The early 20th Century was a tumultuous period in art, and also the wider world, with wars, revolutions, and huge shifts in geopolitics and society. Artists were reconsidering what art was too and increasingly seeking to tear up the past, which these major worldwide events fed into and inspired. The First World War impacted so many, so deeply, that an anti-art movement like dada was inevitable, but many more world events impacted the psyche and inspiration of artists directly, and one of these was the Great Depression, and the movement of social realism.
Striking deeply into American life the Depression affected almost everyone to some extent, and it came at a time when art had shifted into a very abstract period. dada had turned away from traditional subjects, and de stijl, constructivism, Bauhaus, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and colour field painting often turned away from subject entirely. They sought meaning in colour, form, and application, or in surrealism, artists sought meaning in the world of dreams; realism was far from anyone’s mind.
But as the economic and social pain of the Depression was felt, many artists and photographers wanted to draw attention to what was happening to the working class, and a new phase of realism would do more than just document; it would critique the power structures that created the Depression.
A return to realism, but with a new perspective of the modern art period
Realism had always been tradition, even when depicting a fantastical subject, figures and landscapes were rendered faithfully to the real world. Social realism twisted this in various ways to critique the social environment for decades in France, while in the UK it captured the Industrial Revolution, and in Russia the late Tsarist period, but in the early 1900s it began to filter into American art.
The ash can school challenged the emerging impressionist style to deliver very realist depictions of everyday life, New York at the time was full of contradictions of both confidence and doubt, and ash can artwork sought to capture the energy and vitality of the city in a mostly positive way. Social problems featured, but not strongly, it was largely a positive look at life as it existed at the time, but then came the Wall Street Crash and the effects of the Great Depression.
The positivity of ash can artists was quickly turned on it’s head as a new movement of social realism emerged, much more in common with the European social commentary, responding to the hardships that suddenly befell huge swathes of the working class. There was also inspiration from Mexican muralists, who often tackled political subjects in their work, primarily from a left wing, Marxist perspective, which was mirrored by the Socialist views of most of the American social realist movement.
Communicating consequences of industrialisation through Social Realism
Industrialisation and capitalism had changed the world, but it also had consequences; cities and their slums grew, overproduction collapsed the farming industry, and over-speculation collapsed Wall Street, all of which left working classes unemployed and deeply suffering. Social realists chose to document it all, sympathising with the poor, and utilising a realist style to help make the message clear and appeal to a far wider audience than much of modern art did.
The public wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it though, what good were artist’s doing painting their suffering? American Gothic by Grant Wood, often seen as the most fundamental example of social realism, insulted the people it depicted and was theorised as some kind of satire of small town life by art critics. It took time for the piece to be admired as a depiction of steadfastness even in the face of the terrible conditions of the Depression.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been modern art if it hadn’t been misunderstood, and it eventually gave way to even more public bemusement at the abstract expressionism that was already developing elsewhere in the art world. Social realism perhaps had it’s greatest impact in the world of photography, where documentary photography flourished and resulted in some of the most important, impactful, and memorable images ever captured to film.