In the early 1920s, the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was so awestruck at the sight of Brooklyn Bridge that he wrote a 4-page poem about the experience. “Give, Coolidge, a shout of joy!” he exhorted, praising the bridge’s “austere disposition of bolts and steel.”
Even though he was an ardent Communist, Mayakovsky venerated the industrial products of American capitalism. Mayakovsky’s Brooklyn Bridge was more than a mere structure – it was sacred, and he entered its hallowed frame “as a crazed believer enters a church.”
Little of that soaring exuberance is present at the Block Museum’s current exhibition on Leftist American art during the Great Depression. Left Front:Radical Art in the Red Decade focuses neither on Communism’s glorious future nor the raw power of industry – common themes in Leftist art from the previous decade – but on the unprecedented suffering caused by capitalism. (At least five separate works are simply titled Unemployment.)
Most of the artists in the exhibition belonged to the John Reed Club, an organization for Communist intellectuals in the USA named after the radical American journalist who now lies buried under the Kremlin. One of those artists, the German-born Carl Hoeckner, drew hyper-realistic allegories of capitalism so dark they almost foreshadow the Holocaust. Hoeckner’s heavy, even religious imagery stands in stark contrast to the benign tractors-and-workers school then dominating the Soviet Union.
Similar to Hoeckner’s hellish scenes is Elizabeth Olds’ 1937 lithograph I Make Steel, in which a worker’s uncertainty about his fate is compellingly depicted by his expression.
Amidst all this misery, Henry Simon is one of the few artists to celebrate working class men instead of mourning them. In an untitled drawing, Simon depicts a triumphant worker contemplating the fruits of his labour: a hectic jumble of Manhattan’s skinny skyscrapers and Vladimir Tatlin’s beautifully insane Monument to the Third International. Communism is around the corner, and workers from New York to Leningrad will soon unite.
But the art’s explicit political purpose be problematic; as art fan and Bienen junior Erin Cameron put it, some of the pieces feel constrained by ideology.
“I guess it presents an intellectual dilemma of art being useful in its own right versus being propaganda,” she said. “I feel like some of [the pieces] blur the line.”
Indeed, some of the works, such as Mabel Dwight’s Danse Macabre, feel more like state-sponsored political cartoons than “art” as we consider it today:
The history of the John Reed Club itself underlies this tension between authoritarianism and free expression. Stalin forcibly dissolved the organization in 1935, yet it wasn’t until the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 that American intellectuals stopped turning a blind eye to Stalin’s oppressive rule.
It’s a little perturbing to read in the exhibition’s brochures NU’s art professors fully endorsing Leftist revolutionary art without a modicum of historical distance. An exhibition on no-less-interesting Fascist art would likely have strenuously distanced itself from its artists’ ideals. Alas, academia has never owned up to its support of Stalin’s brutal regime in the thirties, and it can’t be expected to do so now.
The artists on display had more of an excuse. Even if they ignored Stalinist cruelty, their beliefs existed in a historical context in which fascism was a very real threat.
In the age of Damien Hirst and the free market, the conviction through which these radical artists attempted to bring art to the masses leaves some nostalgic.
“[Progressive art] is just not as common. That’s too bad,” said Bill Dolnick, a social worker at the exhibition. “But I don’t find it dispiriting.”
“You can still hope. And it’s great art.”