angel), by German painter Max Ernst, is included in the exhibit. Like many German artists of the period, Ernst served four hellish years as a soldier on the battlefields of World War I (1914-1918). Immediately after the war he co-founded the Cologne Dada group, which introduced him to an ever widening circle of radical artists. He left Germany in 1922 to settle in Montparnasse, France, where he joined the Surrealist group founded by André Breton.

Painting by Max Ernst

[ Fireside Angel – Max Ernst. Oil on canvas. 1937. Private collection. On view in “The New Man” exhibit. ]

While in France he created the masterwork Fireside Angel in 1937. It was not exactly a prescient work, as anyone who was following events closely could see what was becoming of the world. The reign of Hitler had begun in 1933, the Italian fascists under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936, while General Franco and his fascist movement were in arms against the Spanish Republic. Nevertheless, Ernst’s painting well expressed the gathering menace then engulfing the world. Fireside Angel is the depiction of an indescribable creature as it storms with rage through a desolate landscape. By referring to his impossible beast as an “angel”, the artist warned that in embracing lofty and exalted ideas, we sometimes end up with the devil. It seems we never succeeded in banishing the Fireside Angel Ernst caught a glimpse of, and if we would only pay close attention – we could see the monster riding roughshod over humanity today.

Painting by Rudolf Schlichter

[ Blinde Macht (Blind Power) – Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas. 1938. On view in “The New Man” exhibit. In 1937 Schlichter was forbidden by the Nazis to create or exhibit artworks. That same year the fascist authorities displayed seventeen of the artist’s paintings in their infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibit, and Schlichter’s response to being banned was to secretively paint this canvas. It depicted a brawny warrior blinded by his own power, brandishing a sword and workmen’s tools – walking off a cliff. Demons are clasped to the doomed warrior’s chest, eating him alive. In the background all the accomplishments of civilization burn to the ground. ]

The American surrealist painter, Peter Blume (1906-1992), was once highly regarded as an American figurative painter, though today he is unfortunately almost entirely forgotten. Employing the same techniques utilized by Renaissance artists, Blume’s paintings made use of a near photographic realism, but his narrative works were permeated with surrealist vision and social realist spirit. Blume spent 1932 in Rome, Italy, on a Guggenheim grant, the same year the Italian fascist movement celebrated the tenth anniversary of its so-called “March on Rome”, the coup d’état that brought dictator Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party to power. After returning to the U.S. Blume brooded over what he had witnessed before starting work in 1934 on The Eternal City, a painting that would take him three years to complete and which is now part of “The New Man” exhibit.

As he was working on the final touches of his painting in 1936, Blume wrote a proclamation against war and fascism titled “The Artist Must Choose“. In his essay he exclaimed; “We, as artists, must take our place in this crisis on the side of growth and civilization against barbarism and reaction, and help to create a better social order.”

Painting by Peter Blume

[ The Eternal City – Peter Blume. Oil on board. 45 ½ in. x 59 ½ in. 1934-37. On view in “The New Man” exhibit. ]

Blume used a contemporaneous view of the Roman Forum, the political and religious center of the ancient Empire, as the setting for his picture, but the charming ruins made a farce of the city’s nickname – The Eternal City. In the painting’s distant background Fascist troops can be seen attacking a worker’s demonstration, while in the foreground a number of portentous images vie for our attention. On the left can be seen a polychromed wood statue of Christ situated in a building without a roof, sunrays illuminating the religious figurine mockingly bedecked with military epaulettes and swords. Directly below that tableau a crippled beggar can be seen sitting amongst the broken marble statues and columns of civilization laid low. At right, Mussolini as a gaudy and malevolent jack-in-the-box looms over the entire scene, and lurking in the disintegrating tunnels of the Forum beneath Il Duce’s giant green head, a grinning blackshirt thug and his capitalist paymaster can be seen.

Upon completing The Eternal City in 1937, Blume exhibited the painting at the Julien Levy Gallery in Manhattan. Even though the message of Blume’s anti-fascist work was unambiguous, especially when combined with his written proclamation, numerous critics voiced thickheaded and imperceptive remarks concerning the work. The New York Sun’s widely read art critic, Henry McBride, made this vinegary comment about Blume and his painting: “He won, it seems, a Guggenheim fellowship, and went to Italy nominally as an art student but actually as a political spy, and returns with a picture that pretends to mock Mussolini. This, of course, is an odd undertaking for an American artist.” Edward Alden Jewell, art critic for the New York Times wrote: “The political aspects of this treatise are not altogether clear. We are left in doubt as to whether the propagandist considers this modern dictator a self-sprung megalomaniac or a figurehead manipulated by social forces that have taken control of the situation in Italy. Scarcely more convincing is the religious symbol employed. There is nowhere evident the great transfiguring principle itself of Christian love and Christian sacrifice.”

