- Reviewed by
Stacy Morgan's Rethinking Social Realism is an ambitious and important study of left-wing African American expressive culture from the beginning of the Great Depression to the depths of the McCarthy Era. Its largely successful efforts to think across boundaries of genre, medium, and intellectual discipline make it among the most impressive studies of African American art and the Communist Left to date.
Like Michael Denning's The Cultural Front and Bill Mullen's Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935–46, Morgan's study reads across boundaries of genre and media, placing African American art within the institutional and ideological context that produced it. However, Rethinking Social Realism is more narrowly concerned with what some scholars of the Left have called the "Black Cultural Front" than is Denning's book and more broadly focused in terms of chronology and geography than Mullen's Popular Fronts. Among its many virtues is the way in which Rethinking Social Realism shows the cross-pollination between artists working in different media. For example, Morgan convincingly demonstrates the formal and thematic impact that Richard Wright's Native Son had on the graphic art of John Wilson.
After an introductory chapter examining the institutional and ideological matrices out of which African American social realist art of the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s emerged, Morgan treats four categories of black social realism (murals, graphic art, poetry, and novels) in separate chapters that, again, attempt to bring these art forms in dialogue with each other even as he does close readings of visual and verbal texts. The individual chapters are further subdivided into a couple of sections that take up more general concerns along with a sort of case study of an important, but critically under-considered artist: Charles White, John Wilson, Frank Marshall Davis, and Willard Motley. Of course, with a comparatively recent surge of interest in the Left and African American culture, all of these artists have attained a higher profile in academia over the last ten years. Still, Morgan's close examination of particular works by those artists, particularly the visual artists, while linking those works to the larger institutional, ideological, and aesthetic framework of the Left, is a valuable addition to this new wave of scholarship.
Morgan's chapters on African American muralists and graphic artists are especially groundbreaking. In general, the study of visual art and the Left in the United States has lagged behind the examination of literature and the Left, Andrew Hemingway's wonderful Artists [End Page 725] on the Left notwithstanding. Scholarship on black visual artists and the Left has been even more scant though the influence of the Communist Left on those artists was no less than it was on African American writers. Morgan contextualizes the work of relatively well-known figures, such as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, and Hale Woodruff; less famous, but generally well-regarded artists, such as Hughie Lee-Smith, Charles Alston, and John Wilson; and far less considered painters and printmakers, such as James Lesesne Wells and Raymond Steth, within their longstanding (and in some cases life-long) engagement with the ideology, aesthetics, and institutions of the Communist Left, both domestically and internationally. Other critics have made the connection between African American artists, especially the black muralists of the 1930s and 1940s, and the Mexican mural movement, most famously represented by the work of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. However, Morgan lays out how Left Mexican artists and cultural institutions, such as the Taller de Gráfica Popular, provided inspiration, training, and refuge from Cold War political persecution to muralists and graphic artists in an unusually clear and detailed manner. Morgan also details the role that historically black colleges and universities, such as Talladega College, Atlanta University (and the other black schools of Atlanta's University Center), Dillard University, and the Hampton Institute, played in support of black social realist art in the South, significantly expanding our notion of the landscape and institutional base of what might...