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

Lewis Hine, Child in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

George Luks, Hester Street, 1905

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 in the questions 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 troubles of the 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.  The students named below will be asked to present a brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) response to their assigned question. Sometimes the works named in the question will not be in the readings, in which case you should use the concepts of the readings and lectures to analyze them independently.

Click on the names of the works to see large-scale reproductions.

1)  (*Grace Maloney*) Compare/contrast Maurice Prendergast's Central Park (1908-10) and George Luks's Hester Street (1905). Both are views of NYC by members of The Eight, but they tell very different stories about the city and its residents. Why is Luks considered a member of the Ashcan School but not Prendergast? Be sure to consider style as well as subject matter.

2)  (*Maika Bernard*) 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 Edward Steichen's The Flatiron (1904) and Lewis Hine's Italian Family Seeking Lost Baggage, Ellis Island (1905).

3)  (*Darla Santos*)  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 (1908) to make your points.

4)  (*Kelsey Cronin*) Lewis Hine cautions that "while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph." Even without considering deliberate manipulation such as distorting filters and photoshop, how can a photograph be made to give a misleading or biassed impression? Here and here are two photographs of Michael Brown, a Black teenager who was killed by the police in 2014 (look up the incident if you are unfamiliar with it). How would selecting one versus another for a news story automatically bias the message of that story, despite the fact that both are 'factual'? Before class, email me a couple of other examples of the biassed use of photography, either with or without manipulation.