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  • "At least half the pages will consist of pictures": New Masses and Politicized Visual Art
  • Helen Langa (bio)

During the 1930s, the American leftist journal New Masses was unique among left and liberal magazines in publishing a large number of visual images along with muckraking political analysis, essays on historical and current events, contemporary fiction, and reviews of art exhibitions, theater, and films. New Masses was founded as a monthly magazine of leftist writing and art in 1926, following the model of two earlier American socialist journals, The Masses and The Liberator. In January 1934, it began publishing as a weekly; during the 1940s, it continued in somewhat more restricted formats until the final issue, dated January 13, 1948. This essay focuses primarily on the inclusion of visual art in New Masses during the 1930s.

Unlike contemporary liberal/left magazines such as the Nation, the New Yorker, or Vanity Fair, or radical newspapers such as Art Front and the Daily Worker, New Masses not only promoted explicitly leftist viewpoints but also was unusually supportive of work in the visual arts. The images published in the journal included acerbic cartoons and mordant political drawings but also reproductions of fine art prints and paintings with social justice themes that addressed currently topical issues. The latter appeared not just occasionally in special sections but throughout the journal's pages. This unusual engagement with visual art, although it varied in intensity across the decade, was a distinctive aspect of New Masses' media identity. In its pages as well as on its covers, images and texts worked independently but symbiotically to create a double-voiced rhetorical structure that reinforced the significance of issues the journal wished to emphasize.

The early trajectory of New Masses' development was shaped by its founders' fascination with both literary and artistic modernism and Soviet Communist ideals; the tensions posed by these potentially divergent interests revealed themselves in editorial precepts that shifted from the late 1920s into the early and mid-1930s. 1 The association with leftist political views was at first unofficial, but after Mike Gold took over as chief editor in 1928, a militant proletarianism took precedence [End Page 24] over less explicitly anti-capitalist political positions. Gold rejected former tolerance of modernist experiments in both writing and art, and envisioned a journal based on the contributions of workers themselves. After several American artists and writers affiliated with New Masses attended the Communist Party's Second Conference of Revolutionary and Proletarian Writers, held at Kharkov in the Ukraine in late 1930, the magazine became affiliated with the International Union of Revolutionary Writers and the International Bureau of Revolutionary Artists., Contributing writers and artists then were expected to emphasize recognizable themes of class struggle. 2 American participants in the Kharkov Conference returned home hoping to reenergize the journal, but divergent goals still shaped its conceptual framework, leading editors to focus on more explicitly politicized theoretical ideas, and at the same time, to seek expanded outreach to non-Communist contributors and readers. 3

Tensions between a Communist-inspired program and more general left/liberal ideals were evident from the journal's earliest years. This is suggested by a 1925 grant application to the American Fund for Public Service, in which the applicants argued that New Masses would not represent any single vision of literary or artistic practice, and stated that they wished it to reveal the general human and cultural interests of "workers, farmers, strikers, etc." so as to "strike its roots strongly into American reality." 4 One might now suspect that such affirmations revealed an intentional muting of political focus in the interest of receiving funds, and the journal did indeed gain support from the organization for two years. 5 However, New Masses' editorial boards struggled more or less continuously about how explicitly political the journal should become and, at the same time, how to sustain its accessibility to a wider mix of American readers; how openly it could advocate for Communist positions; how closely it should hew to Soviet strictures on art as well as politics; and how much leeway contributors had to experiment with stylistic modernism versus proletarian realism. These complex tensions, held in varying balance, shaped the...


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pp. 24-49
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