That Edward Alden Jewell referred to Blume as a “propagandist” is revealing, especially since The Eternal City was the only explicitly political painting ever created by Blume. The open hostility that American art critics displayed towards Blume’s painting was but one indication of the growing disfavor to fall upon figurative and social realist artists in the late 1930s. In a letter to the New York Times in 1943, painters Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman called for an art that would transcend real world issues in favor of pure abstraction. Refuting realism, they declared that meaning in art can only “come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker”, further stating that “We want to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms, because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” Abstract Expressionism soon came to dominate American art, and to the detriment of us all, the realism practiced by Peter Blume was declared hopelessly passé by “serious” critics, collectors, and museums.

Spectators of the exhibition, 1930s: The Making of “The New Man”, will no doubt be left with some gnawing questions regarding the state of contemporary art. After taking in the exhibit and seeing Pablo Picasso’s composition studies for his Guernica mural, Philip Guston’s painting excoriating the air war against civilians during the Spanish Civil War, the acerbic wit displayed in the photomontage works of John Heartfield, and the compassion shown to America’s underclass in the photographs of Walker Evans; the viewer might ask, “Why are we not seeing socially conscious art today?” I would argue that such works are indeed being created, as to why we are not seeing them, or hearing of them – is another matter entirely.

Edward Hopper: A Retrospective

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is the subject of a major retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, the last venue for a traveling exhibition that included stops at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Encompassing nearly 100 of the artist’s most notable prints and paintings, the exhibit features some of the artist’s most iconic canvases, New York Movie (1939) and Nighthawks (1942) to name but a few. As a youngster Hopper’s paintings provided me with an entry point into the art of the Great Depression period, and I recall as an adolescent being mesmerized by his works. So without hesitation I cite Hopper as one of my influences.

Automat - Oil painting by Edward Hopper

[ Automat – Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 1927. From the permanent collection of the Des Moines Art Center and currently part of the traveling Edward Hopper exhibit. ]

The figurative realist paintings of Edward Hopper continue to be extremely popular with the general public and a good number of critics. In 2004 the Tate Modern in London mounted an exhibition of Hopper’s works that turned out to be the second most popular show in the museum’s history – pulling in nearly half a million visitors during its three month run (a 2002 exhibit of paintings by Matisse and Picasso was the Tate’s most popular show). I think it’s a mistake to ascribe Hopper’s continued popularity to simple nostalgia, as I’m certain the allure of his work is based upon a modern audience seeing itself reflected in the portrayals of alienation he so often depicted. In essence Hopper was a social realist, and what he quietly revealed about late 20th century American society still rings true today. Conceivably, another explanation for Hopper’s lasting popularity might be found in his final written statement, published in the Spring of 1953:

“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. The term ‘life’ as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.”

Of course, Hopper made his statement when Abstract Expressionism was the dominant force in the American art scene, and more importantly, at a time when art elites had pronounced realist painting to be woefully old-fashioned – a viewpoint we are still largely saddled with today. But then, Hopper was impervious to the avant-garde movements that swept over the later half of the 20th century; Surrealism, Action Painting, Pop Art – all had absolutely no impact upon him whatsoever. Now that the chilly detachment of postmodernism has become the prevailing fashion in art, many are looking towards artists like Hopper for craft, beauty, technical virtuosity, and narrative without the tedious yoke of irony.

Night Shadows - Etching by Edward Hopper

[ Night Shadows – Edward Hopper. Etching. 1921. Included in the traveling Edward Hopper exhibit. ]

Hopper’s social realism was of a psychological bent, showing individuals who were estranged from each other and at odds with their surroundings – even his depopulated cityscapes suggested disquiet. Hopper’s evocative paintings provide just enough of a story to pull in the viewer, even while maintaining impenetrable mystery – one is never quite certain what the people in his canvases are thinking or doing. While Hopper’s themes often dealt with alienation they were never alienating, and despite the depictions of emptiness and seclusion, Hopper’s works somehow imparted – and still do – a deep and unshakable humanism.

