The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Between Myth and Movement: The Depression-Era Iconography of the American Social Surrealists

Jonathan Judd
Brooklyn College–City University of New York

The American Social Surrealists were a group of artists working during the Depression era who attempted to mediate and adapt the rising influence of European Surrealism into a uniquely American artform. While they used and adapted Surrealism’s painted style, form and technique, they were also steeped in the radical leftist milieu of New York City’s Lower East Side and looked to the ongoing labor movement as a source for inspiration and imagery. Examining the project of the American Social Surrealist artists opens a window onto a moment in U.S. history when the American labor movement made a momentous resurgence and subsequently, Socialism and Communism rose to the fore as real social and political alternatives to the established order.  In peering through this window, I argue that this body of work functions as a site for the tempestuous struggle between two dichotomous ethoi that structured and affected the socio-political reality of the nation’s citizenry during the Depression era.  On one hand, there was the ethos of rugged individualism and egoistic self-reliance that underpinned the larger national mythic-structure of the American Dream. The dream myth was an ideological belief structure that came undone during the Depression era when the core of its composition was challenged: the belief that there was a fundamental equality of access to the field of economic opportunity; that there was no real or stable class structure in American society; and ultimately, that success was abundant and within reach of the “common man.” Diametrically opposed to this ethos of radical individualism and self-promotion was the ethos that ran through the American labor movement. This was an ethos of labor solidarity, class collectivity and the core conviction that the united front of labor power through radical unionization could raise up the whole of the proletariat strata. My argument here, overall, will work to place the Social Surrealist artists and their project of socio-political critique in the broader historical context of the American labor movement—specifically, what the artists refer to as the “radical labor movement.” For while the Social Surrealists are artists thoroughly of their moment, the Depression era and broader interwar period, they are thoroughly, even passionately, bound up in the longer historical process of the American labor movement. 

Keywords:  labor movement / Surrealism / socialism / political art / Great Depression 


At that time, twentieth‑century artists spent a great amount of time wondering what to paint. Without the patronage of religion, aristocracy, and the middle class, energy was dissipated over questions of still life, landscape, American scene, and abstraction. The social‑political labor movement offered a path for strong art expression.         

     —James Guy ("James Guy on Walter Quirt")

I begin with an image from American Social Surrealist Walter Quirt (1902–1968), The Future Is Ours (1935), produced in oil on Masonite.  It is an upright rectangular painting that opens up a window onto the hallucinatory Midwestern landscape of Quirt’s feverish psyche. A landscape of barren, windswept dirt hills carves a path into a foreground populated by an ensemble cast of surreal ghouls, military veterans, and an insurrectionary proletariat collective. In the background, against the barren hills, there is a rocky outcrop with a single dead tree to the right, and to the left a large wooden crucifix lies broken, the jagged edge of its broken base facing the viewer. In the immediate foreground, pushed up into the viewer’s space, is a biomorphic assemblage of heads, hands and objects. This assemblage towards which both the proletariat and military figures move is thick with metaphoric signifiers of capitalist excess, a shadowy elite and cultist religiosity, all ensnared by mechanisms of modernity and industrial warfare. Amid all this is a broken scaffolding with a shorn noose. The military figures, a navy man and two army soldiers, come climbing up from the trenches on the left of the canvas, where the cross has been toppled. Sharp disparity is made between the very real and aggressive human figures of a proletariat strata taking control of a ravaged homeland, and the inhuman mess of a grotesque socio-political structure to which they are subject and by which they are subjugated. Here, Quirt’s own convictions come to bear on the piece: he was an individual truly motivated by the historical matrix of social and political unrest during the Depression era, illustrating “his beliefs that capitalism was a source of universal human suffering” (Walter Quirt Foundation). However, this piece functions as a site for so much more than individual expression; it is, rather, a repository of question, concern, agitation and agency. Quirt’s painting and the project of the American Social Surrealist artists open a window onto a moment in U.S. history when the American labor movement made a momentous resurgence and, subsequently, Socialism and Communism rose to the fore as real social and political alternatives to the established order.

In peering through this window, I argue that this body of work functions as a site for the tempestuous struggle between two dichotomous ethoi that structured and affected the socio-political reality of the nation’s citizenry during the Depression era.  On one hand, there was the ethos of rugged individualism and egoistic self-reliance that underpinned the larger national mythic-structure of the American Dream. The dream myth was an ideological belief structure that came undone during the Depression era when the core of its composition was challenged: the belief that there was a fundamental equality of access to the field of economic opportunity; that there was no real or stable class structure in American society, being a land of opportunity and social mobility; and ultimately, that success was abundant and within reach of the “common man” (Gray 1–11). Diametrically opposed to this ethos of rugged individualism, and an atomizing work ethic of self-promotion and individual success, was the ethos that ran through the American labor movement. This was an ethos of labor solidarity, class collectivity and the core conviction that the united front of labor power through militant unionization could raise up the whole of the proletariat strata. Throughout this piece, I will use the terms proletariat and proletariat strata; these terms demarcate, in the classical Marxist sense, the propertyless working class whose most valuable possession was their labor-power. This argument, overall, will work to place James Guy, Walter Quirt and the Social Surrealist project of socio-political critique within the broader historical context of the American labor movement and specifically what the artists refer to as the “radical labor movement” (Doss 246). For while the Social Surrealists are artists thoroughly of their moment, the Depression era and broader inter-war period, they are thoroughly, even passionately, bound up in the longer historical process of the American labor movement. 

Evident from artist James Guy’s words that form the epigraph above, the “social-political labor movement,” its momentous resurgence during the Depression era, was the inspirational material that informed the work of the American Social Surrealist artists. These artists were also activists, and many were proletarians themselves. In fact, artist, writer and founder of the Post-Surrealist collective, Grace Clements, writing on the work of the Social Surrealists in the mid-1930’s labeled their project that of “Proletariat Surrealism” (Doss 243). The Social Surrealists were a group of artists working during the Depression era who attempted to mediate and adapt the rising influence of European Surrealism into a uniquely American artform. While they used and adapted Surrealism’s painted style, form and technique, they were also steeped in the radical leftist milieu of New York City’s Lower East Side and looked to the ongoing labor movement as a source of inspiration and imagery. Actively involved in multiple artist-activist and political groups like the John Reed Club, the Artist’s Union, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, they were “striving to create an art that [would] not only illustrate the social scene, but [would] express its most significant element, the revolutionary class struggle” (Hemingway 50).

