West Bedroom Gallery

Social injustice has long motivated artists to create work as a form of protest. In the first half of the 20th century, the tumult of World War I and the global Great Depression led many American artists to comment on the conditions of the working classes. For subject matter, artists looked to the daily life in the workplace, the status of women at work, the rise of fascism, the denial of African American civil rights, and the wealth disparity caused by increased industrialization. Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood were among hundreds of artists employed by the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal agency that provided work for laborers of all kinds. This democratization of art-making combined with the prevailing economic crisis to inspire art that depicted and criticized social and political structures.

So-called Regionalists, such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, also sought to portray the conditions of rural America and were seen popularly as advocates of a distinctly American art, free of foreign influences. Many of the artists who came to maturity in the 1920s and ’30s continued in later life to paint representationally, contrary to the period’s primary trend toward abstraction, continuing to see art as an expression of conscience and a weapon for correcting social injustice.

Image: Thomas Hart Benton, Bootleggers, 1927. Egg tempera and oil on linen mounted on masonite, 65″ x72.” Museum purchase with funds provided by Barbara B. Millhouse. 1971.2.1 Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY