Art for Our Sake

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Review of 'Artists on the Left', Andrew Hemingway, Yale University Press £35

In the heart of San Francisco's city district can be found the popular tourist attraction Coit Tower. Lifts take you to the top, from which you get a magnificent bird's-eye view of the bay. Once a week, for a few brief hours, the stairwell is open to the public. Inside is an Aladdin's cave full of some of the finest murals in America. Inspired by the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, artists like Clifford Wright, Bernard Zakheim and Victor Arnautoff have created a stunning series of wall paintings depicting life in the US.

Just like Coit Tower, Andrew Hemingway's fascinating and meticulously well researched new book 'Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement 1926 -1956' takes you back to that period when the left was a major influence on American culture.

Although Andrew Hemingway concentrates on the art world, the left played a major influence shaping music, film and theatre during this period. This was an artistic movement revolted by fascism and unemployment and prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with those fighting back against oppression.

For better or worse, the most powerful ideological and organisational force was the American Communist Party (CPUSA). The CPUSA was a mass of contradictions. On the one hand it contained some of the best working class activists, and on the other it slavishly followed the political line of Stalin. Throughout the 1930s the CPUSA made a number of sharp political U-turns. This took the party on a journey from a refusal to work with reformists (the Third Period from 1928-35), the infamous Popular Front period (1935-39) in which the CPUSA was uncritical of reformists and Democrats, and the disastrous Nazi-Soviet pact. Despite all its political weaknesses the CPUSA did pull into its ranks hundreds of artists and entertainers.

Partly as a result of the momentous struggles taking place, and partly because of the encouragement given to them by being in the CPUSA, artists began to use their work to inspire and enrich working class struggles and explore the contradictions of US society. Others, not formally members of the party, became influenced and drawn into the debates taking place in and around the CPUSA artistic circles. Some artists came together to form debating groups like the John Reed Club and later the Marxist Critiques Group. Hemingway gives a fascinating account of the artistic and political debates inside these groups and their attempts to create a new artistic identity. It also makes inspiring reading to see how artists strived to get their work shown to working class audiences at workers' clubs and trade union halls.

Visually this is a stunning book, full of beautifully reproduced pictures, which help to illuminate Hemingway's arguments about the artistic merit of many of these works. This is important because in doing so he smashes a very common belief which characterises much of the art produced in this period as just crude propaganda controlled by the soul-destroying whims of Stalin.

Clearly some artists did produce poor art, which was defined by crude notions of Socialist Realism. But what this book clearly demonstrates is that many artists both in the CPUSA and outside refused to be shackled by one school of art, and instead fought to create radical art in both form and content. The book is full of pictures that reinforce this--such as Philip Evergood's pencil drawing 'That's the Man'. It shows a young black man being lynched while in the background a US marshal looks on laughing. It is both a powerful drawing in its own right and a hard-hitting statement against racism.

Secondly, much of the work featured in the book shows the power of good propaganda. Take a look at the striking portrait of a worker by Hugo Gellert on the cover of the 'New Masses' or the famous Mischa Richter drawing of the fat capitalist outlawing sit-down strikes. These are fantastic images. I think we are witnessing a similar growth in radical culture today inside the mass movements that are springing up against the war on Iraq and fascism.

The long economic boom, disillusionment with Stalin's Russia and most importantly the witch-hunts lead by Senator McCarthy led to the collapse of these artistic and cultural movements. Andrew Hemingway states that he wants his book to contribute 'to the ongoing struggle to redress America's recurrent amnesia regarding their radical heritage'. In my opinion he has succeeded.