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American Quarterly 53.4 (2001) 670-690
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Art of the People
Paul Buhle and Susan Smulyan
Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection, 1912-1948, mounted by the Library of Congress, and seen there and at the Museum of the City of New York during 1999-2001, expands the work of earlier exhibits. It also brings together older and newer generations of realist work to help us to reconsider radical art and its scholarship after the Cold War.
By highlighting these forms, Life of the People offers us a dramatically different landscape of American art. From the middle of the nineteenth century, political and economic challenges to the legitimacy [End Page 670] of existing order produced both fine arts and, more often, vernacular art dramatizing injustice and appealing for a more egalitarian social organization. Over several generations, popular commercial illustrators, cartoonists, sign painters and occasional studio artists developed mostly realist styles of depiction. By the 1930s to 1940s, this evolution led to much fine art (highlighted by lithography) embracing popular themes of work and community, often highlighting the plight of minorities along with the working class and poor. The images of the Goldstein collection, a representative sample of which are featured in this exhibit, date from this later period and do a wonderful job of representing the radical art produced from the 1930s on. But neither the exhibit nor its accompanying catalog tell the whole story.
The graphically striking and excellently annotated catalog, bearing the same name as the exhibit, bypasses the opportunity either to contextualize the images within the history of radical movements or the history of American art. The celebratory introduction by Bernard F. Reilly briefly tells collector Ben Goldstein's story (albeit revealing nothing about Beatrice Goldstein), while Garnett McCoy's longer essay barely suggests the complex political and social world inhabited by these artists. 1
That said, the captions to the images and the paragraph-long "Notes on Artists" at the end of the catalog prove very useful; the reproductions are excellent and could be made easily into slides for use in classes. Both the catalog and the exhibit itself remind viewers that Ben Goldstein collected this art with its eventual exhibition in mind. First showing much of it on the walls of his factory, he initiated and contributed to an important exhibit of African American art (created with the assistance of Philip S. Foner and Romare Bearden) that traveled extensively during the 1970s to schools and museums. In addition, Goldstein mounted--in collaboration with James Fraser in 1972--the exhibit Up Against the Wall: Political Posters From Three Centuries at the New York Cultural Center. As Reilly points out, collector Goldstein saw himself as an historian and teacher, using the collection as evidence for his views. The internal logic of collection makes exhibits from his work highly appealing.
The Goldstein collection as a whole contains some two thousand prints and drawings and another sixteen-hundred works, including posters relating to social protest of the 1960s and to political satires published originally in assorted magazines. The exhibit displays fifty-nine [End Page 671] works from the United States and Mexico, dating from 1912 to 1948. Ben Goldstein, a labor negotiator, a New Dealer in the years when Popular Front enthusiasts supplied...