Saturday, November 19, 2016


In 1948, Ben Shahn illustrated an article for Harpers Magazine about the murder trial of James Hickman.

Hickman worked the night shift in a Chicago steel mill to support his wife and seven children.  The family lived in a tiny attic in a tenement slum, in one of the few neighborhoods where African Americans were permitted to live under Chicago's racially restrictive zoning rules.  Hickman tried to move out of his apartment but his landlord refused to return Hickman's security deposit.  The landlord  told tenants that if they raised problems, he knew "a man" who would come burn them out of their homes.

On the night of January 16, 1947, Hickman was working at the mill when his apartment caught fire.  The apartment was unsafe, with no exits, fire escapes or extinguishers.  His children were trapped inside.  When he returned the next morning his neighbor said, "Mr. Hickman, I hate to tell you this, four of your children is burnt to death."  They found the body of Hickman's 14 year old son under the bed, futilely trying to shield three of his younger siblings from the flames.

The Chicago police made no serious effort to investigate the landlord.  As the months went by, the anguished Hickman, devoutly religious, obsessed more and more about the babies that he'd lost, and the lack of justice in the world.  He said, "some day they would have married, someday they would have been fathers and mothers of children...."

Eventually Hickman got a gun and at God's instruction killed the landlord.  Finally motivated, the Chicago police arrested Hickman.  He freely admitted what he'd done, saying, "Paper was made to burn, coal and rags, not people.  People wasn't made to burn."

The prosecutor put Hickman on trial for first degree murder.  He was surely headed for the gallows, but then the story took an unusual  bounce.  The other tenants in Hickman's building angrily organized into the Chicago Area Tenant's Union  and combined with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) to publicize the case and support Hickman.  An outraged public rose up.  The ACLU defended Hickman and the jury refused to convict him.  

Harpers Magazine hired the distinguished journalist John Bartlow Martin to write about the trial, and renowned artist Ben Shahn to do the illustrations.  Shahn remained haunted by what he had learned about the case, and after completing the illustrations, he went on to create a larger, more allegorical painting about the tragedy.  Shahn transformed the fire into a flaming wolf / lion creature, with the children lying dead at his feet. 

Unfortunately, some officials-- already suspicious of Shahn's support for racial equality-- became concerned that the red beast might symbolize communism.  Henry McBride, writing for the New York Sun,  argued that Shahn should be "deported" for painting a pro-communist painting.

Shahn was indeed a socially conscious artist; he had previously participated in the WPA, where he worked with other artists who were interested in creating an American art that reflected the lives of ordinary people.  The following image, by another WPA artist, gives us insight into crowded urban life in the '30s for people of that class.

One critic noted that once the social injustice of the Great Depression and the existential threat of World War II had subsided,  former WPA artists became less interested in a representational, humanistic style:
Artists had to apply for WPA positions.  They were paid between $23 and $35 a month to produce a set amount of work every week.  "There were a lot of women participants... and it was very overtly welcoming to African-Americans....."  Perhaps because there was so much collaboration-- or because the artists wanted to keep their patron, the WPA, happy-- most of the prints remained representational and accessible.... "very focused on the present and engagement with the human experience.... The WPA officially disbanded in 1942, although artists continued to work in that style through Word War II.  But after the war, notions of art changed.  "The project developed a national identity that pulls away from the personal....After the war, artists reacted against it with abstract expressionism....It was a natural pendulum swing, I think, a reaction to the ways the WPA didn't speak to individual artists."        
Since the post war era, much of fine art has been self-absorbed and self-referential.  But it appears that there may be many opportunities for artists to play a socially conscious role in the years ahead.  It will be interesting to see how the art community responds.

PS-- In 1948 the Supreme Court finally ruled that the racially restrictive covenants which had kept Hickman and other African-Americans confined to a narrow stretch of dilapidated, rat infested apartments were unconstitutional.  Here's hoping that the new appointments to the Court don't have a change of heart.


pRiyA said...

What a read. It makes the image of the flaming creature and its symbolism all the more powerful and as you so rightly pointed out, even more relevant today.
The painting by Shahn and the one below it use beauty as a device to reinforce the power of their message. I am not sure bunches of life jackets tied to pillars have the same impact or resonate as much. But yes, one hopes the art community will respond to our times in ways which are as memorable as Ben Shahn has done.

Anonymous said...

It's up to the artists now with this crazy fucked up new president and all the republicans in congress kissing his ass. There's no one except the artists left to save America.


Anonymous said...

Maybe, just maybe, artists can make the public aware of what's happening to this country. God knows the press and TV sure won't. And also for sure it won't be subsidised.

Robert Cook said...

It's too late. Capitalism has learned that the swiftest way to vitiate the power of art or ideas that arouse the public is to co-opt them, to make even the most iconoclastic ideas "ironic" and "cool," turning calls to outrage or action into mere fashion statements and au courant postures.

Tom said...

"It will be interesting to see how the art community responds."

Hi David

Here is an "interesting," artist's response.

Didn't Robert Hughes remark on how "cool" the artists of the 1960's were in comparison to the societal upheaval and the Vietnam war. Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol etc...

