Book Review: Labor’s Canvas: American Working Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s

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Labor’s Canvas: American Working Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s
By Laura Hapke
Newcastle, UK, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008

Editor’s note: Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American Communist History.

Issues of enduring historical import embodied in the Great Depression are reflected in the enormous quantity of art generated by the Works Project Administration’s Federal Arts Project (WPA/FAP), the largest and longest lasting of the Federal arts projects. For one abbreviated decade (from 1935, when Harry Hopkins, the Director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, realized artists “had to eat like anyone else,” until 1943, when the exigencies of the war effort curtailed its last programs), the FAP hired unemployed artists to create (and teach) an art that was as politically progressive as the New Deal itself, and especially in its best representations was far more advanced. Laura Hapke’s Labor’s Canvas convincingly shows that this subject deserves, and in this book receives, careful consideration by all those interested in WPA art and its intersection with progressive politics and the labor movement.

Over the lifetime of the Federal Arts Project, ten thousand artists produced 340,000 works. Within this wide context, Hapke’s subject is “labor”—how workers were represented, which kinds of workers were depicted, and how these subjects were connected to the contemporaneous Left movements, especially the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). As a consequence of the author’s concerns, she excluded murals (most of which depicted historical subjects) and nonrepresentational WPA artists, such as Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky. The printmakers and easel artists that she studied include many who occupy pedestals in the pantheon of the great social realist WPA artists: Ben Shahn, Alice Neel, Jacob Lawrence, Louis Lozawick, the twin brothers Raphael and Moses Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Elizabeth Olds, William Gropper, Charles White, and Hugo Gellert; as well as some outstanding but less-well-remembered artists such as Louis Ribak, Jacob Burck, and Maurice Kish. These and hundreds of other artists produced what Hapke notes is an “almost instantly recognizable ... labor iconography [that] both chronicles and reframes working class history” (p. 2); it is the very best of these drawings and paintings that she brings to the readers’ attention.

Hapke explicitly affiliates with those art historians of the period who recognize the inherently leftist quality of the WPA’s art depicting workers. Nonetheless, she acknowledges the limitations placed on artists by government (even when led by a progressive administration), especially when the works were to be displayed in public venues—hospitals, schools, and government bureaus. The tension between these conflicting requirements caused, “WPA’s labor canvases to acquire multiple and contradictory meanings.” (p. 270) Nonetheless, she realizes that the major message implicit in this art—at least in its totality—was to “illuminated contradictions between labor’s importance to the nation and America’s belief in an officially classless society.” (p. 15) Labor’s Canvas reminds the reader that these artists were dedicated to portraying workers as entitled to employment, recognition, attention, and honor. They conveyed the latent ability of the workers—as “empowered labor” as well as “debilitated labor” (p. 56)—to effect change in the system.

It was not only the extremely hard times that gave rise to this outpouring of socially conscious, socially engaged art, but also the economic and social status of the artists themselves, who had been devastated by the unprecedented economic collapse. (One criterion for acceptance by the Federal Arts Project was evidence of the artists’ eligibility for Home Relief.) When food, clothing, and shelter became barely attainable for millions, private purchase of art dramatically decreased. More than the workers themselves, the artists quickly imbibed a heady brew of socialist politics melded with artistic theory. Their own condition of life motivated them to “valorize working people” in an art that placed them in situations where “community progress trumped individual achievement.” (p. 15)

In addition to its excellent Introduction, Hapke’s book consists of seven chapters on topics about the Federal Arts Project ranging from women, African Americans, to the depiction of masses of workers—listening to speakers, marching, or purposelessly milling about. Some chapters feature reproductions of aptly chosen representative works. While all of the essays could stand alone as publishable essays, each enriches the others; and all succeed in responding to the stated thesis of the book.

Labor’s Canvas begins with a study of two pre-Depression era artists—Thomas Anshutz and Joseph Stella—who Hapke sees as presaging and influencing the WPA artists’ choice of aesthetics and subjects. Hapke presents a detailed and convincing reading of Anshutz’s most famous painting, The Ironworkers’ Noontime (1880), and Stella’s series of drawings of the socio-economic condition of the Pittsburgh’s predominantly foreign-born working class, that he produced between 1907 and 1914 for the six-volume study Pittsburgh Survey. Hapke uses these works to illustrate a major theme she argues entered into WPA art: the tension between the representation of the native-born craftsmen and the foreign-born industrial proletariat. While this hypothesis bears reflection, the number of artists (John Sloan, Van Gogh, Goya) whose work influenced the WPA artists is long. In the decade prior to the inauguration of the FAP, over half the artists cited in Labor’s Canvas had begun creating socially engaged works, in most instances as illustrations accompanying articles in The New Masses and other publications allied to the Communist Party and displayed at shows sponsored by organizations it inspired. One could argue that “WPA Art” had already been created before the inauguration of the WPA.

Hapke takes up the still-open question of the distinctions between the social art of the twenties and WPA art. Perhaps the difference was not so much in the art as in the artists. To this observer, this important distinction was an unintended the WPA accomplishment. The WPA brought together literally thousands of artists so that they could think and act in concert; it created a context where this most individualistically oriented endeavor became collectivized. Through their involvement in the WPA, artists could now reasonably see themselves as cultural workers, highly skilled workers allied with the working class as a whole. Their organizations, such as the Artists’ Union and the American Artists Congress, depended upon the existence of the WPA; all of them “encouraged the artists to see themselves as part of the new, interethnic, cross-trade, militant rank-and-file they so often pictured.” (p. 249) The seed was planted for something hitherto unimaginable, a union for artists! Organizing around its slogan “For a Permanent Art Project; For Democratic Culture” (p. 263), the Artists’ Union and its publication Art Front (and to a lesser extent, the American Artists Congress) accomplished something hitherto inconceivable. This critical part of the story of WPA art is included in this study, but the author’s hand is a little less steady here than in her insightful and illuminating readings of the individual works she presents to make her arguments for the WPA as integral to the history of the American working class.

Unlike some other scholars of the period, Hapke acknowledges the strong influence of the Communist Party in encouraging this art and helping these artists find audiences (and presumably some small income) as illustrators for magazine and newspaper articles, book covers, pamphlets, etc., all of which provided access to working class audiences. Hapke accurately places within the ambit of the Communist Party a long list of the most important WPA artists, including Hugo Gellert, William Gropper, Alice Neel, Rockwell Kent, Raphael and Moses Soyer; however, Hapke carelessly dismisses as a “cartoonist” Charles Keller, who was a member of a still larger group of second-rank artists connected to the Communist Party. (p. 260) In Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926-1956, which in so many ways is a companion book to Labor’s Canvas, Andrew Hemingway notes—but provides no explanation for—the far larger number of artists, when compared to writers, who remained loyal to the Communist Party. The answer may lie in the inability of the Federal Writers’ Project to give rise to a Writers’ Union. The American Writers’ Congress annual conference could not, at least to anything nearing the same extent as the Artists’ Union, spawn the sense of solidarity with the subjects of their writing and the political movements that arose to empower and provide leadership for them as had occurred among social realist artists.

One outstanding chapter in Labor’s Canvas analyzes the work of three WPA portraitists—Raphael Soyer, Alice Neel, and Elizabeth Olds. Their work undercuts the assumption of some that portraiture is an art form intended to flatter the privileged. Their subjects run the gamut. Neel’s portrait of Pat Whalen—a union militant whose clenched hands rest on a copy of the Daily Worker, whose headline blared the news of labor uprisings in the coal and steel industries could have been used for the cover of Hapke’s book had it not already been put to that use for Hemingway’s study of Communist artists during the Depression. Hapke effectively relates Neel’s conviction that the portrait could fulfill both aesthetic and political goals by citing the artist’s oft-quoted phrase that she “painted my time using people as evidence.” (p. 109) Soyer’s portraits confront the viewer with the depredations of a system that beats down its workers. They do not convince the viewer of the capability of the subject to struggle on his own behalf as much as they demand that the viewers take action to prevent the degradation and demoralization of members of a class for whom, Soyer assumes, they feel a sense of concern and loyalty. Olds’ portraits introduced ethnicity and race into a remarkably white palette: even for white Communist artists, the “nascent socialist man” was generally presumed to be white, male heterosexual. (Here Hapke might have noted Alice Neel’s extraordinary outpouring of exquisite portraits of Puerto Rican and American-Americans, and later in her career, gays and lesbians.)

Hapke’s chapter on African-American artists and the WPA identifies significant distinctions between their work and that of white WPA artists, who as often as not, shared with them membership in the Communist Party. The African-American laborers had been largely excluded from working in the basic industries; and as a consequence blacks could not significantly participate in the great industrial uprisings that punctuated the decade of the thirties. Hence, these African American social realists’ works rarely depicted “images of monumental workers.” Moreover, instead of the confident determined glare of Neel’s portrait of Pat Whalen, for example, African-American artists most often painted their fellows with “enigmatic or pained expressions.” Perhaps because of their better grounding in the racial reality of America in the thirties, the African-American artists much less frequently painted or drew workers in integrated settings than did their white comrades. Hapke has important things to say about Charles White, who continued to contribute work to Communist publications as late as the 1970s. White and Richard Wright, both of whom traveled in the same Communist Party circles in Chicago, shared an approach to the African-American masses, which, in Wright’s words, viewed the fate of many of its males as resulting from “the necessity of learning survival techniques [which] stunt black psyches.” (p. 189) Hapke focuses much attention on White’s Native Son #2, a drawing inspired by Wright’s Native Son. She notes in this work, White created a “proletarian grotesque,” which simultaneously conveys a sense of dignity and dehumanization. His subject, a muscular, troubled man, like Bigger Thomas, evokes both pity and fear.

Hapke discusses the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, perhaps the most famous of the African-American WPA painters, in her chapter on women. Here she recognizes his unique contributions in bringing women workers to the fore in his works.

Though primarily a work of art history, which significantly contributes to an important period in American art, Labor’s Canvas also sheds a broader light. This valuable book adds further weight to the arguments that the New Deal was a phenomenon much further Left that previously believed and that the influence and scope of the Communist Party was greater than the conventional literature asserts.

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