Printmaking in the United States flourished during the first half of the twentieth century, when artists created some of the most original and enduring scenes of American life. Depicting the people, places, and things that made up the social and cultural fabric of an evolving nation, these artists developed a unique aesthetic primarily based on realism and American subject matter. In the process, they reinforced an identity centered on working-class values.
Crossroads: American Scene Prints from Thomas Hart Benton to Grant Wood examines early twentieth-century American culture and society through lithographs, etchings, and wood engravings. Drawn entirely from the permanent collection of the San José Museum of Art, the fifty-six prints in this exhibition encompass a broad range of art styles collectively known as “American Scene.” Subjects range from towering skyscrapers (1982.04) (1982.07) and sweeping landscapes (1981.12) (1981.23) to sheep shearers (1982.02) and cement finishers (1984.32.12). Artists explored changes in urban life (1982.07); conveyed a romantic vision of the countryside (1981.22) (1981.15); examined the grim realities of the Great Depression (1995.14.01); and responded to European ideals and conflicts with American morals and belief (1984.32.06)
Dedicated to creating an art for the people, artists gravitated to printmaking for its reproducibility and affordability. During the 1930s, publishers such as Associated American Artists helped to popularize these prints by commissioning artists and producing inexpensive limited editions available through department stores, newspapers, and mail order catalogues. From 1935 until 1943, when artists received unprecedented support from the US government through the Federal Art Project, the phenomenon grew even larger. At government-sponsored workshops that offered access to costly presses, artists created thousands of prints in which urban scenes coexisted with images of the land, connecting the working classes from cities and farms and making fine art relevant to everyday life.
Federal funding for the arts is always under siege. This exhibition invites us to witness and reflect on the rich legacy of government and public support for artists in the United States. Federal sponsorship during the early twentieth century gave artists an extraordinary sense of purpose and acknowledged their important contributions to society. Today, federal grants to organizations of all shapes, sizes, and missions deepen cross-cultural understanding, provide arts and cultural access to underserved communities, activate public spaces, and allow all of us to imagine a better, brighter world. Eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting undoes more than a century’s worth of investment in American culture and heritage. As the educator and philosopher John Dewey asked, “How can a finished citizen be made in an artless town?”