As a student Hopper studied painting and illustration at the New York Institute of Art and Design, where artist Robert Henri was his favorite instructor. Hopper would later be associated with the Ashcan School of social realism launched by Henri and his rebellious cohorts, in fact Hopper first exhibited in a 1908 group show in New York organized by some of Henri’s students. Early on in his career Hopper sustained himself by working discontentedly as a commercial illustrator, a profession he positively detested, and it wouldn’t be until the later half of his life that he met with any success as a painter. He sold his first painting at the 1913 Armory Show, and wouldn’t sell another for ten years. His premier solo exhibit in 1920 was a depressing affair that generated neither critical acclaim nor sales. Thankfully Hopper had the fortitude to press ahead with his work despite the difficulties he faced – a determination that should inspire anyone who swims against the conformist mainstream.

Office in a Small City - Oil painting by Edward Hopper

[ Office in a Small City – Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 1953. Alienation and emotional isolation in consumer society – a critique more applicable today than ever before. Painting in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ]

Hopper was a private man of few words, and he made but three written statements concerning his views on art. The following quotation came from Notes on Painting, a short discourse published in the catalog of his 1933 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art:

“My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impression of nature. If this end is unattainable, so, it can be said, is perfection in any other ideal of painting or in any other of man’s activities. The trend in some of the contemporary movements in art, but by no means all, seems to deny this ideal and to me appears to lead to a purely decorative conception of painting. (….) I believe that the great painters, with their intellect as master, have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions. I find any digression from this large aim leads me to boredom.”

The Edward Hopper retrospective runs at the Art Institute of Chicago until May 11, 2008.

“Apostles of Ugliness” – 100 Years Later

February, 2008 marked the 100th anniversary of “The Eight Independent Painters” exhibition at New York’s MacBeth Gallery. While the event changed the face of American art and established the country’s very first avant-garde art movement, which broke the rules of convention by painting the realities of New York’s working poor and immigrant populations instead of the lives and accomplishments of the well-to-do class – the centennial is not likely to receive any attention from an art world currently obsessed with escapism, celebrity and money.

In 1907 John Sloan, George Luks, and William Glackens were rejected for exhibition by New York’s conservative National Academy of Design, which slavishly upheld classical European academic painting. Robert Henri pulled his own works from the Academy exhibit in protest, and then set about mounting an alternative exhibition of works that would included artists hostile to the Academy’s entrenched academicians and their reactionary jury system. Working with Sloan, Luks, and Glackens, Henri pulled together the exhibit at the Macbeth Gallery in February of 1908. Painters Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Arthur Davies, and Maurice Prendergast were included in the loosely knit group – which became known as “The Eight Independent Painters,” or simply “The Eight.”

Painting by John Sloan

[ Sun and Wind on the Roof – John Sloan 1915 Oil on canvas. ]

While multitudes flocked to the Macbeth Gallery to see the exhibit, the show was met with ridicule from the art establishment and derided by an unsympathetic press, which mockingly referred to the group as “The Apostles of Ugliness” or “The Revolutionary Black Gang” – since the artists painted working people and gritty urban realism with a somber palette. Eventually the group was contemptuously dubbed, the “Ashcan School”, a reference to the garbage cans found in crowded inner-city slums that served as backdrops for many paintings by “The Eight.”

The Ashcan school became the vanguard in the fight to modernize American art. Shockwaves created by the Macbeth Gallery exhibit led to further struggles against academic conservatism, opening the way to the famous 1913 Armory Show – which John Sloan and Arthur Davies helped to organize. The Ashcan school embraced progressive ideas put into motion by European artists, but reshaped those conceptions into something uniquely American. The Ashcan circle of painters eventually widened to include artists like George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and dozens of others.

Painting by John Sloan

[ Self Portrait – John Sloan. 1917-1922. Oil on canvas. ]

John Sloan was unquestionably the most politically engaged of “The Eight”, and his works and ideas have had no small influence upon me over the years. Accordingly, I’ll focus on Sloan for the rest of this article, especially since he is the focus of a magnificent comprehensive traveling exhibit organized by the Delaware Art Museum, Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York. The exhibit presents roughly 100 works by the artist, including paintings, prints, drawings and ephemera – such as photographs and illustrated letters.

John Sloan’s ideas regarding painting, printmaking, and art instruction were fortunately preserved for eternity in a series of writings that were ultimately compiled as the book, The Gist of Art. Part personal observations on life and art, part instructional manual for those interested in the mechanics of drawing and painting, “Gist” is to a large extent comprised of verbatim notes taken while Sloan was teaching in the classroom or lecturing to an audience.

