Arts and Entertainment

A Century of Progress… (Or Not)

Art for the Millions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcases the radical political works stemming from the Great Depression.

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The 1930s were a time of American suffering. The Great Depression hit in 1929, sweeping the nation with eviction, illness, poverty, unemployment, and famine. As American patriotism declined, many workers became captivated by communism as exhibited in the Soviet Union. The work of artists during this time, collected in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s, was heavily influenced by the struggles of the Great Depression, while also touching on broader social and political topics such as racism, sexism, fascism, and technological advancement. Most of the works in Art for the Millions were not intended to be presented as fine art, being magazine covers, propaganda posters, advertisements, and artifacts (such as a dress and a meat slicer). However, despite their unconventional mediums, powerful historical and political messaging shines through in every piece.

Hung in the center of the gallery are two posters by illustrator Hugo Gellert: Daily Worker (1935) and The Communist Party (1935). The works portray muscular, bare-chested figures—the proletariat in human form—holding up a fist and hammer and sickle flag, respectively. The images are accompanied by bold black text criticizing the capitalist institution and urging viewers to join the communist movement. The two posters overlook a series of magazine covers that mirror them in subject matter and style. As workers became increasingly distressed with the state of America, illustrators such as Gellert were often hired by left-wing publications to make political cartoons calling for radical communist change. 

Displayed alongside Gellert are samples from the Yiddish magazine Der Hammer, which published drawings by cartoonist William Gropper from 1933 to 1934. On the May 1934 cover, Gropper used a blocky, black-and-white design to portray an army of protesting workers holding weapons and marching across the globe. Though the portrayal of worker strikes was a common motif in communist artwork, Gropper uniquely presented workers of multiple races (Black, White, and Asian) united. At the time, advocacy for labor and civil rights were seen as separate causes despite their intersectional goals, as people of color were often barred from union membership. By portraying a distinctly multiracial and cosmopolitan communist insurrection that reflected America’s newfound identity as a “cultural melting pot,” Gropper reaffirmed the connectedness of the racial struggle with that of the working class.

A popular subject in Gropper’s and other left-wing artists’ work was the stereotypical  “fat cat” capitalist, a large-bellied white businessman. On Der Hammer’s August 1934 cover, Gropper, who was Jewish, compared capitalists and their disregard of workers rights to Nazism: one of the capitalists wears a tie emblazoned with the swastika as he raises his arms in a Nazi salute. More “fat cat” capitalists appear in feminist artist Elizabeth Olds’ lithograph Burlesque (1936), in which they form a crowd and watch a group of female dancers perform in a club. The men are faceless with their backs turned from the viewer, invoking a sense of nonchalant amusement as they watch the show. The performing women mirror each other, sharing a psychotic toothy grin as their strained, heavy eyes gaze down at their audience, features accentuated by dark shadows. This gives the effect of the dancers being in pain—a result of their exploitation—to which the capitalists appear apathetic. This reinforces the disconnectedness of the elites through the“fat cat” stereotype. Olds uses haunting imagery of the women’s faces to project a sense of female unity in the face of sexual exploitation: their collective demonic, agonized faces serve as a shield between them and the capitalists.

Though the Great Depression caused unease across the country, Americans found a source of hope and optimism in World’s Fairs, held in big cities such as New York and Chicago. At a time when the oppressed wanted to turn to communism, World’s Fairs rejuvenated faith in capitalism by presenting America as a futuristic hub for technological advancement and prosperity. The artwork advertising these fairs exemplifies this; Glen C. Sheffer’s famous World’s Fair, Chicago, A Century of Progress, 1833-1933 (1933) poster, for instance, uses fantastical elements to put modern technology on a pedestal. A woman stands atop a globe donned in shining armor. She raises her arms toward the colorful, retro-futuristic metropolis as blimps and planes adorn the sky. This message of forging a bright future through America’s industrial capitalist system was just as appealing to working and middle-class Americans as communism, evidenced by the turnout of the Chicago Fair (nearly 40 million visitors). 

Leftists responded to this technological buzz with works such as Doris Lee’s Catastrophe (1936), one of the few fully realized paintings in the exhibit. Catastrophe depicts an exploding blimp whose passengers are parachuting down to the Hudson River as workers labor along the riverbank. The painting takes visual influence from Pieter Brugel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus (1560)—the blimp’s destruction alludes to Icarus “flying too close to the sun.” Furthermore, both Lee and Brugel depict common workers who live grounded, satisfying lives without the potential dangers of technology. When Lee’s blimp explodes, the workers are spectators, safe on the ground and juxtaposed with the upper-class parachutists dressed in fancy suits and dresses. While Sheffer’s poster presents a city that is shiny and idealized, Lee’s Manhattan is gritty and unsentimental, with bleak skyscrapers and dark, murky waters. The sky is polluted, likely by the factory faintly outlined in the dense cityscape. Even the oxidized, bright green Statue of Liberty—a representation of American hope and ideals—appears significantly faded in the painting. Though the urbanization and innovation of the 20th century were exciting to Americans from all facets of the social hierarchy, Lee reminds viewers that this new wave reinforced the oppressive capitalist system that made cities like New York depressing industrial sprawls that almost exclusively benefited the upper class. 

Art for the Millions has a clear aim: to tell a story about the political landscape of 1930s America, a period of widespread sentiments of social justice, communism, and exciting new technology. The exhibit delivers on this, but its scope seems unambitious. The exhibit’s works are fascinating, but that is more so due to the unique history at the heart of its tale and the continued political relevance of ideas from the time. Few works stand out from an aesthetics standpoint; though advertised as an art show, Art for the Millions is most enriching when viewed as a history lesson.