What is the relationship between artistic expression and political action? This question has long occupied artists and was an enduring concern of American painter, photographer, and graphic artist Ben Shahn. With the 2020 elections fast approaching, Shahn’s work offers insight into the role art can play in advancing civic discourse.
In 1956, Shahn was asked to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. In one, he made the argument that a tendency toward nonconformity, which he defined as “a want of satisfaction with things as they are,” led artists to “become critics of society, and . . . partisans in its burning causes.” For evidence, Shahn urged the audience to look to the “passionate testament of their sympathies as it is written across the canvases and walls of the world.”
This is certainly true of Shahn’s oeuvre, which bears clear signs of his lifelong devotion to leftist politics. Many of his works are now in the collections of the Harvard Art Museums and Harvard’s Fine Arts Library, which jointly house the Ben Shahn Archive. The archive includes, among other works, Shahn’s drawings of the unfair trial and execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti; his photographs capturing the plight of farm families during the Great Depression; and his posters protesting nuclear proliferation.
One of Shahn’s most direct engagements with politics came in the mid-1940s, when he was hired as chief artist of the Graphics Division for the newly created Political Action Committee (PAC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a federation of labor unions. This was a fitting position for Shahn, who had participated in efforts to form an artists’ union in the mid-1930s and had produced posters for the Steelworkers Organizing Committee in 1936. While Shahn and his team of staff artists produced a wide array of graphic material for the CIO-PAC, his best-known works from this period are a series of posters he made in support of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential reelection campaign in 1944. Hung in union halls across the country in the lead-up to the election, these posters called on the CIO’s five million members to vote for Roosevelt and his platform of progressive legislation.
One of Shahn’s most widely reproduced posters for the CIO-PAC is Welders, For Full Employment After the War (1944). The poster shows two helmeted welders, one black and one white, at work on a soaring structure that we can glimpse in the reflection of the white welder’s safety goggles. The vision in his glasses conjures a future that is bright and dynamic, and it brings a satisfied smile to the worker’s face. Underneath the welders, the reference to “full employment after the war” comes from Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union, in which he proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” that would guarantee Americans, among other things, the “right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the nation.”
This promise found wide support among voters who had not forgotten the uncertainty and deprivations of the Great Depression. Shahn’s decision to employ an image of a black and a white worker together is significant because Roosevelt made his pledge to all Americans, not just whites, and intended the message to appeal to black voters. The white welder, however, is centered and much larger than his black coworker. These compositional choices speak to the continued marginalization of black Americans during this period, even among progressives like Shahn.
Despite these shortcomings, the poster was well received by both labor leaders and art critics. In addition to being admired by CIO members across the country, curators at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York were drawn to the work and purchased the gouache on board painting on which the poster was based. Few artists of the period could match the wide appeal of Shahn’s work.
Another of Shahn’s popular posters for the CIO-PAC is Register…The Ballot Is a Power in Your Hands. A strong, tanned arm with rolled shirtsleeves, likely that of a CIO worker, reaches out toward the viewer with a yellow notice. It reads: “THE BALLOT is a power in your hands. Use it and you help to secure good government. Fail to use it—and you score for the other side. Your vote is the key to your freedom. To use it you must register. Do it.” Dispensing with subtleties, the poster commands us in large, bold letters to register to vote— to just “do it”—and even threatens that not doing so will cede control to political enemies. Where Welders uses imagery of a prosperous future to compel Americans to register to vote, this poster relies instead on bleak warnings of what might happen if people relinquish that right. This pair of rhetorical strategies—one appealing to voters’ desires, the other to their fears—remains common in political messaging today.
Roosevelt won the presidential race in 1944, much to the satisfaction of Shahn and the CIO, but his sudden death in April 1945 called into question the future of his campaign promises. In response to that uncertainty, Shahn produced For All These Rights We’ve Just Begun to Fight for the CIO-PAC in 1946. The poster shows a galvanized worker marching through a stream of brightly colored banners emblazoned with the proposals from Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights.” The figure raises a defiant fist in the air, which leads our eye to the poster’s titular slogan. The lone marcher is a model for the audience—we are encouraged to join in the fight to secure the rights Roosevelt championed. The lower section of the poster prompts the viewer to “Register [to] Vote” as one clear way to participate in this struggle.
Despite its strong message, the CIO-PAC considered this poster Shahn’s “only failure,” likely because the various texts overwhelm the figure at center. Unlike the focus on workers and their labor in Welders, this later poster deals with abstract ideas and promises that perhaps seemed remote in the wake of Roosevelt’s death. Though the poster did not appeal to CIO leadership, its visual energy and compelling call for solidarity still rouse viewers today.
In a 1964 interview, looking back on a long career at the intersection of art and politics, Shahn unabashedly asserted: “‘Propaganda’ is a holy word when it’s something I believe in.” For Shahn, it was essential to entwine his artistic practice with his desire for social reform. “A truly creative artist,” he argued in his Norton lectures, is “able to see the configuration of the future in present things [and] presses for change.”
Shahn’s vision of the ideal artist as someone who agitates for a better future resonates today. Many contemporary artists create work in support of political causes and campaigns, such as Shepard Fairey’s OBAMA HOPE GOLD and Allan Edmunds’s 200 Yrs. There has also been a flourishing of socially engaged art practices, from Zanele Muholi’s concept of “visual activism” to Tania Bruguera’s Arte Útil (“useful art”). While the work of these contemporary artists departs from Shahn’s in notable ways, they would likely agree with him that great art and political conviction go hand in hand.
Katherine Mintie is the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Harvard Art Museums.