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Social Realism Art Movement: Paintings, Photography & Sculpture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Social Realism was an important movement in American art history. In this lesson, we'll examine the overall trends of the movement, and see how that translated into painting, sculpture, and photography.

Social Realism

There's a longstanding tradition of art being created for art's sake. Basically, the idea is that art is meant to reflect beauty; therefore we create art because art is inherently valuable. The goal of art does not need to be anything other than perfecting art.

That's a nice idea, but what if you wanted your art to have more of a purpose than the exploration of beauty and aesthetics? What if you wanted your art to, say, challenge political injustices in your culture? In American art history, Social Realism was a movement that saw the goal of art as being for more than art's sake. These artists saw art as being a tool for bringing strong political and social commentaries to the masses. It's art for the sake of the forsaken.

Characteristics of Social Realist Art

Social Realism emerged after World War I and was dominant throughout the 1920s, and 1930s. It became especially popular during the Great Depression as the messages of the artworks took on new relevance. So, what did Social Realist art look like?

Thematically, Social Realism was a movement that emphasized working people as the subjects of art, generally in an urban and industrial setting. Instead of kings or gods as the subjects of art, Social Realist works elevated factory workers and laborers, often presenting them in a heroic fashion. The subjects in Social Realist art were often dealing with injustice, either conquering it or suffering as heroic martyrs, which again was a relevant idea in the Great Depression. Thus, Social Realism contained strong, and overt, political, and social commentary, packaged in a way that was supposed to be accessible to the people, not just the elites.

Social Realism often focused on workers in urban settings
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Aesthetically, Social Realism took on a number of styles and designs. The movement was always more about ideology than a certain look, but it is important to note that Social Realist art was representational. In Europe, modern art was focused on abstraction and the reduction of representational imagery. It was art for art's sake, an exploration of pure aesthetic truth. Many Social Realists blamed European greed and brutality for World War I and the Great Depression, and so they rejected the European taste for abstraction and created representational, (if still stylized), artworks.

Social Realist Painting

Social Realism appeared in a number of media, but it's often most associated with painting, partly because this is where it really developed. Social Realism emerged in painting in the 1920s, building on two other movements. First was the Ashcan School of American Realism, a turn-of-the-century group of American artists who rejected the idea that art should focus on beautiful subjects. They instead focused on depicting truth in art, painting scenes of gritty urban settings and the impoverished masses within them.

The other major influence was Mexican muralism, championed by Diego Rivera, Alfaro Siquieros, and José Clemente Orozco. These artists painted massive scenes, celebrating Mexican life and the Mexican people in public spaces. That idea translated perfectly into Social Realism in America, and painters of this movement sought to create images not on canvases in galleries, but in government buildings, and other places where the people would be able to see them.

Moses Soyer and his assistants preparing a mural
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This ideology became a cornerstone of the Great Depression, as the government started sponsoring Social Realist artists to cover government buildings in murals as part of the Works Progress Administration and Public Works Art Project. Aaron Douglas painted scenes that celebrated African American culture and identity and encouraged African-American communities to be self-sufficient. Moses Soyer painted intimate portraits of regular, generally working-class people. Ben Shahn painted murals of workers, immigrants, and victims of industrial accidents as heroes.

Social Realist Sculpture

Social Realism was primarily a movement in painting, but there were artists who embraced it in sculpture as well. One example is Isami Noguchi, a Japanese-American sculptor famous for his depiction of a writhing figure, based on the image of an African-American man who was lynched over a bonfire. Working with the NAACP, Noguchi's work carried strong political and social critiques, condemning the lack of progress in stopping lynching in the American South.

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