Thus, a strong current of Marxist genealogy gives structure and depth to their socio-political critique, a vision of class struggle charged with the dynamism of revolutionary possibility. Surrealism was a visual aid in constructing this vision; as one scholar states, “The radical aesthetics of Surrealism enabled American artists to intensify the power of their social-political statements…to present familiar aspects of American life in a new perspective” (Fort 10). These artists—Walter Quirt, James Guy, Harry Sternberg, O. Louis Guglielmi and Irving Norman—attempted through Surrealism to move beyond the dominant stylistic form of social realism used by artists on the political left. However, as Andrew Hemingway notes, “The Social Surrealists largely eschewed the sexual symbolism of Surrealism…Rather they took over the principle of montage” (43). They mined the aesthetic for what it could give to the cause of revolutionary image production, showing multiple intersections of space and time, using dynamic montaging techniques and a sense of the aesthetically bizarre, towards the cause of the revolutionary labor movement and class struggle. 

 Intra-class division and struggle—a proletariat fractured, at each others’ throats over ethno-religious, racial, gendered divisions and self-interest—stoked by governmental and corporate-capitalist interventions, was a major factor that shaped the labor movement's dynamic waves of development and failure during the Depression era. Marxist historian Mike Davis argues that this fracturing of the proletariat strata by larger systemic pressures, exacerbating the intra-class identity politics of the period, prevented the development of a truly revolutionary labor movement and labor party in the U.S. (25–30). This was compounded by the mass media dissemination of an image of American society as classless, devoid of class antagonism and struggle, wherein all members of the U.S. citizenry fall in or are close to attaining middle-class status—a significant aspect of the American Dream mythology. It will be productive, then, to explore the work for its imagery of fantastic, metaphoric and surreal projections of possible and partially realized labor solidarity, but also for similar projections of the complex forces that worked to undermine such a solidarity. For, the dueling of the two competing ethoi—class collectivity against the atomizing American Dream myth—plays out through these various projections. To perform this exploration, I will look to a corpus of paintings, drawings and prints from Social Surrealists Walter Quirt, Irving Norman, Harry Sternberg, O. Louis Guglielmi and James Guy. 

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With the onset of the Great Depression, the social landscape of the U.S. became a hotbed of unrest and instability. Movement of bodies, capital and property were frequent and chaotic. The succession of events was rapid and destabilizing, first in the U.S. and then all around the globe: the stock market crashed, bank runs by millions of citizens caused banks across the country to collapse in a matter of weeks, the Dust Bowl conditions compounded the ongoing farm crisis, etc. Many were actively involved in finding political alternatives to the ideological status quo of unfettered capitalism and Republican conservatism that to many had clearly launched this succession of events. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Democratic administration, picking up where Herbert Hoover’s unpopular Republican administration had left off, brought together the elite members of the American industrialist-business class to mete out a "New Deal" that would stabilize the economic catastrophe brought on by the Wall Street collapse and reform the bloated system of capital. The individualistic and corporate-capitalist ethos that so thoroughly undergirded the guiding myth of the American Dream was thoroughly shaken. Those who had operated under this ethos, maintaining a laissez-faire marketplace and "hands-off" governmental structure, came under heavy public scrutiny. From industrial titans John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford to treasury secretary Andrew W. Mellon, these free-market ideologues became the face of the national economic collapse. In a speech in 1933, the new progressive president Roosevelt himself states that, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little,” exalting an ethos of public welfare and a focus on the collective good (McElvaine 10–12).

Returning to Quirt’s The Future is Ours, it is instructive to read into the imagistic schema all the weight of Depression era unrest. The larger systemic violence of the reigning capitalist order and militarist state has left the land ravaged, for the agricultural overproduction spurred on by World War I, and continued throughout the 1920s and into the Depression era, was encouraged by the state even after the end of the war (Dickstein 10–20). When farmers were left with large surpluses and an unregulated world marketplace where competition was high and both prices and demand dropped, they became the victims of profiteering corporations and bankers. Then, due to this precipitous series of events, most clearly the chronic agricultural overproduction, the Dust Bowl crisis hit, catalyzing devastation and depression for all (McElvaine 10–12). The figures are, then, starved, gaunt and disenfranchised in Quirt’s piece due to the siphoning of material and economic wealth upward to the elite social strata and the corporate-capitalist state’s militarist profiteering. The American Dream is challenged most in this nightmare-barren landscape; the myth of endless upward mobility and equality of access to the field of economic opportunity has no place amongst the exploited and dispossessed. 

Further, the righteous religious justifications for World War I, disseminated by American churches and conservative ideologues of the view that the conflict was a necessary Christian crusade against the unholy hordes of the German "Hun," are challenged here:  the cross has been shattered and the scaffold with its noose has been broken. The fallen cross then provocatively signals the general disenchantment with this crusading ideology during the postwar period. A general weariness and distance from religion marks this period, when the separation between church and state is pursued with renewed vigor (Jenkins 63). Both soldiers and farmers, the collective mass of the oppressed—pawns in the statist and corporatist power games of the period—are shown as a force advancing on the Surreal forms in the forefront of the canvas. These are forms that Gerrit L. Lansing refers to as “a flotsam of disembodied heads and hands…interspersed with gold coins, canon, mortar and a bomb…a surreal still-life of militarism, greed and political reaction” (32).

