“The age demanded an image/ Of its accelerated grimace” Ezra Pound, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley", lines 21 & 22
Most scholars agree that industrialization had a major effect on both the production of “art” and “mass culture.” This shift seems to have resulted in a lot of derivative, and some would say inferior, popular art, the kind of “art” which Pound would likely call disposable and reprehensible. The interesting question in all of this analysis is what precisely constitutes “art” in this new culture of consumption and mass production.
This question can productively be applied to the art of social realist Ben Shahn. Shahn was an immigrant and trained in lithography and graphic design. Although he did pursue “modern art” in his earlier career, he later turned to a more realistic style in order to better contribute to social and cultural critique. It is interesting to note that Shahn also worked for the government, painting murals which were intended as supportive propaganda for federal relief programs, a project which allowed federally sanctioned vent for Shahn’s social criticism.
In his painting Farmers, Shahn represents 3 men, farm workers. The misery and hardship of their lives in clear in the men’s grim expressions, but interestingly the piece contains no overt sign of the cause of the men’s discontent. The painting was created in concert with the efforts of the FSA to record the plight of American farm workers.
Shahn’s work is usually in forms which are accessible to the public, either in the form of murals or easily reproduced poster work. Shahn’s art is clearly not avant-garde as Clement Greenberg defines it in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”; the pieces are not art for art’s sake, and are designed for the consumption of the masses, placed as they are in common public venues. They are clearly art with a social purpose, and a very clearly defined subject matter. Further, his art is more easily uinderstood than Picasso’s, in that he is slightly more realistic in his imagery and presentation, so it could be said that Shahn's work “predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art.” The whys and wherefores are not immediately clear, but the genral discontent of the farmers is obvious, so the viewer need not struggle for the piece's meaning. The content and intent of the piece are immediately clear and accessible, essentially painted in the vernacular: the imagery is familiar, drawn from the lives of the very people it is meant to affect. The image is realistic in its representation and takes as its subject matter the common man and his struggles, a subject which should be immediately clear to his target audience: the working man and those sympathetic to, or at least concerned with, his plight.
Further, because Shahn’s works are drawn in a realistic style which borrows from graphic design, and because they are placed for broad public/social access, they essentially combat and/or address the mass culture product which Theodor Adorno is so wary of. Shahn uses the style of mass media, poster art and graphic design, to address and combat the oppression which Adorno feels is so native to mass culture productions. Adorno describes popular culture as a meal at which “ the diner must be satisfied with the menu. . . . Of course works of art were not sexual exhibitions either. However, by representing deprivation as negative, they retracted, as it were, the prostitution of the impulse and rescued by mediation what was denied.” Popular culture is all empty promises and no substance, a distraction from the very real deprivations of modern life, and Shahn’s work, as art, delivers real substance and critique while clothed in a kind of popular drag.
Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception." Marxists.org. Web. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1944/culture-industry.htm
Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." Sharecom.ca. Web. http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/kitsch.html
Pound, Ezra. "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Wadsworth, 2006. Print.
Shahn, Ben. "Farmers." Painting.