Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York. By Helen Langa. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. 345 pp. Cloth, $55.00, ISBN 0-520-23155-4.)
Reviewed by Sharon Musher
Although gender analysis is not at the core of Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York, art historian Helen Langa's new book contributes importantly to our understanding of gender's operation within radical visual culture. Radical Art joins a growing shelf of books that examine the brief flourishing of visual art on the left during the Depression. Using gender as an analytical tool, Langa both recovers the works of female printmakers on the left and analyzes how gender shaped leftist iconography.
Radical Art opens by explaining the cultural and political context that encouraged printmakers to engage overtly in political commentary in the 1930s. In the first two chapters, Langa argues that printmakers used art to counter injustice as a result of three developments: the rise of the Popular Front -- an alliance between new Deal democrats and the Communist Party that lasted from 1935 until 1939, the creation of the Federal Art Project's Graphic Art Division, and the development of a set of new ideas regarding the appropriate relationship between art and politics. Radical Art concludes by outlining the circumstances in the early forties that foreclosed the brief alliance between art and social values: the failure of the Popular Front, conservative attacks on government funding of the arts, and the art programs' eventual dissolution. Between these chronological book ends, Langa shows printmakers on the left using their art to oppose labor exploitation, racial discrimination, and fascist intimidation. In chapters devoted to each of these themes, she finds that the Popular Front softened the revolutionary tone that had predominated in prints created in the early thirties; for example, it replaced prints conflating capitalism and fascism with cooperative, harmonious, and even interracial images of laborers.
In addition, these leftist printmakers tended to reinforce rather than challenge gender norms. Radical Art supports the already familiar argument that New Deal artists portrayed laborers primarily as masculine, heterosexual, and Caucasian. Gender played a less well-known role in anti-racist and anti-fascist prints. Langa contends that assumptions about race, gender, and art discouraged female printmakers from portraying racial violence, especially lynching, because of its potential focus on the bodies of black men. Similarly, Langa finds that gendered ideas about vulnerability and resistance encouraged printmakers on the left to depict peasant refugees and bombing victims as female and heroic fighters against fascism as male. By investigating gender's operation in prints celebrating labor and opposing racism and fascism, Langa reveals some of the less obvious ways in which artists largely failed to contest oppression at home and abroad.
Langa also recovers the works and lives of female printmakers on the left, such as Mabel Dwight, Blanch Grambs, Riva Helfond, Nan Lurie, and Elizabeth Olds, and shows that these women were more likely than their male counterparts to challenge gender stereotypes. Piecing together retrospective exhibits, contemporary articles, interviews, and prints in journals, archives, and collections, Langa illustrates the contributions that female printmakers made to radical art. Their input was particularly significant, since female printmakers represented about one third of the more than eighty artists on the Federal Art Project's Graphic Arts Division. These women often challenged traditional views of women and men. For example, they portrayed burlesque dancers as skilled and cooperative laborers rather than emphasizing their sensuality. Langa's analysis of the ways in which Elizabeth Olds both accommodated and defied gender expectations is particularly insightful.
Despite the nuance of her visual interpretations, three aspects of Langa's argument call for clarification. First, Langa's assessment of printmaking as a "vital form of art" during the thirties rests on a narrow definition of the term. Langa assumes that a work of art can be "vital" if it confirms pre-existing assumptions among two relatively small cohorts: a cross-generational group of primarily white, New York based male and female artists on the left and their educated, urban, middle-class, liberal-left viewers. Leftist prints, however, also influence viewers from other political perspectives. For example, Langa posits that viewers on the left might have seen a print of an overworked seamstress as arguing for better work conditions for women, while another viewer might have viewed the same image as confirming the need for men to receive a family wage and for most women to leave the labor market. This reader wonders how "vital" a radical culture can be if it reinforces preconceived notions across the political spectrum and only calls to action those people who are already engaged in a social movement.
Second, Langa insufficiently analyzes the structural forces shaping representations of gender. Radical Art attributes conventional representations of gender to personal desires: the wishes of female printmakers to advance professionally and to avoid gender segregation. Government funding and market expectations, however, largely influenced both artists' careers and their representations of gender. For example, women writers on the left during the thirties largely rejected gender norms, integrated class consciousness with gender consciousness, and portrayed women as workers. New Deal printmakers and muralists who accepted gender boundaries were markedly more likely than such writers to receive government funds or achieve commercial success. Such differences suggest the influence of monetary concerns on the gender imagery an artist chose to use.
Finally, Langa contends that the maintenance of gender (and racial) stereotypes in the thirties undermined the egalitarian principles espoused by artists on the left and discouraged their overt commitments to social justice themes. Langa's conclusion, however, contradicts the evidence she offers. Dreams of gender and racial equity in the art world during the thirties might have failed; however, federal patronage widely expanded opportunities for such individuals to produce art and (generally) to receive equal compensation for their labor. Given their acquiescence to gendered (if not racial) stereotypes, it is difficult to believe that printmakers' inability to achieve complete equality would have encouraged their rejection of overtly leftist themes.
Despite such shortcomings, Radical Art offers a thoughtful interpretation of how the radical visual tradition of the thirties maintained (and at times contested) hegemonic assumptions about gender.
Sharon Musher is a Dolores Liebmann Fellow and a doctoral candidate in American History at Columbia University. She has published articles in the American Quarterly and the Jewish Journal of Sociology and is currently completing her dissertation, entitled "Art and Citizenship: The New Deal's Efforts to Integrate Culture and Politics."
For examples of this growing literature, see Andrew Hemingway, Artists
on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926-1956
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Anthony W. Lee, Painting
on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco's Public
Murals (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Susan Noyes
Platt, Art and Politics in the 1930s: Modernism, Marxism, Americanism:
A History of Cultural Activism During the Depression Years (NY:
Midmarch Arts Press, 1999); and A. Joan Saab, For the Millions: American
Art and Culture Between the Wars (Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
See Barbara Melosh, Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in
New Deal Public Art and Theater (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution
For more on women printmakers, see Langa's "Egalitarian Vision,
Gendered Experience: Women Printmakers and the WPA/FAP Graphic Arts
Workshop," in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History,
Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (New York: IconEditions, 1992).
For more on women writers on the left see Paula Rabinowitz, Labor
and Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Barbara Foley,
Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction,
1929-1941 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993); and Constance Coiner,
Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel
Le Sueur (NY: Oxford University Press, 1995).
| All Reviews | Contents | In This Issue | About the Journal |
| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |