Well, hasn’t any writing about American politics since the election been like driving a new car off the lot. The moment it hits the pavement it’s out of date. Any attempts to think about American art right now are caught up in the same roiling boil—either it’s directly political and therefore a ticking bomb, or so aggressively apolitical it’s irrelevant at best or insulting at worst. Did the curators know that this exhibit of American art from the 1930s would be so aggravatingly timely? Or were they more focused on taking Grant Wood’s American Gothic out of the USA for the first time in its life?
It’s the former, not the latter. In thinking about this piece I’ve had to confront a basic assumption I’ve always made about the government: while it might not be actively supporting me, for the most part it hasn’t been actively sabotaging me. I came to adulthood in the 90s, when the Clinton administration was dancing a fine line between trickle-down Reaganomics and a gradual expansion of equal rights to include people outside the heterosexual/cisgender/married-homeowner-2.2 child spectrum. I have enough privilege that I’ve been able to assume that an umbrella of protection has also covered me. In the last month or so I feel like I’m on a beach in a hurricane.
So, since right now we have to adjust our assumptions about how the world is ordered and who is on our side, art is –hopefully– a safe place for that. And as America roils and boils around us we need to think hard about a lot of the assumptions we’ve taken for granted about our world.
The subtitle of the exhibit is “the age of anxiety” but I wonder if a better meaning might be “the age of alienation.” The paintings in the exhibit show people who have been separated from things which many others took for granted: well-paid, reliable work; a rooted place in which to live; a life based on a routine of the seasons (or the body) instead of that of the machine or the clock; the ability to feel safe within your own body. The paintings are specifically gathered from the 1930s to show the spectrum of “protest art” that was made in those years; the final room also shows Hollywood movies that deal with poverty, such as Grapes of Wrath. There is also the blackface dance sequence of Fred Astaire’s that Zadie Smith used as a centerpiece of her new novel, Swing Time. So the exhibit is certainly tapping into a deep vein of the zeitgeist.
The best of these paintings manage to balance social realism with timeless feelings – so looking at New York Movie (1939) by Edward Hopper enables you to admire the usherette’s shoes whilst also understand just how bored and lonely she really was. American Gothic, unarguably a masterpiece, opens the exhibit. The attention it pays its subjects hasn’t weakened and its impact hasn’t diminished. On the reverse of the wall is Alice Neel’s portrait of Communist activist Pat Whalen, which isn’t as technically good a painting, but you can feel the fury with which she put the paint on the canvas. And hanging these works together is a clear statement of equation and provocation.
The rest of the exhibit is broken up into five sections, essentially the country, the city, the past, the present and the future (which is two paintings, the only Jackson Pollock and another, minor, Hopper). None of the four main sections are handled stereotypically. Country landscapes are a potent metaphor for the exploitation of the natural resources; city streetscapes are a crowded, hedonistic search for pleasure with mixed success. The past is a mixed bag of American history, some with a heavy influence of Soviet workers-right propaganda and others with more sarcastic Americana nostalgia.
The section about the “present,” entitled Nightmares and Reality, is the strongest. It is here the artists put their darkest thoughts to canvas. Joe Jones’ American Justice foregrounds a recently violated black woman in front of KKK members standing around by a house on fire and nooses swinging from the trees. Since 1933 this painting has lost none of its power to shock, nor, sadly, any of its relevance. My favorites in the section were the self-portraits, such as Helen Lundeberg’s surrealistic and desperately sad Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, and Walt Kuhn’s Portrait of the Artist as a Clown, which is not much more cheery. It is interesting to see, at least in this exhibition, how even in the 1930s white artists tended to focus on the self, while for artists of colour, a focus on race was seen as the same thing.
But it’s important to remember that we cannot draw direct political parallels from this exhibit to our turbulent times. The painters featured in this exhibit were, to some extent, supported by the state. Either they were hired by the Works Progress Administration under the schemes to provide work to artists – such as the murals painted in Coit Tower in San Francisco, or Hallie Flanagan’s network of theaters across the country – or they were painters like Hopper who found success in the Roaring Twenties and whose reputations helped them to survive the Great Depression.
Right now it feels like we are more poised on that cusp – the end of the Roaring Twenties and about to embark on an uncertain future, where good things are almost certainly not going to happen. The major difference is that the artists in the 1930s were, for the most part, working under the New Deal, a political administration that was trying hard to reverse the economic downturn of the 1929 Wall Street crash and the downturn under the Hoover years. Whatever your political opinion, you can agree we are not in the same place now.
It’s not quite reassuring to learn that the feelings of artists in a time of turmoil are unchanged. We have this belief in progress, in the improvement of the way people are treated and how we face both individual and communal challenges. Whether or not this belief is misguided, we have exhibits like this to mark how it was dealt with in the past, and to offer a suggestion for what we could do going forward.