Throughout the dramatic events of the Depression—breadlines, strike-lines, the farm crisis, anarcho-syndicalist "terrorism," record unemployment and the insistence by the wealthy elite that the Depression just wasn’t that bad, that “it would build character,” as Henry Ford said while cutting thousands of vital positions at his production plants—the populace became aware of a new frontier of socio-political engagement along with material need and economic desperation (McElvaine 30–40). Always in opposition to the mythic structure of the American Dream, this new frontier of engagement and consciousness posed social and societal deprivations and injustice over individual desires and avarice. Officially, those in majority power fiercely defended the capitalist order, and sought its continuation and preservation through reform and the co-optation of leftist politics under the heading of progressive democracy. However, Leftist voices rose everywhere against this continued defense.  From mass union collectives like the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and the AFL (American Federation of Labor), to radical journalists and authors like Malcolm Cowley and Mike Gold, they all felt that the reigning order had run its course, the crash being its final death sentence. Massive spikes in membership to the Socialist Party of America and the U.S. Communist Party illustrate this new frontier, which was also pervasive in extraordinary documentary evidence from citizens across the country, through letters and statements taken for the local press. Historian Robert S. McElvaine samples from the extensive archives of statements from the "common-man" in his in-depth study on the Great Depression: 

A good many workers, though, came to believe that it was not individual demons but the whole hellish system that had caused their troubles. A Pennsylvanian wrote to Hoover in 1933 that it was the capitalists who were “responsible for this unemployed situation,” and so they should be made to pay the cost of remedying it.  A Denver man made the point that “purchasing power is not lost but redistributed and now rests in the hand of a few” …A poorly educated New Yorker said in late 1930, “I am neither an anarchist, socialist, or communist—but, by God, at times I feel as if I should affiliate myself with the radicals.” (82)

The Social Surrealists were decidedly at the fore of this frontier; indeed, they were in many ways part of the socio-political vanguard. All belonged to the radical leftist artist’s collective of the John Reed Club (JRC), up until its dissolution in 1936, and most belonged to the Artist’s Union and the Communist Party or were "fellow travelers" (sympathizers and supporters, working together with members) (Hemingway 1–4). As members of the Artist’s Union, Social Surrealists Walter Quirt and James Guy would actively agitate and picket alongside other workers' unions, acting in solidarity to further the movement’s cause (Monroe 7).

The re-emergence and excited continuation of the labor movement was the space where oppositional forces could band together in collective critique and dissent. It compelled many who supported either the American Socialist Party or the U.S. Communist Party, those who were leftist radicals, progressives or simply social activists, to envision a revolutionary future for the nation. This is fantastically projected in Social Surrealist O. Louis Guglielmi’s Phoenix (the Portrait in the Desert) (1935), where he, as Ilene Susan Fort states, “symbolized the birth of a communist society out of the debris of capitalism” (Fort, "James" 129). Depicting the rubble and debris of a worker’s revolution against the backdrop of industrial factories, he places a portrait of celebrated Communist leader Vladimir Lenin in the foreground to evoke the new order rising from the ashes of the fallen system. Organized labor is depicted here in its radical absence with an unseen but vital collective force, a destructive and productive power signaled only by what it leaves behind and the future it promises. The labor movement was a struggle against the forces working within the nation, the oligarchic elite of corporate and industrial capitalism, the existing order. For the members of the JRC, art was an instrument and weapon, to wield in service of the provocation, organization and dissemination of a revolutionary consciousness. All members, especially then the Social Surrealists, who were early and foundational members in New York City, pledged to uphold the solemn vow of the club’s constitution:

to work within all cultural mediums for the international revolutionary labor movement / to clarify and crystallize theories of art and their relation to the revolutionary labor movement / to struggle against all art and literature rooted in bourgeois ideology / to help gather an international movement of revolutionary cultural workers / to serve as a protective and welfare organization for its members…. (Hemingway 20)

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The artists that constituted the Social Surrealist group were young men who had either been born into poverty and a working-class reality or found themselves cut off at the heels with the onset of the Depression era. Quirt came out of the Midwest and had a background in the labor movement’s manifestations within the Rust Belt industrial landscape of coal and steel production. James Guy (1909–1983) had a specific connection to the New England shoreline and knew early on the hard laboring conditions of dock workers in the maritime ports of Connecticut and New York (Fort, "James" 125–27). Running in parallel to Guy and Quirt, artists O. Louis Guglielmi (1906–1956) and Harry Sternberg (1904–2001) confronted various states of poverty as struggling artists in New York City. Growing up in the impoverished tenements of a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, Guglielmi gained a deep connection and empathy for those living in abject poverty during the Depression, struggling for stability and security. As Tashjian observes, referring to the big three of the movement (Guy, Quirt and Guglielmi): “As young men starting out, these painters were all disheartened by the grinding poverty that blocked their participation in the American dream. All three painters comprehended their personal deprivations as part of a larger economic, social, and political situation” (119). All attached themselves in various ways to the social content art of the John Reed Clubs and the Marxist currents of the labor movement that gave birth to the Artist’s Union or Unemployed Artists Group (UAG) and the American Artist’s School (a pedagogical and institutional continuation of the activity at the John Reed Clubs). Guy encapsulates the progression of these biographical notes, stating that “My problem was to express my social-political beliefs with my conception of art.” For Guy and the Social Surrealists “picturing poverty and breadlines,” was not enough, they longed to “express the dynamic struggles of society” (qtd. in Tashjian 120).

Particularly salient in Tashjian’s words is the reference made to the mythological master narrative of the United States, the American Dream. For it is this dream that is made vulnerable to critique by the raw intensity of Depression era reality. The comprehension of personal deprivation as tied to larger economic, social and political, systemic issues, elides with and confounds the construct of the American Dream, strengthening the depiction of solidarity and the forces that threaten its actualization. Conditions of poverty across the nation were exposed during the Depression; the fear and anxiety of scarcity and deprivation that had been only a faint shadow for the working and lower-middle classes became an everyday confrontation and a real specter for the middle class. Scholar of the Great Depression T.H. Watkins writes:

Fear was the great leveler of the Great Depression…it haunted the dreams of the African-American sharecropper in the south who held a fistful of barren dust and wondered what the system would do now to cheat him and his family of life. It stalked the middle-class white merchant of Idaho who had seen decades of work destroyed…Fear shattered all the fine Anglo-Saxon certitudes of the Great Plains farm wife who watched black clouds of dust roll up on the edge of the horizon and knew that her dreams would soon be sucked up into that boiling mass. (qtd. in Dickstein 216)

Thus, the Depression era saw a shaking up and destabilization of the central mythology of the American Dream and its construction of American exceptionalism, a radical bourgeois individualism. The shaking up of these mythologies also brought to the fore their larger ideological premises: maintaining the mass illusion of perpetual innovation, success and progress within the American nation-state, where class was inscribed as a non-issue due to the ostensible access to upward mobility.  Morris Dickstein concurs, writing in the section of his involved study on the Depression era titled, Beyond the American Dream: Success Myths and Depression Realities, that “longstanding beliefs were called into question, especially the myth of success enshrined in the notion of the American Dream” (219).

