Infamous New York: Bosses, Burlesque & Mayhem

by Constance Schwartz



In the thirties, the threat of war, joblessness, and the closing down of the luxury market for art caused many artists to swing back to "an art for the proletariat." Although economic and spiritual depression made artists realize the necessity for organized activity, it was government support that eventually catalyzed the country's painters.

In the decade between 1933 and 1943, the single most important factor for the maintenance and future of art was the patronage by the federal government providing known and unknown artists with commissions, monthly stipends and materials. Artists were employed to decorate municipal buildings, banks, post offices, housing projects, schools, railroad stations, or public edifices as part of the Public Works Administration (PWAP) initiated by President Roosevelt's New Deal. The major achievement was the quantitative fact of artistic production during such difficult times.

Abstract art did not offer any viable answers to the nation's social or political problems. The political right among artists and public favored American Scene/Regionalist paintings while the political left advocated an art of emphatic social protest. On February 14, 1936, Lewis Mumford opened the first Artists' Congress in New York in which approximately 300-400 painters, designers, photographers and sculptors participated. "The time has come for the people who love life and culture to form a united front against them, (fascism, war, and economic depression) to be ready, to protect, and guard, and if necessary, fight for the human heritage which we, as artists, embody."[1]

Disengaging themselves from the isms that had been developing during the first decades of the 20th century, the Social Realists take as their main subject certain significant or dramatic moments in the lives of ordinary poor people and focus on the indignity or pathos of their situation-the hard work they perform, the inadequate rewards they receive for it, or the miserable conditions they work under. When the rich parts of town do appear, they become objects of satirical derision: art patrons unable to understand the pictures they view, dowagers attending the opera mainly for snob reasons, millionaires dining in splendor while half the world goes hungry. These artists sought common cause with the workers: their role was both to portray this part of humanity directing their work toward the mass of people and remain indifferent to the praises or purchases by the small group of wealthy collectors.

At no time, however, did these Realists stop selling their work to museums and to private buyers. The latter were mainly middle-class sympathizers, small businessmen, and professionals in medicine, dentistry, and the law. The ACA Gallery almost exclusively with the Downtown Gallery handled the work of the Social Realist artists. The ACA Gallery was known as the main source of exhibition and sales of Socialist painting. Evergood and Gropper exhibited there, while the Downtown Gallery showed Shahn, Levine and Lawrence.[2]


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