Graphic Art and The Masses Magazine

(From a post I did in Crossleft http://www.crossleft.org/node/6596)

One of the great sources of liberal and left wing thought has always been the leftist magazine and newspaper. I’ve learned a lot about left wing thought and the social problems that are hidden from the general media from periodicals like the Nation, the Progressive, the Catholic Worker, Z Magazine, Mother Jones, and the Progressive Populist, magazines that are available in many libraries. One of the common things I found in all these magazines is the rich array of great satiric artists that grace its pages. This linking of great satiric art and strong leftist writing first occurred in the Masses (http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ARTmasses.htm), a magazine that circulated in the early twentieth century.

The Masses was founded in 1911 by Piet Vlag, a Dutch immigrant, and financed by Rufus Weeks, a wealthy lifen insurance executive, and Amos Pinchot, a lawyer who supported progressive causes. Piet Vlag wanted a magazine that promoted the interests of working people and consumer cooperatives in particular. The magazine struggled in its early months with boring articles and a lack of readers, until Max Eastman became the editor of the magazine in December 1912.

Max Eastman, who would later be called the most famous radical in America, had at that time been a founder of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and was a lecturer of social causes. When Eastman took over the magazine, he changed the tone of the periodical from being a right wing socialism to a left wing socialism. The Masses discussed the issues that were important to the Progressive and Radical movements of its time: the debate between direct versus political action, the merits of anarchism versus socialism, the efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Workers_of_the_World) to organize the unemployed, the link between capitalism and militarism, Margaret Sanger’s fight for women’s access to birth control, and revolutionary activity in Mexico, China and the Philippines. Coupled with this strong revolutionary streak was an irreverence at any sort of dogma and a willingness to challenge the mores of mainstream society. It became a badge of honor for the radicals and intellectuals of the time to be published in the Masses and the many of the most prominent writers, artists, poets, and political theorists contributed: Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Djuna Barnes, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Louis Untermeyer, Babette Dodge, Dorothy Day, Helen Keller, Carl Sandburg, Mabel Dodge, Bertrand Russell, John Reed, and Pablo Picasso. Ross Wetzsteon wrote in his book Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village the American Bohemia, 1910-1960:

“Though The Masses’ circulation hovered between fifteen thousand and forty thousand…. it had an impact far beyond mere numbers. It was the first major American expression of the link between the radical intelligentsia and the revolutionary labor movement that would continue, in often confused configurations, for several decades, and it immediately became a decisive force, along with Mabel Dodge’s salon, in bringing to the rebels a sense of political, intellectual, artistic community. ‘Them Asses’ they might be called- often by themselves- but, as Irving Howe has written, ‘For a brief time… The Masses became the rallying center- as something also a combination of circus, nursery, and boxing ring- for almost anything that was then alive and irreverent in American culture.’”

Along with a stable of great writers was a staff of great graphic artists. Steven Heller wrote in his book Man Bites Man: Two Decades of Satiric Art:

“During this time the most insightful graphic satires were coming from the artists of The Masses, a socialist magazine edited by Max Eastman, devoted to art and politics. A myriad of contributors including the ‘ash-can school’ painters George Bellows, John Sloan, Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Maurice Becker and Boardman Robinson created cartoons in the tradition of Daumier. Cartoonists Art Young (who was arrested three times for ’seditious’ cartooning), R.K. Chamberlain, and Robert Minor (whose ‘The Perfect Soldier’ is a masterpiece of protest art) were also regular staffers.”

These artists contributed to one of the best designe magazines of the time. John Sloan designed the magazine to have bold headlines, wide margins and large drawings. Artists like Stuart Davis, Maurice Becker and John Sloan created wonderful artwork for the covers of the Masses, among the most famous a cover by Stuart Davis of two hags with a caption underneath saying “Gee Mag. Think of Us Bein’ on a Magazine Cover” . Ross Wetzsteon noted that John Sloan would contribute his best ideas and artwork to the Masses before sending it to anyone else.

Robert Minor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Minor) was one of the great cartoonists that worked on the Masses. Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1884, Minor was one of the first cartoonists to use grease crayon on paper. He was the highest paid cartoonist in the U.S., working for the New York World, until he made anti-war cartoons in protest of World War I. His cartoons for the Masses continued his anti-war message and his most famous cartoon was a picture of a muscular headless soldier called “At Last! A Perfect Soldier” (http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/visual_arts/satire/minor/minor2.htm). Eventually Minor was jailed for his cartoons, but he was released in 1918 after the war was over. You could look at more of Minor’s cartoons at http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/visual_arts/satire/minor/index.htm.

Art Young (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Young) was another great cartoonist that contributed to the Masses. Young was born in 1866 and started out as a Republican, but he started listening to the lectures of British labor leader Keir Hardie and reading the work of muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair. By 1906 Young had become a socialist and his work afterwards reflected socialist concerns, like racial and sexual discrimination and the injustices of the capitalist system. One of his most famous cartoons for the Masses is a 1917 drawing of a capitalist, a politician, a minister and an editor dancing for war for the devil (http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/visual_arts/satire/young/young13.htm) that got him prosecuted by the Wilson administration. Noah Berlatshy wrote an informative article in the January 2006 issue of The Comics Journal on Art Young’s art career. You could look at more of Young’s work at http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/visual_arts/satire/young/index.htm.

The art of the Masses was more than just window dressing for the articles of the magazines. The graphic art was an integral part of the Masses because it encapsulated the issues of the Left in understandable terms. They pointed to one of the great functions of art, to challenge assumptions and make the viewers to see things in new ways. Ross Wetzsteon wrote a great summary of the importance of these artists contributions. I end this with his quote:

“…The Masses staff nevertheless succeeded in bringing the political implications of art and the aesthetic implications of politics into public discourse after a century in which they were considered entirely separate activities. For some Villagers defining the self, creative self-expression, Enjoying the Revolution, may have been part of a purely personal revolt, but in acknowledging the capacity of art to alter consciousness and in insisting on the personal dimensions of politics, it also revealed the compatibility of individual aspirations and socialist programs. They formed an entirely new character type in the American intellectual gallery, the bohemian/artist/radical, equally committed to all three vocations.”

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