Significantly, at a time when the American Dream mythos was most transparent as a construct and most vulnerable to challenge, the phrase was more widely used, indeed it proliferated more than ever before. In fact, the circulation of the phrase as a strategy of mass abeyance and socio-political obfuscation is best witnessed in its usage towards a collective repression of the reality of class antagonism within the U.S.  Many nationalist ideologues of the time, from senators to conservative journalists, attempted to perpetuate and maintain the salience of the myth by promulgating the notion that it would be unpatriotic, traitorous even, to suggest that America had a defined class structure or that there could be any real class antagonism (Dickstein 225). This defied the reality in the streets: whether it was Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters in the 1930s, the Wobblies or the CIO, labor was organizing in new and unprecedented ways, agitating for rights never believed possible under the coercive systems of industrial and corporate capitalism (Davis 25–30). This was the backdrop against which Guy and the members of the UAG organized as artist-laborers, culture-workers, to agitate for governmental sponsorship, actions that led directly to the foundation of the WPA. Antagonism was rampant, and strike-breaks were the true American horror; violent actions were taken against laborers across the nation. Everywhere there was the whisper of a new competing consciousness against that of the mythic. Dickstein argues that the American Dream construct was undermined in unprecedented ways during this time: “The Depression weakened many Americans' most common assumptions: that reverses in the business cycle were brief and temporary, that jobs would always be available to those willing to work, that businessmen were the oracles and seers of society, that the younger generation would always be able to come up in the world and do better than its parents” (Dickstein 219).

Unraveling as an ideological construct, the American Dream myth comes under fire in the work of the Social Surrealists, as is evident in two canvases from 1937 and 1939, On the Waterfront and The Graduates. Guy depicts maritime scenes of labor confrontation in the first and the bleak future for the next generation in the other. In the first painting, On the Waterfront, the emboldened figure of a dock worker strides across a waterfront pier with a sandwich board strike sign. The figure is set against a tumultuous sea and dock backdrop to the left, and to the right is a structure where multiple figures and vignettes are posed. In front of the structure stands two figures, a bloated police officer and a strike-breaker organizing the scab recruitment stationed in front of the stormy dock scene. Strange vignettes disturb the sinister gaze of these two figures: peering into the structure reveals a ticket office where a woman buys a ticket to depart on a nearby ship, but selling her the tickets is a bloated, corrupt capitalist who simultaneously pulls cash from an emaciated "Uncle Sam" and the customer at the window, amassing a pile of skulls at his feet. This is a very direct indictment of those who chose to be scabs, working against the striking unionists. Larger systemic issues are also depicted: primarily the effects of an American consumer blind to the ways in which their continued patronage of companies and corporations with laborers on strike contributed to the workers' exploitation. Here, Guy, like Quirt and the other Social Surrealists, aligns the imagery with the dynamic struggles of the labor movement while indicating the internal fractures of the working class. The larger systemic forces that bear down and confound labor's organization point to the American Dream mythos as a continual delusion of self-interest and individual mobility disrupting class solidarity.

This complex of issues comes together in a wild heat within Quirt’s masterpiece Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread (1935): a seething pile of humanity is thrown together in a community of dilapidated shanty housing—what could be pointed to as a Surreal "Hooverville" slum—they bow and kneel in various states of collapse clutching impotently to religious objects. Above the collection of Black and White farm laborers is a dark cloud of floating figures haunting them; a series of emaciated bodies soar and gesture in the dark cloud instead of a divine presence. Mired in poverty and the trauma of loss, the impoverished farming community seeks relief and escape in religious symbols only to meet with further conditions of desperation. In such conditions, it is made clear that a revolutionary solidarity would be severely inhibited. Quirt appears to wrestle here with the proper expression of a collective suffering that can only be rectified by collective action. It is fitting that in the depiction the figures impotently look to the heavens for salvation only to find the specters of the dead. With a dark cynicism, Quirt expresses his own deeply held convictions on religion’s pitfalls, expressed here along the Marxist line: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (McKinnon 15). It is important to note as a part of Quirt’s dedicated imagistic critique of religion during this period, that it was the free market and businessmen/business enterprise itself, which was deified via an extension and distortion of Adam Smith’s text and the rise of social Darwinist theories during the 1920s.

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It is the very mythological construct of the American Dream that Mike Davis takes to task in his study on the American labor movement, aptly titled Prisoners of the American Dream. Doggedly pursuing the inquiry raised above regarding the failure of the American labor movement to produce an empowered labor party, Davis retraces the historical trajectory of the labor movement. He theorizes that it is the fractious nature of the American laboring classes, their intra-class divisions along a complex of shifting racial, ethno-religious, and gendered lines that stifled the possibility for a truly revolutionary politics:

The increasing proletarianization of the American social structure has not been matched by an equal tendency toward the homogenization of the working class as a cultural or political collectivity. Stratifications rooted in differential positions in the social labor process have been reinforced by deep-seated ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual antagonisms within the working class. In different periods, these divisions have fused together as definite intra-class hierarchies representing unequal access to employment, consumption, legal rights, and trade-union organization. The political power of the working class within American "democracy" has always been greatly diluted by the effective disenfranchisement of large sectors of labor: black, immigrants, women, migrant workers, among others. (Davis 50)

The mythology of the “American dream” which truly did appear as myth in the Depression-era context of desperation and unrest, worked to maintain complacency amongst the populace. It worked to maintain an overarching master narrative of rugged individualism, promoting the cult of the self and personal economic success as the true and only ethic, the corporate-capitalist ethic. This worked to continue the established order of disenfranchisement amongst minority laborers and poor whites, establishing their poverty as so many signs of personal and moral failings rather than endemic of the reigning socio-economic order. Against this ethos is the pictorial assault of the Social Surrealists, depicting moments of intense solidarity yet simultaneously the systems and overarching pressures of poverty, ethno-religious ties and racial subjection. 

To a significant extent, it is the complexity of the American social structure that the Social Surrealists are at pains to negotiate in their representation of the Depression-era socio-political landscape. Overall the issue of political collectivity pushes to the fore—collectivity and the barriers that threaten its fragile, shifting and contentious makeup. Davis’s point on intra-class divisions and the effective dilution of working-class political power is expressed in Harry Sternberg’s triptych Dance of the Machine (1935). Three moments in the struggle for workers’ rights are metaphorically depicted in the lithograph triptych. Fantastically projected in a visionary Surrealist style, an allegory of revolution emerges, touched with Blakean Romanticism. In the three images that make up the triptych, The Present, The Promise and The Future, the dynamic struggle of labor collectivity is posed as a pathway to an exuberant freedom from the larger system of industrial and corporate-capitalist control and exploitation. 

In The Present, a bleak reality is portrayed, as the worker’s muscular body is strapped to the large spiraling gears of industry. Each worker is isolated and struggling alone, a cog in the system controlled by a disembodied overseer whose ghoulish hands finger a broad control panel in the foreground. The ever-persistent time-clock that enslaves the worker to his wage-labor fetters glints in the center of the control panel. Mired in the individual struggle for personal advancement and socio-economic survival, the laborer is presented as unable to wrest himself from the controlling system, even unaware of the ways in which he is being subjugated. In the next image of the triptych, a radical overthrow has occurred: the gears of industry lie heaped in disarray, they crush down on the overseer’s hand, the control-board now crushed and the time-clock broken. Emerging from the pile of gears is a large muscular forearm and hand tightly clenched in a fist, a clear symbol of workers’ solidarity. As Marx would have it, having thrown off their chains and assumed full class consciousness, the proletariat are free to collectively assume the means of production towards the egalitarian system of Socialism. The last image, then, is the depiction of this egalitarian socio-economic order that could, as Sternberg clearly envisions, rise up from a truly revolutionary labor movement in the Depression-era American context. In The Future, the newly actualized proletariat-strata soar free through a vortex of gears looking to one another and moving in solidarity.  They are no longer tethered to the gears but are masters of the industrial domain. Sternberg has accomplished a powerful pictorial progression in isolating the workers and mechanisms/means of production, showing all to be organized, connected and working towards fully productive ends in this last scene.

Davis discusses three major historical waves in the formation of the industrial proletariat in the U.S.: “1) the early battles for trade unionism and a shorter working day, 1832–1860; 2) the volcanic postbellum labor insurgencies of 1877, 1884-87, and 1892; and 3) the great tide of strikes from 1909 to 1922” (53). It is from here that labor lost its negotiating power as the fierce competition for upward mobility pitted worker against worker during the roaring twenties. The swell of the economic bubble that would then collapse with the stock market crash and subsequent bank run of 1932, created a window of illusion for all working-class subjects reaching towards this fantasy of mobility. Then, with the onset of the Great Depression, a new wave of the American labor movement ruptured the narrow constraints of this fantasy and brought labor collectivity and class antagonism back into view. It is during the Depression era that labor power, the collectivization of the industrial proletariat through the three major waves cited above, is courted and subsumed under FDR’s “New Deal/Fair Deal” Democratic Party. With the fall of the stock market there were three successive surges of labor organization and militant unionism was revitalized. These were the fragile but vitalizing circumstances in which the Social Surrealists became enmeshed. 

In the early years of the Depression, a class collectivism that defies the bounds of racial and religious stratification emerges and enables the massive waves of strikes and protests that characterize the Depression era. It all begins with the strike at Briggs auto plant in Detroit that came on the eve of the New Deal's implementation in 1933. This was the first upsurge that characterized the core years of the Depression; as Davis remarks, “This was arguably the highwater mark of the class struggle in modern American history” (54). Thus, we can understand the complex iconography of the Social Surrealist work, from Quirt’s The Future is Ours to Sternberg’s Dance of the Machine, where revolutionary projections meld with a critical analysis of Depression-era reality. Sternberg’s surrealistic depiction of both the ghoulish overseer and the tortuous conditions of the laborers bound to their machines has a particular salience. For these very tortuous conditions of labor and the tyranny of the onsite foreman were the catalyst to the early uprisings of 1933: 

In a majority of cases the fundamental grievance was the petty despotism of the workplace incarnated in the capricious power of the foremen and inhuman pressure of mechanized production lines. It must be recalled that in 1933 the typical American factory was a miniature feudal state where streamlined technologies were combined with the naked brutality that was the envy of fascist labor minsters. In Ford’s immense citadels…"servicemen" openly terrorized and beat assembly workers for such transgressions of plant rules as talking to one another on the line. (Davis 50)

This struggle over the fundamental rights of human dignity and the fascistic brutality of the factory is also imaged in Social Surrealist Irving Norman’s graphite and color pencil drawing, Laissez-Faire Industrialism (1943). Here the atomizing force of such brutality, isolating and alienating the factory worker, is fantastically rendered in similar ways to Sternberg. The entire life-world of the laborer is brought together as a claustrophobic collision of factory/home/city/self, with each worker isolated against a brick wall, groaning at the bent steel wrapped about their forms. The life-force of each laborer is siphoned off and offered up to the massive neo-classical edifice of the bank at the center of the image, which reads “PROFITS UN LTD. CORP – BANK.”