Laurence John said...

David, in the last post you said "I guess I'd propose that what makes art great is rarely the subject"

i agree... lots of mediocre art gets attention because it has hot political content. i would say that if art is going to deal directly with 'issues' then it needs to be especially great, if it is to have any value beyond its message / content.

(and conversely, art that deals with low-brow subject matter like shirt advertising also needs to be especially great if it is to have any value beyond its message / content).

David Apatoff said...

pRiyA--Thanks. So much of contemporary conceptual art abandons old fashioned notions of "beauty" so that their ideas don't have to compromise with form. I agree that they lose a lot in the process. We'll have to wait and see what the "life jackets tied to pillars" crowd comes up with in the years ahead, but I am guessing it is not likely to give the resentful, uneducated factions in society any second thoughts about the harm they do. It is more likely to confirm their rage about "elitists."

JSL wrote, "There's no one except the artists left to save America."

I don't know if the artists are up to the task, but the traditional "balance of power" that once kept the US on an even keel doesn't seem to be operative right now, so I wouldn't rely on the three branches of government to perform their traditional role of "checks and balances." That may create a great opening for the next Thomas Nast or Daumier.

Anonymous-- Yes, it's a serious problem.

Unknown said...

Who is "another WPA artist"? The drawing looks like a Reginald Marsh to me, but I can't identify it.

Kristopher Battles said...

So much of art over the last couple decades has been DECIDEDLY politically and social-consciousness driven.

I taught for a couple semesters at a well-known art school, and so much of what professors were encouraging in the students had less to do with quality execution or composition, etc, and more to do with "Social Justice" and being "active in the community"...

I think we've already got too many young people who don't have a clue about our political system, nor of traditional methods of drawing, composition, content, and so on.

If the cast of "Hamilton" is any barometer of how art sees its role, than we'd do better to get politics OUT of art, or at least "Keep it out, until we know what we're dealing with," to paraphrase half of the public...!

That is to say, we shouldn't shun political content, but I think the best way to do that while maintaining value and dignity in art would be to seek the old ways such as allegory, while pursuing contemporary subject and depiction.

Kristopher Battles said...

Here's a great example of art that is timely (when it was painted) well-executed, and not lacking in social or political content. It's a bit more nuanced than most protest art that's being fomented of late.

David Apatoff said...

Robert Cook wrote: "It's too late."

Your points are well taken. Still, before we surrender, I'd urge you to take heart from the words of the great Walt Whitman: "When liberty goes out of a place it is not the first to go, nor the second or third to go.
It waits for all the rest to go, it is the last."

Tom-- Well, there's no guarantee that every artist who becomes politically active won't be a moron. It will be interesting to see whether simplistic, one dimensional images will be more effective than quality art in shaping public opinion. The latest election does suggest that there is a large, uneducated audience that will easily become agitated in response to crude stimulus.

Laurence John-- I agree. There's a real danger that art that attempts to "deal directly with issues" will devolve into cheap propaganda (for example, Mr. McNaughton in Tom's example above). An artist requires greater artistic control to prevent strongly held political views from derailing the artistic qualities of an image. I've often cited Yeats' quote: "Out of our arguments with ourselves we make art. Out of our arguments with the world we make propaganda."

David Apatoff said...

Peter Davis-- an excellent question. I should have given Millard Owen Sheets credit for his 1935 lithograph, “Family Flats.” I'll go back and add his name to the text.

Kristopher Battles wrote: "So much of art over the last couple decades has been DECIDEDLY politically and social-consciousness driven."

You've raised what I think is an important definitional issue. I suppose there is a glut of "social values" art, art about the dehumanization of modern society or about the importance of tolerance. We see it in high school art classes. We see it in performance art by fuzzy headed types. Is that the kind of "politically and social-consciousness" art you meant, or did you have a different kind of art in mind? The impact of such art is uncertain at best; perhaps it has a vague effect on society's tone (although it may be offset by widespread irritation at such art). But there are other types of of political art that seem to me to be more effective.

For example, art with a sharper social focus has proven unsettling to powerful autocratic leaders. Hitler was so angry about David Low's cartoons that the German government lodged a formal protest with the British government, just as Hitler put a bounty on the head of Arthur Szyk for his anti-Nazi illustrations. George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz are two other examples. Stalin and Mao were perturbed by hostile art and went to great lengths to stifle it. Islamic fundamentalists have diverted all kinds of resources and manpower to keep people from seeing art such as the Buddhas of Bamyan (which tells you the kind of weight they attach to art).

It seems that many of the images that have had the greatest impact on leaders recently are photographs. Alan Kurdi's photograph of the three year old Syrian refugee boy drowned on the beach last year, or Mahmoud Raslan's photo of 5 year old Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo each had a significant impact. US presidents have been forced to reverse their policies as a result of images, such as the photo of the body of a soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, or the photo of the mistreated prisoner wearing a hood in Abu Ghraib prison. In both cases, the presidents would not have been moved by position papers or Congressional arguments, but the pictures were too powerful to resist.

