American Expressionism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Jul 6 09:24:50 MDT 2003

LA Times Book Review, July 6, 2003

The rhetoric changes, yet the art endures

By Pete Hamill, Pete Hamill is the author of numerous books, including
"Diego Rivera."

American Expressionism
Art and Social Change 1920-1950
Bram Dijkstra
Harry N. Abrams/Columbus Museum of Art: 272 pp., $60

This is a marvelous, passionate and irritating book that proposes to
retrieve a once-powerful movement in American painting from the rubbish
heap of art history.

That lost Depression-era movement has been sloppily labeled Social Realism
by the clerks of academic art criticism, with their iron need for
categories. The label is unfortunate, as cultural historian Bram Dijkstra
states (over and over again), because it suggests affinities with the
"socialist realism" of Stalin's Soviet Union. Each was, of course,
political, but they were utterly different.

"The socially concerned artists of the thirties," Dijkstra writes, "quickly
recognized that these modern stylistic means could serve to add emotional
depth to their documentation of the plight of the dispossessed. They used
the stylistic innovations of the 'art-for-art's-sake' movement to enhance
the visual impact of their political statements. In the process, they
developed a uniquely American variant on expressionism."

The 100 or so young artists he prefers to call American Expressionists
began to emerge in the 1920s, in the era of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover
and George Babbitt (as imagined by Sinclair Lewis). During that period, a
new American art seemed to be emerging in the work of Thomas Hart Benton
and John Steuart Curry, full of "real" Americans moving through the baroque
countryside of the Midwest and West. Their vision was heroic, filled with
Americans building, fighting, farming. Some of their work remains valuable,
as a failed attempt to create a virile myth of America. At the same time,
it depicted a dream world, rural, Jeffersonian (in the sense that it was
anti-city), free of Prohibition gangsters, widespread hypocrisy and the
infantry of the Ku Klux Klan. It also displayed a stylistic contempt for
the breakthroughs of European art, including Expressionism.

But the national palette darkened with the onset of the Great Depression.
Much of the emerging American art was produced by immigrants or their
children, many of them poor or working-class urban Jews, and their work
combined considerable artistic skill with left-wing visions that ranged
from revolution to reform. Much of it had a moral component, as old as the
Old Testament. Too much of it offered heavy-handed ironies. It's difficult
to generalize about artists with so many styles and viewpoints. But this we
do know: The so-called Social Realist painters were making an urban art,
their visions emerging from the forcing ground of American cities, in
particular New York. Many were nurtured intellectually and aesthetically by
the vehement cafeteria culture of Greenwich Village and Union Square, where
the air was rich with left-wing rhetoric, hurled anathemas, the burnt
offerings of schism.


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