Irving Norman (1906–1989), a West Coast artist operating in semi-obscurity at the same time as Guy and his cohort, should be included under the heading of the Social Surrealist movement with the 2006 retrospective of his work at the Crocker Museum: Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism (Eldredge 44–50). His work speaks directly to this imagining of a collectivity unbound from divisive identity politics, in the larger service of class solidarity and social revolution. The series of drawings produced from 1941–1944, presented in the exhibit under the heading The Capitalist Enigma, work to point up the labor movement and its resurgent power during the years of the Depression. Images like Labor Day Parade (1941) and Great Orator (1944) depict the organized force of the working classes brought together in collective action, in solidarity. Coming together in a diverse mixture of race, gender, age and ethnicity, the proletariat crowd strides forcefully towards the distant capital building in Labor Day Parade. Above the march, against the backdrop of a monumental sheer architectural façade and soaring skyscraper forms, the muscular hand of labor engages that of corporate-capitalism, seizing hold and snapping back the fingers of that tyrannical force. Corporate-capital is represented by a smooth-skinned hand attached to a suited arm; where the shirt sleeve reaches out of the suit jacket a cufflink reveals the Nazi insignia, signifying another layer of insidious collusion and interconnection among the growing power of corporate-capital and the authoritarian regimes of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. This neatly packaged visual synecdoche advances the surrealist technique utilized as aesthetic tactic, the expressive core of the Social Surrealist vision. 

Norman’s work and his commitment to the revolutionary left parallel those who were involved in the movement on the East Coast. In fact, it was in the Bronx, where Norman originally came after emigrating to the U.S. in the late 1920s, that he wove his path in parallel to that of Quirt, Sternberg and Guy, joining the CP and other leftist groups (Eldredge 46). As a member of the CP and an emboldened youth ready to surrender his life for the global struggle against Fascism, Norman took the drastic step to voluntarily join the United States Abraham Lincoln Brigade, sailing off to fight in the Spanish Revolution (Eldredge 47). In a fantastic digression from Charles C. Eldredge in his essay for the catalogue, he points up the disparity between the Social Surrealists' trajectory and Dalí’s at the time: 

Norman served as a machine gunner in the final year of the civil war, as it was reaching its fierce denouement. He sailed for Spain in 1938, just as a gathering tide of European refugees was embarking for America…Among those crossing westward in 1938 was Salvador Dalí…It is tempting, although fanciful, to envision their two ships passing mid-Atlantic, the passionate, partisan Norman headed for Dalí’s homeland, just as the surrealist master was heading for fame in the United States, where his art and antics earned him unprecedented notice, or notoriety. (48)

An absurd disparity is revealed by posing the artistic cohort in the American context—immersed in and performing as active agents for a movement towards revolutionary social politics on the left—against the fleeing and non-committal a-politics of the Euro-Surrealists. This is a crucial point to make, for it reinforces the necessity of linking and adumbrating the work of the Social Surrealists with the involved history of the labor movement and formation of the American proletariat—a necessary socio-political ground to further understand the complexity of its signification, the potency of its message.

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Continuing with Irving Norman, I move to align three key pieces in the Social Surrealist collection. The three can be brought together by their treatment of the overarching issue of racism and racialized antagonism at systemic and subjective levels during the Depression. Across the historical trajectory of the labor movement in America, Davis as well as scholars of African-American history Eric Foner and Howard Zinn describe racism as a unifying thematic. It is this racial animus that poses such a debilitating threat to labor solidarity and the continuing drumbeat of social justice and progress. We can first look to Norman’s The Great Orator, then to pieces by Sternberg and Quirt to see how this aspect of the Depression-era socio-political landscape was brought to bear on the work produced. Bringing back the last part of the larger quote from Davis above, it is necessary to recall that “the political power of the working class within American ‘democracy’ has always been greatly diluted by the effective disenfranchisement of large sectors of labor: black, immigrants, women, migrant workers, among others” (Davis 54). This effective disenfranchisement that Davis speaks of cuts to the core, once again, of the American Dream mythos. To highlight and promote this issue as one of fundamental substance in the battlefield of social unrest that was the Depression era, is to challenge the myth in all its variations. For this negates the central premise of the myth, the equality of access to the field of opportunity, and exposes the scaffolding of power that sought to keep minority groups from this true equality of access at all costs. Furthermore, the dark underside of the dream myth is also exposed in an examination of the racial animus that mars the nation’s history and the Depression era, for the work ethic of a rugged individualism is only held up through the thorough demonization of its opposite: indolence and inactivity, unproductive activity and play, even communal and community or state reliance, interdependence of any sort, the burden of which was placed on marginal communities.

Irving Norman’s colored pencil and graphite drawing The Great Orator, presents the downtrodden working classes coming into contact with a revolutionary consciousness. A singular male figure stands at the far right of the composition, monumental, speaking into a microphone and gesturing at the gathered crowd arrayed before him. With his sharp graphic style, Norman has depicted the ribcage of this speaker opened and the main ventricle of his heart weaving out into the crowd, connected to everyone he impacts. It is important to note that this connection is coming from a place of symbolic pathos, the heart, and not purely a connection of mind. Each individual in the crowd looks on with impassioned concentration; small lightning bolts above each head show a zap of conscious awareness, running again along the Marxist line of inspiring a true and deep historical consciousness in the proletariat, shaking them from the false consciousness of their mental and physical chains.  In the very front of the crowd, in this fantastic projection of labor solidarity and consciousness-raising, are the attentive faces of a young black man and woman. This is a projection of solidarity that was certainly possible and yet also an embattled vision during the interwar period. It was the constant threat, either real or constructed, of black and immigrant laborers stealing away jobs from the white male worker that caused shock waves, race riots and instability amongst the organized force of labor. And yet African-American labor groups, like Feminist-Socialist labor groups, were some of the most adamant and compelling voices for the revolutionary cause of labor collectivity.