Tom said...

David sometimes really really bad art (Mr McNaughton) needs a critic who is equal to the task. Perhaps a Leonard Plinth- Garnell

On a more serious note you mentioned photography's impact on political issues. Don't you think the press, especially television had a big impact on people's view of the Vietnam war? As the press at that time was not embedded into our military forces as it has in our time.

Dan Patterson said...

I am way out of my depth discussing art, artists, or anything artistic. I fool myself into thinking the feelings evoked by artists' effort can defeat the defenses layered on my heart like the calluses on my hands, but the inner me knows it's only simple self deception.

I also follow politics and Constitutional matters; again the triumph of hope over experience? So the racially sprouted policies of the past that seeded the death of Hickman's childred and of Hickman's peace, and your PS, caught my attention. The Supreme Court does not intervene (Constitutional objections to recent arguments aside) but passes judgment on lower court rulings that are of questionable Constitutional merit. The Constitution is famously and correctly silent on matters of human race but explict in addressing all people under it's roof. It is the duty of sworn court officers to uphold the Constitution and the duty of the citizenry to hew to that line as well. But when a blind eye is cast to the actions of either a lower court or more likely the citizens surrounding it, a sometimes long overdue remedy is triggered. It was not the Court of 1948 nor any prior year that allowed for inhumane social constructions of the stripe that killed Hickman's children but the ingrained inhumanity of the population of Chicago that did that - no different, except by spoken accent, than the populations of Atlanta and Selma. The 1948 Court removed those social chains but only after hearing the voice from lower courts; future courts will likely behave is a similar manner without regard to their racial, regional, or social backgrounds.

Keep up the good work and much thanks for your very educational, informative, and enjoyable site.


David Apatoff said...

Tom--the consensus seems to be that images, especially television, had the decisive impact on people's view of the Vietnam war. The anti-war artwork (such as posters by Ungerer and Chwast) was powerful but didn't change as many minds. People read news reports for years, but it wasn't until they saw videos of the horrors of war that the tide of public opinion turned.

This has good effects and bad. People speculated that if TV News had covered World War II the way it covered the Vietnam war, Americans would have been so appalled by the casualties on D Day that America would have pulled out of World war II and left Europe to Hitler.

Dan Patterson-- Welcome, and thank you for your very kind comment. Like you, I'm way out of my depth discussing art but it hasn't stopped me yet because I enjoy it. Plenty of people write in with backgrounds in math, science and politics and I think the cross-section of expertise enriches the conversation.

You write, "The Constitution is famously and correctly silent on matters of human race." It is also never mentions "democracy" or a dozen other concepts that are crucial to our daily life. In my view, the Supreme Court can choose to intervene or not, depending on when they decide to grant a petition for certiorari, and how aggressively they behave once they've granted cert. Looking at the history of Supreme Court decisions, it seems to me that the most effective constraint that prevents the Court from "intervening" is the judicial temperament of the individual Justices. History has shown that if a Justice doesn't accept the importance of moderation and circumspection as judicial virtues, they can always find ways to intervene. That's why the upcoming choice of Supreme Court justices is so important.

Tom said...

Hi David

Maybe the TV revealed something deeper, that is the insanity of war? Didn't George Orwell write in homage to Catalonia, something to the effect that, "ideology dies quickly, the closer one approaches the front."

Tom said...


Actually we might have left Europe to Russia? Just read this today, it is a different view of the good war,

David Apatoff said...

Tom, what a difference between George Orwell (your first quote) and David Swanson (your second reference).

Orwell was brilliant, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, remarkable not just for his insights but for his extreme lucidity and his courage. That one pithy sentence that you quote speaks volumes, and I've added it to my commonplace journal. I love that writer.

Swanson, on the other hand, blathers on with a lot of sweeping generalizations and dubious assertions, bending and twisting them to support his feeling that no war is ever justified. I agree the war in Iraq was a horrible mistake (engineered by that maniac Cheney at a time when the country was in a highly emotional state) and the world-- including the US-- will be paying for that mistake for a long time. But when Swanson attempts to broaden his assertion to all wars, he loses me. I find his discussion of Roosevelt and Churchill scheming to "provoke" World War II to be a juvenile, one dimensional view of world politics. For example when it comes to provocation, historians agree that Lincoln masterfully "provoked" the confederacy into starting the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumter. If he hadn't, half the country would own black slaves today. And anyone who faults Roosevelt and Churchill for trying to stop Hitler before he became too powerful (and before he slaughtered millions of other "undesirables") is, in my view, crackers. Swanson would do well to remember the words of a superior writer, Trotsky: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."

I always give Orwell extra credit because, despite the fact that he saw The Big Lie on both sides of a dispute more clearly than any other writer of his generation, he still recognized that there came a time when he had no choice but to pick up a gun and fight. Homage to Catalonia was a great book.

Tom said...

Hi David
I never heard of Swanson before I read that article today. Sounds like you have read him. Thanks for the response

Anonymous said...

"Here's hoping that the new appointments to the Court don't have a change of heart."

The cringe is real.