Review by Lincoln Cushing, The Americas, January 2007, page 457

The Social and the Real: Political Art of the 1930s in the Western Hemisphere

Alejandro Anreus, Diana L. Linden, and Jonathan Weinberg, eds.

University Park; Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. Pp. xxii, 362. Illustrations. Notes. Index. $50 paper.


The premise of this anthology is an important one in the confluence of time, geography, and topic. The 1930s, like “the ‘60s,” is shorthand for a significant period in history that does not truly fit neatly into an even-numbered decade. What is meant by “the 1930s” covers the late 1920s right up to the U.S. involvement in the Second World War, a very radicalized period struggling with the Great Depression, capitalist recovery, and communist responses. This book also inclusively embraces the whole Hemisphere, packing into one volume a range of essays on artists and movements in Argentina, Canada, Cuba, and Mexico as well as the United States. The book’s title reflects its goal of dissecting interpretations and implications of “social realism,” an imprecise term never used by the artists at the time (the phrase “people’s art” edged out “revolutionary art” after the Popular Front shift in 1935) but which has now come to define an entire relationship between art and politics.

The introduction presents a good overview of the political and cultural movements during this period, including the often-contradictory relationships between nations, artists, and communist formations. The 14 eclectic essays focus on a single topic, either an artist, a movement, or a subject. All reveal fascinating facts and analyses that incrementally add to a better understanding of this period. Alejandro Andreus documents how Argentinian artist Antonio Berni based his paintings on photographs he took of the unemployed, Mary K. Coffey explores how Mexican muralists shifted from using classical European sources to integrating indigenous cultural imagery in their work, and


Marlene Park offers insight into the politics of a pair of competing anti-lynching art exhibitions held in New York City. The strongest essays go further, raising challenging questions about deeper issues such as nationalism, the orthodoxy of representational art, the importance of federal funding for the arts, and the relationships between artists and Party organizations. Andrew Hemingway posits that the various U.S. communist cultural movements of that period fell apart because of how the CPUSA imploded in response to repression, Jonathan Weinberg suggests that the hypermasculine representations in 30s artwork were a response to the insecurity felt from massive unemployment and women entering the workforce, and Anthony W. Lee makes the case that Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals perpetuated a “leftist fantasy of the American worker” (p. 202) and “…call forth a capitalist vision of harmony on the assembly line even as [they try] to articulate a socialist vision…” (p. 208).

One quality of this book is that many of these essays are about failures, not successes. It’s easy to glorify and romanticize the artmaking during the pre-McCarthy golden years of militant unionism and social upheaval, but this book takes a hard look at the contradictions and limitations of this period. People of color were stereotyped and used to political advantage, women artists had a hard time getting recognition, and the Left spent much of its time fighting itself. Some things never change, but this book gives us tools to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Some peculiar and significant flaws mar this otherwise illuminating work. There are no author biographies, and almost all the images lack documentary photographer credits. The reproductions are often inadequate; important images are referred to but not displayed, the lack of color reproduction eviscerates much of their impact, and many of the mural photos – admittedly a difficult documentation challenge – lack sharpness and contrast. Finally, the emphasis on muralists and painters perpetuates the marginalization of the important role of posters and prints during this period.

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