Quirt and Sternberg were the most active in crafting their Surrealist work as a brutal attack against the American legacy of white supremacy, Klan terrorism and lynching.  Andrew Hemingway chronicles the specific involvement of these artists in exhibitions hosted and organized by the NAACP, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, and International Labor Defense. Lynching was narrowed in on as the single divisive evil used to break the spirit of the black laborer and his community. The black struggle during the Depression era was a true national horror, with a grotesque spike in lynching nationwide, occurring in the early 1930s at the Great Depression's beginning. The Communist Party in America and internationally saw “African-Americans as a subject national minority that should be encouraged to struggle for self-determination” (Hemingway 64). Standing in the way of this self-determination was the larger systemic structure of oppression that included a profoundly intricate and complex discourse on African-American inferiority based in social Darwinist theories, the pseudo-science of phrenology, and Jim Crow segregation. All of this comes to the fore in Quirt’s layered Surrealist painting The Clinic (1935), a direct and critical injunction for awareness, linking the act of lynching with a larger system of oppression. Quirt brings together in a single configuration the entire edifice of pseudo-scientific inquiry that was phrenological science and social Darwinism. On the right side of the piece, we have an African American male laid out on an examination table as a ghoulish mix of scientists and clinicians study his form, measuring his skull and examining his physique. The figure of a professor stands above them nodding in satisfaction; above him appears another figure from academia, except here hooded with a Ku Klux Klan mask.  Next to this the figure of a lynched man hangs, completing the surreal horror. It is this kind of imagery that the young black radical leftist writer and activist Angelo Herndon and the John Reed Club critic Stephen Alexander preferred in their ability to “explain lynching graphically and plastically,” to highlight and bring forward the oppressive system at work (Hemingway 65).

Quirt’s piece continues its line of critique by imagining in counterbalance to the scene on the right, two large proletariat figures, one white and one black, standing together in solidarity, looking on with grave expressions to the spectacle of systemic violence. Turning to the most galvanizing event for racial justice during the Depression era, the Scottsboro legal case, it is evident that the larger system of institutionalized racism was called into question during the Depression era. In the Scottsboro case, “nine young African American men were framed and eventually convicted of raping two young white women”; the case brought together leftist activists from across the nation and the defense campaign wound its way through the Depression years from 1931–1937 (Hemingway 65). The struggle against racial oppression was linked to its inherent intersection with class oppression under the reigning capitalist order.  This is witnessed in the International Labor Defense group's active sponsorship and support for the Scottsboro victims. As Hemingway reports, leading leftist organizations from the NAACP to the Communist Party framed racism in “class terms,” specifically with regard to lynching.  The NAACP saw it as a product of the economic deprivation of Southern whites,” and the Communist Party viewed it “as a practice deliberately orchestrated by the Southern ruling class ‘to terrorize the Negro into submission’” (Hemingway 64–66).

Once again, the Social Surrealists appear at pains to point up the many barriers placed between the laboring classes and true revolutionary solidarity. By depicting these barriers, they are working directly to frame the larger systemic issues that oppressed and ravaged the American social and material landscape during the Depression era. Quirt’s two laborers, one with a miner's pick-axe and the other with a miner’s sledge, appear ready to break down the oppressive system that appears before them. They stand in defiance of the corrupt corporate and industrialist elite that used overtly racialized tactics to break up the power of organized labor, in many instances calling in black and immigrant scabs to supplant striking unionists, thus playing up racial animus. It is the ethos of class collectivity, labor solidarity and an overarching notion of interdependence that suffuses the American labor movement, radiating out and affecting the socio-cultural reality of the Depression era. And this ethos is present here in direct opposition to the ethos of the American Dream myth, built on the deification of business and the free market, caught up in the exaltation of radical individualism, personal success, and avarice. Overall, solidarity is the singular term that moves through Quirt’s work and the collective surrealistic landscapes of these American artists. Solidarity amongst the laboring classes, amongst the exploited and embattled, is documented, imagined and constructed, challenged and defended, both in its undeniable presence and in its radical absence. Best exemplified in FDR’s inaugural address of 1933, this notion of solidarity did not only exist within the confines of radical leftist circles but was politically salient at the national level. FDR argued that he would bring about “social justice through social change,” that there was a need for “moral stimulation,” honesty, ethics and “unselfish performance”: 

we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other…the money changers have now have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths…the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. (Roosevelt 12)

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In closing, I turn to a singular piece from O. Louis Guglielmi, American Dream (1935).  Like fellow Social Surrealist James Guy, Guglielmi was devoted to the cause of art as a form of socio-political critique and continued championing working-class struggle through his work, well into the 1940s when other artists had turned to abstraction. The piece is aptly titled for this study and demonstrates the pervasive use of the term, but also its significant use in satirically undermining the very premises upon which the Dream myth operated. In the piece, Guglielmi has replaced the Italian piazza of De Chirico’s haunting Surrealist canvases with the plaza of the American-Fordist industrial compound. Each figure or set of figures is detached and isolated from the others in this broad industrial zone: this is the American equivalent of the Italian piazza, a space emptied of any public significance, instead devoted to the aggrandizement of the baron of industrial and corporate capital, and the exaltation of endlessly accumulating profit. With bitter acidity Guglielmi visually critiques this “Dream” that he and his fellow artist-activists saw brought to light during the most tumultuous time of rampant unemployment and civil unrest in modern American history. 

The tumultuous struggle between the two oppositional ethoi that have guided my reading of these images throughout the study stand out in stark contrast. Collectivity and labor solidarity, an ethos of community and intersubjective interdependence, represented by the striking protestor agitating for his rights and the rights of the oppressed, appears battered and brutalized by the representative defender of the Dream myth—a single riot-guard with baton at the ready, a veritable storm trooper. The atomization of community, the promotion of individual self-interest and success are projected here as true nightmare.  It is what isolates each figure; it is what allows the young suited man to carry on in his drunken stupor, unable to defend the fallen laborer from the storm-trooper who looms over him with faceless menace. To the left of the canvas we see the corporate-capitalist ethos has distorted and transformed the paperboy on the corner, his head now a ticker-tape meter spewing out the most recent activity on the stock exchange. The media appears, then, wholly subsumed by the all-consuming game of capitalist-speculation, the very game of easy and rapid economic success that brought on the Great Depression. And to the far-left corner is the ghoul of the business elite, what artist James Guy labeled the “degenerate elite,” posing as playboy with a smiling nude woman on his arm, signally the depravity of all that Guglielmi has laid before the viewer in the picture frame—the mythology of the American Dream.

