Ben Shahn - Social RealistDuring the first half of the twentieth century there was a belief (perhaps naive) that art and artists could change the world by changing the way people looked at and thought about various social problems and injustices. Many of these artists were painters. Of course now, its doubtful very many painters harbour hopes their work will have much impact on old and new social problems because if that were really their aim, they wouldn't be using brushes but television or movie cameras instead. But there was a time and there were men like Robert Gwathmey, Philip Evergood, Jack Levine, and, perhaps most closely tied to what we've come to call Social Realism, Ben Shahn.
Shahn was born in 1898 in Lithuania. He came to this country with his immigrant parents when he was eight. He grew up seeing firsthand the suffering and injustice wrought by American society of his day upon those whose only crime was being poor or of some ethnic minority. He studied art at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, and while in his early twenties, gained some notoriety through his paintings of the trial and execution of Nicole Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti who were tried for murder but convicted largely because of their radical political beliefs. In conjunction with Upton Sinclair's novel, Boston, based upon the same trial, Shahn's stark, visual images, showing the two men in their coffins, focused adverse national attention upon the skewed legal system and social/political biases in the case.
During the 1930s and 40s, Shahn continued to espouse and paint in connection with a number of left-wing socialist causes advocating changes that today, most of us take for granted. In 1947, his paintings of a Centralia, Illinois, coal mine disaster which killed 111 men, centred not so much on the victims but on the wives and loved-ones they left behind. His Miners' Wives, painted in 1948, and Death of a Miner (1949) were instrumental in awakening the rest of the world to the negligence in coal mine management, the crass disregard for human life, the inhuman working conditions, and the lax safety standards which had led to the disaster. As a result, one has to wonder how many present-day miners' lives have been saved through this artist's work.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 July 1998