Social Realists of the Great Depression

Resource Kit by
Barry Kirzner

Module Content



During the Great Depression, many American artists used their art to speak out against injustice. Their work emphasized the day-to-day experience of poverty and the suffering of the working class under capitalism: layoffs, labor unrest, racism, food shortages, housing crises, dustbowls, and both homegrown and European fascist threats. Many of these social realist artists (the term came years later) were Jewish, and they largely came from the working class, urban, and immigrant scenes that they painted. Primarily first- or second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, these Jewish artists depicted workers of a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities, displaying a class-based politics that they believed transcended ethnic differences. Some scholars, such as Ori Z. Soltes, theorize that Jews were disproportionately involved in social realist art because they were consciously or unconsciously expressing the value of tikkun olam (repairing the world), or because they were reacting to the history of antisemitism and pogroms in Europe. This kit explores the works of several Jewish social realist artists and looks at the experiences and contexts that led them to embrace the convictions and aesthetics associated with this style.

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