In 1931, the phrase "American dream" was coined by James T. Adams, a journalist and historian, within his text The American Epic:

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (13).

This mythic construction crumbles under the pressure of the Great Depression and the interwar era’s dense matrix of agitation, action and reaction. Thousands unemployed, hungry and homeless in the streets, thousands of banks collapsed and small businesses in ruins—and yet this all gave rise to the greatest moment in the long historical trajectory of the labor movement in America. As artist-activist and scholar Nicholas Lampert states in his in-depth study A People’s Art History of the United States, describing the strength and vigor of an ethos born out of the labor movement’s momentous resurgence: “Between May 1933 and July 1937 more than 10,000 labor strikes occurred. Demonstrations and marches were ever-present, as were activist-artists to cover these events” (Lampert 138). And the Social Surrealists were among them, documenting the psychological realities of the Depression era, alive to the mechanisms of power that sought to thwart collective action and the political power of organized labor. For André Breton, the founder of the European Surrealist movement, Surrealism as a radical aesthetic and lifestyle had the force to disturb and unseat the bourgeois status quo, bourgeois reality, through the dynamic merger of unconscious desire into the realm of conscious reality. Through this study, we have found that the Social Surrealists, in a dynamic exegesis of this original premise, believed Surrealism to function as a set of radical aesthetic techniques, which had the force to reveal the hidden (unconscious) agenda of power and disturb the dissemination of media and mythology that ran counter to the reality of the oppressed, of the laboring masses.

Adams, as noted above, discusses an ideal of social order, a meritocratic environment of equality where the nexus of identitarian politics demarcating one’s class privilege and position in the racial and gender hierarchy, are stripped away. This mythology reveals itself, its ideological underpinnings, its distortion of the really-existing socio-political and material tensions inherent in the order of the prevailing capitalist system, upon the very pronouncement of its narrative. In so many ways, the American Dream myth was the projection of a larger American socio-cultural self, a psycho-social imagining in the truest sense. Philosopher and psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, discussing the dream structure of the unconscious and its ability to reveal through its own linguistic syntax the underlying compulsion towards a mythology of the self, states: 

the elaboration of the dream is nourished by desire. Why does my voice fail to finish, out of recognition, as if the second word was extinguished which, a little while ago the first, re-absorbed the other in its light. For, in fact, it is not while one is asleep that one is recognized. And the dream, Freud tells us, without appearing to be aware of the slightest contradiction, serves above all the desire to sleep. It is a narcissistic folding back of the libido and a disinvestment of reality. (260)

This "narcissistic folding back," this "disinvestment of reality," is precisely the insidious ideological premise and function of the American Dream myth. Immediately, its ideological nature appears two-fold in Adams’s formulation. First, there is the attempted negation by substitution of the very material reality of the mass-consumption market place and its essential role in bolstering the mythic structure, in obfuscating the desirous drive of unfettered capital accumulation: “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…” And yet it is exactly this attainment of consumer goods and monetary excess that demarcates success, immediate or otherwise, under the capitalist order. More to the point, it is the reality of social dis-order, not the "dream of social order," through which a more egalitarian field of opportunity was actually gained. Importantly, this field of opportunity was accessed through the labor movement’s successive waves of agitation and unrest: the 5-day work week, the 8-hour work day, the living wage, the end of child labor, family and medical leave, the foundation of the National Labor Board, widespread employer-based health coverage, etc. It is here that the Social Surrealist work demands our attention, functioning as a site for the tempestuous struggle between two dichotomous ethoi that structured and affected the socio-political reality of the nation’s citizenry during the Depression era. As in Guglielmi’s American Dream, the work does not revel in the myth but provides a framework for those who seek to shake themselves from the powerful "desire to sleep."


Works Cited

Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Simon Publications, 2001. 

Crocker Art Museum. Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman's Social Surrealism. Edited by Ray Day and Scott A. Shields, Heyday Books, 2006.

Davis, Mike. Prisoners of the American Dream. Verso, 1986.

Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. W. W. Norton, 2009.

Doss, Erika. "Looking at Labor: Images of Work in 1930's American Art." The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, vol. 24, 2002, pp. 230–57.

Eldredge, Charles C. “Irving Norman and the Human Condition.” Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism, Crocker Museum of Art, 2007, pp. 44–50.

Fort, Ilene Susan. "American Social Surrealism." Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 22, no. 3, 1982, pp. 8–20.

---.  "James Guy: A Surreal Commentator." Prospects, vol. 12, 1987, pp. 125–48.

Guy, James. "James Guy on Walter Quirt."  The Art of Walter Quirt,  Last accessed 14 December 2018.

Hemingway, Andrew. Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926–1956. Yale UP, 2002.

Jenkins, Phillip. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Harper Collins, 2014.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Norton Press, 1977.

Lampert, Nicolas. A People’s Art History of the United States. New Press, 2013.

Lansing, Gerrit L. “Surrealism as Weapon.” Surrealism USA, edited by Isabelle Dervaux, National Academy Museum in association with Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2005, pp. 30–35.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. Crown, 2009.

McKinnon, Andrew M. “Reading ‘Opium of the People’: Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion.” Critical Sociology, 2005, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 15–38.

Monroe, Gerald M. "Artists As Militant Trade Union Workers During the Great Depression." Archives of the American Art Journal, vol. 14, no. 1, 1974, pp. 7–10.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933.” The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933, edited by Samuel Rosenman, Random House, 1938, pp. 11–16

Tashjian, Dickran. A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealism and the American Avant-Garde, 1920–1950. Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Walter Quirt Foundation. "An Analysis of Walter Quirt’s Art." The Art of Walter Quirt,  Last accessed 14 December 2018.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, 1492–Present. Harper Collins, 2003.


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