american art

from the colonial period to world war two

Jacob Riis, Home of an Italian Ragpicker, 1890

Robert Henri, Fifty-Seventh Street, 1902

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907

George Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913

John Sloan, Class War in Colorado (cover for The Masses), June 1914

how the other half lives


people, terms, and concepts: industrialization, proletariat, art as social criticism/activism, art as propaganda, art as documentary/journalism, art as escapism, The Ashcan School, art photography, straight photography

The 'other half' here refers to the urban proletariat (lower-class manual laborers), who experienced a rapid decline in their wages and in their living and working conditions during the American ‘Gilded Age.’  Recall the conditions that caused this: industrialization replaces skilled craft labor with unskilled machine labor; plus an influx of women, children, and immigrants into the workforce creates a massive surplus of workers, thus driving wages down -- and the economic policies of laissez-faire capitalism meant there were no minimum wage or workplace safety laws (or that they were unenforced).  At the same time, explosive population growth in cities and the lack of constraints on landlords caused rents to soar and living conditions to plummet, resulting in overcrowded inner cities that were riddled with poverty, crime, and disease ...

We looked at a number of artists who turned their attention to the the urban culture and conditions of the time, especially the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, and the artists Henri, Luks, Bellows, and Sloan of the Ashcan School.  Among the significant issues that we examined and are further addressed below are these:  (1) the different status of painting and photography with regard to “truth” or “factuality”; and (2) several different uses of art and photography:  as propaganda (for the powers that be); as social criticism or activism (against the powers that be); as documentary or journalism (neutral reportage with no overt social aim); and as escapism (a realm of fantasy and formal harmony apart from the social world).  How would you assess the attitudes and roles of the artists on this and the prior page (cosmopolitanism) along these lines?  What are the pitfalls, as an artist, of using art as social criticism?  These issues are examined in various ways in the questions below.


Readings:  Craven chs. 25 (371-76), 29 (pp. 422-38) & 31 (468-76), plus Trachtenberg, "Lewis Hine" (PDF)

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as www.artstor.org.  Please email me by Monday at 11 pm with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.


1)  In chapter 31, Craven discusses two very different aims for photography:  'art photography' and ‘social documentary photography.'  Contrast the styles, subjects, and aims of these two types of photography in relation to selected works from the readings and/or of your own choosing.  Email me your choice of works by Monday evening.

2)  Summarize Lewis Hine's aims for his photography as discussed in the Trachtenberg reading.  How do his photographs achieve these aims?  Closely analyze his Child in a Carolina Cotton Mill to make your points.

3)  Hine said about photography, "The photograph has an added realism of its own … the photograph cannot falsify" (Trachtenberg p.  252).  Discuss this side of the question:  how is a photograph automatically 'more true' than a painting?  Hine also cautions that "while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph."  How can a photograph be made to "lie" despite its apparent factuality?  Give a couple of examples, not necessarily from the text or by famous photographers — email them to me by Monday evening.

Lewis Hine, Child in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

George Luks, Hester Street, 1905