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What is Social Realism?

Social realism is the term used for work produced by artist who aim to draw attention to the real socio-political conditions of the working class as a means to critique the power structures behind these conditions.  In particular, it refers to the interwar-period art movement that blossomed as a reaction to the terrible lives suffered by ordinary people during and after the Great Depression.

Consistent with the catholic nature of the work, this work typically reflected realistic portrayals of ordinary workers as well as legendary people—real and not—who were heroic symbols of strength in the face of adversity.  The goal of the social realists was to expose the worsening plight of the poor and working classes and hold the government and broader social systems accountable.

Some of the key figures in social realism were Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Ben Shan, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, John Steuart Curry, Georges Rouault, Grant Wood, and Paul Cadmus, and, in Mexico, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico.

Leonard Baskin, considered by some to be a social realist artist (though he was not working in the interwar heyday of the movement) was famously critical of the abstract work that dominated the post-war period.  He considered that work to lack courage and to fail to meet the basic duty of art.

Category: Printmaking Terms