Drawing by John Sloan

[ Ludlow, Colorado – John Sloan. 1914. Lithographic crayon on paper. Originally published as a cover illustration for the socialist New York Call, and soon thereafter published as a cover for The Masses, Sloan’s artwork depicted the Ludlow massacre. On April 20, 1914, in an attempt to defeat a coal miner’s strike in Ludlow, Colorado, National Guardsmen fired upon the striking worker’s tent city – slaughtering twenty unarmed people – thirteen of them women and children. Sloan memorialized the bloodbath by depicting a miner, gun in hand, firing back at the Guardsmen who had murdered his family. ]

Suffice it to say, I think everyone with an interest in the technical aspects of oil painting should read Sloan’s book, but the work also freely offers some of the philosophical ideas held by the artist, a few of which I’ll make mention of here. As an artist given to portraying everyday Americans at work and play, and as a member of America’s first avant-garde art movement, Sloan’s attitudes pertaining to patriotism were no less unorthodox than his views on art:

“In this relatively democratic country today, I feel that, since we can talk about things freely, we can go on painting any kind of subject matter we like. It is not necessary to paint the American flag to be an American painter, as though you didn’t see the American scene whenever you open your eyes! I am not for the American scene, I am for mental realization. If you are American and work – you work will be American. Patriotism, love of country, is very different from love for the government. I love the country in Pennsylvania, New England, and in the Southwest. I love the streets of New York. But I am suspicious of all government because government is violence.”

In a world so dominated by the logic of the market, we’ve come to accept sales price as the sole value of art, and we judge an artist’s success in terms of booming career and celebrity status – so Sloan’s views on making a living as an artist are a refreshing counterpoint to today’s money mad art world. Sloan’s judgment of pursuing a career in art possesses an almost spiritual dimension, not in any religious sense, but in his understanding of art as something deeply personal and transcendent. I believe if we accepted Sloan’s outlook only in part, we’d all be much healthier for it:

“You can’t make a living at art. The idea of taking up art as a calling, a trade, a profession, is a mirage. Art enriches life. It makes life worth living. But to make a living at it – that idea is incompatible with making art. (….) Shun this idea of going into art with success as an aim, wealth as an aim, for the purpose of getting on in the world, getting the good things in life. Success has apparently become much more the art student’s aim than it was in my time. It spells disaster. No one who sets out for success gets the real thing. All you can get is a little sauce poured over you while you are alive. (….) There is only one thing to do about success – shun it. The only kind of success to desire is success with yourself. To make steps, progress, with yourself.”

Compared to the shallow art star celebrities of today, Sloan was well informed and showed not the slightest temerity in expressing controversial opinions. In the following he alludes to the first great world war that broke out in 1914, but his thinking clearly has meaning in the here and now:

(…) The governments are willing to turn their weapons, and tear gas bombs are the least of them, against the enemy or against their own people, their own citizens. Young people in their twenties are going to see things that I would like to live to see, and yet, it won’t be pleasant – it will be terrible. I don’t like war. The economic interests get out their propaganda machines and persuade the people that democracy is at stake. And what do millions of innocent people go out and get killed and maimed for? – to protect the economic interests of the few.

(…) God must be awfully far away or disinterested to let people go on living the way they do in dirt and in filthy holes contaminating one another, swarming out to kill when ordered. They say that love makes the world go round. More likely, in our social set-up, it is the inferiority complex. It makes people want to get ahead, be important. The spirit of competition must be kept out of the artist’s mind.”

American social realism started to take shape at the turn of the century when the country was undergoing, much like today, an extraordinary economic and cultural transformation; which is what makes the Ashcan school so relevant to contemporary artists. Not just a cursory introduction to a long forgotten and marginalized American art movement, this essay is a call for a reassessment of the sensibilities and motivations found at the very core of the Ashcan School – that is to say, an unwillingness to succumb to the dictates of elite taste and fashion, a belief in artistic independence, and a passionate conviction that art should be grounded in the lived experiences of everyday people.

Drawing by John Sloan

[ Heroes of Peace – John Sloan. 1932. Ink and crayon on paper. In this remarkable drawing, Sloan portrays indifferent citizens as they saunter past a crippled war veteran reduced to selling pencils on the street. ]

While the mainstream art world may pay little or no attention to the 100th anniversary of “The Eight Independent Painters”, those concerned with the present and future of art will want to look beneath the surface of things to study the Ashcan school and its lively anti-elitist humanism.