For my American Art History class, we are to complete a few recitation assignments throughout the semester. These are basically oral exams that assess our ability to discuss the artwork we have been learning about as well as explain how the art relates to larger themes that we are studying. Over Zoom, we’re asked two questions out of around 8-10 that we had access to prior to the recitation. Overall, these take about 10-15 minutes to complete, so they’re not stressful and actually kind of fun to prepare for! One of the questions that we were asked to prepare for the last recitation assignment was particularly fascinating to me, so I thought I’d share a little about what I would have answered for it.
“How were artists and/or architects [from about 1880-1915] utilizing mediums to serve as active agents for social justice or societal change?”
With the rise of Realism at this point in American history, artists used their mediums to facilitate social justice by bringing attention to areas of society that no one wanted to see, but especially didn’t want to see represented in art. Realism was a movement that began in Europe (France specifically) in the mid-1800s that was adopted by American artists in the latter half of the century. Though the style of French Realism wasn’t immediately adopted by American Realist artists, the subject matter was. These artists sought to portray contemporary life, often from the perspective of marginalized communities, in an unembellished or real way (hence the name of the movement, Realism).
This movement inherently caused artists to use their art as agents for societal change because the subject matter was focused on people who weren’t often represented in high art. One example of this is Abastenia St. Leger Eberle’s White Slave from 1913. This small bronze Realist sculpture depicts a young girl being sold into the sex slave industry, which is an unfortunate and untold part of our collective world history that continues to date. This statue is a commentary on the fate of many immigrant and low-class women of this time. A young girl stands completely naked next to an older man who stretches out his hand in a request for payment for her. She is portrayed as having no power whilst she is being auctioned off. Her head is completely facing downwards and her shoulders are rounded forward, putting her in a position of complete deference. Additionally, her wrists are being held behind her back by the auctioneer. She has no say in this. Her smooth skin contrasts with the rough texture of the man’s suit and facial expression and evokes in us, the viewer, a deep sense of disgust in the situation. This subject matter ruffled more than a few feathers at the Armory Show of 1913 where it was deemed the second most controversial artwork there. Abastenia St. Leger Eberle was very active in women’s rights issues and had strong beliefs regarding social justice. We see in White Slave how she forces us to look at the horrible truths of society, and when confronted with this real and raw truth, the conversation surrounding societal change begins.
Another example of how artists used their art as agents for social justice is evident in George Bellows’ Both Members of This Club from 1910. This painting is of two men boxing in a club. It is a dynamic painting full of violence and testosterone as each boxer is depicted as strong, dangerous, and compelling to witness. The musculature of both the white and Black man is emphasized whereas their faces are both out of focus, leading us to clearly see their violence but not their humanity. This theme is especially prevalent when we notice that the Black man seems to be winning the fight in this painting. Bellows was making a commentary here on the fragility of white manhood in the early 1900s. More Black and white interaction was facilitated by urbanization, and even though the boxing clubs in the cities were all-white, there was no hesitation to break the rules and say that a Black man was a member of the club in order to witness him in the ring. The fighters represent the literal practice of boxing clubs bending the rules but also the fear of white men that Black men were going to “beat them” if they were integrated more into white society. This struggle focuses on the white man’s perceived fight with Black men for power within society and doesn’t take into account the humanity of the Black community who had never held equal power to the white community in America up to this point. Bellows uses this painting to point to the racial injustice being sustained by fragile white masculinity.
The Realist artists’ art served as active agents for social justice and societal change because they displayed areas of society that were riddled with injustice, thus forcing the audience to see that injustice. These are only two of many examples, of which I’m sure there are even better representations of this theme. These two artworks were ones that we discussed in depth in class, thus were perfect for my recitation assignment. Thanks for reading my preparation for a recitation question! Though it wasn’t one of the ones I was asked, it was fun being able to share it with you all. Have a great week!