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Ben Shahn, Contemporary American Sculpture

Ben Shahn's painting "Contemporary American Sculpture" blends a real gallery with images of everyday people. Inspired by the 1940 Whitney Annual Exhibition, it shows sculptures and pictures of a mining town, a farmer, and two women outside a hospital. It questions the role of art and the artist in society. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle jazz music) - [Dr. Harris] We're in the Georgia Museum of Art. And we're looking at a painting by Ben Shahn called "Contemporary American Sculpture." And it looks different than what I usually expect. - [Dr. Richmond-Mall] It's a really unique painting. It originated in 1940, inspired by the Whitney Annual Exhibition of that year. And Shahn here is painting a gallery that actually existed. It's a gallery of eight sculptures that all appeared together in that annual show, but there's also something surprising happening in the background. - [Dr. Harris] On the left wall, a view of what looked like tenements and then an image of a figure who looks impoverished, in front of a shack. And then two figures, one holding crutches. These images look like much more of what I expect of Ben Shahn paintings. - [Dr. Richmond-Mall] The views that you see here are actually based on photographs that Shahn made in his travels as a photographer during the Works Progress Administration. On the left, it's a West Virginia mining town, in the center a farmer in the Ozarks in Arkansas and on the right two African-American women sitting outside a welfare hospital in New York City. They look like they could be paintings on the wall. And yet it's that doorway on the left, where the tiled floor of the gallery suddenly turns into dirt and patches of grass, that cues you to think that this is not an actual gallery space at all, but this mingling of these outsider figures being brought into the space of a gallery. - [Dr. Harris] So many artists were involved in the WPA in the 1930s. This was an effort to employ artists during The New Deal. - [Dr. Richmond-Mall] Also to document contemporary American life. Sending these photographers around to communities all over the country to capture a slice in time in American life and culture. - [Dr. Harris] And Shahn's work is about raising our awareness of the suffering of working people. And so in this painting, I sense the tension for Shahn between two worlds. Between the art world, which was clearly very important to him. This is where he made his living, where he had to establish his reputation, but also another world that mattered to him enormously as a social realist painter, a world where he could use his art for social good. - [Dr. Richmond-Mall] He's creating these visual relationships between the X form of the crutches and the X form of this abstracted bronze body that's on the pedestal. Noting what does high modernist sculpture have to say about the human condition? What do these pristine bodies that are an ideal, what do those have to say about human experience and the experience of real life Americans, who you see through these windows and doorways? It's this realization for him. What is the work that I'm doing in the world, what function does it serve? And reckoning the role of the artist in society. For him being part of both the high art world, but also developing these relationships in his travels as a photographer around the country with these communities who are so distant from the spaces that he occupies as a professional artist. And this is this hinge moment for him, when he's moving from what might be called a social realism, a realism that comments on social reality, to what he came to call a personal realism. (upbeat jazz music)