Social realism  

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contrast to art for art's sake

Social Realism, also known as Socio-Realism, is an artistic movement, expressed in the visual and other realist arts, which depicts social and racial injustice, economic hardship, through unvarnished pictures of life's struggles; often depicting working class activities as heroic. This is not to be confused with Socialist Realism, the official USSR art form that institutionalized Joseph Stalin in 1934 and later allied Communist parties worldwide.


United States

Social Realism became an important art movement during the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s. As an American artistic movement it is closely related to American scene painting and to Regionalism. American Social Realism includes the works of such artists as those from the Ashcan School, and Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh and Grant Wood. It also extends to the art of photography as exemplified by the works of Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Lewis Hine, Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott and Aaron Siskind.

Roots in French Realism

It is widely considered that the term dates on a broader scale to the Realist movement in French art during the mid-1800s. Social Realism in the 20th century refers back to the works of the French artist Gustave Courbet and in particular to the implications of his 19th-century painting A Burial at Ornans, The Stonebreakers, which scandalized French Salon–goers of 1850, and is seen as an international phenomenon also traced back to European Realism and the works of Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet. The Social Realist style fell-out of fashion in the 1960s but is still influential in thinking and the art of today.

Differences from Socialist realism

Many artists who subscribed to Social Realism were painters with socialist (but not necessarily Marxist) political views. The movement therefore has some commonalities with the Socialist Realism used in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, but the two are not identical - Social Realism is not an official art, and allows space for subjectivity. In certain contexts, Socialist Realism has been described as a specific branch of Social Realism.


Social Realism has been summarized as follows:

Social Realism developed as a reaction against idealism and the exaggerated ego encouraged by Romanticism. Consequences of the Industrial Revolution became apparent; urban centers grew, slums proliferated on a new scale contrasting with the display of wealth of the upper classes. With a new sense of social consciousness, the Social Realists pledged to “fight the beautiful art”, any style which appealed to the eye or emotions. They focused on the ugly realities of contemporary life and sympathized with working-class people, particularly the poor. They recorded what they saw (“as it existed”) in a dispassionate manner. The public was outraged by Social Realism, in part, because they didn't know how to look at it or what to do with it (George Shi, University of Fine Arts, Valencia)

In Film

Social Realism in cinema is a style that finds its roots in the Italian neorealism movement known for naturalistic, substance-over-style works of filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and, to some extent, Federico Fellini but is considered Britain's main form of cinematic style. For Britons, their early cinema used common social interaction found in Dickens and Thomas Hardy. One of the first British films to emphasize realism's value as social protest was the 1902 film from U.K. director and Scottish born film pioneer James Williamson, A Reservist Before the War, and After the War which memorialized the Boer War serviceman coming back home to unemployment. Repressive censorship during 1945-1954 prevented British films from more radical social positions. America was one of the last countries to adopt this form of style in cinema. Kine Weekly, considered an invaluable record of British film and television industries development, in 1947 wrote, "Americans have shown [sic] they want pictures reflecting the simple emotions. We are trying to crash into their market by offering them gloom-sadism-and-soft-focus. We must aim at the box office and not the art gallery. It is no good aiming over their heads. It will not help us earn dollars.” British Social Realism cinema has an objective distancing from what the characters think and feel, or a naturalism in its character spines.

In France and the Soviet Union

Realism, a style of painting that depicts the actuality of what the eyes can see, was a very popular art form in France around the mid to late 1800’s. It came about with the introduction of photography - a new visual source that created a desire for people to produce things that look “objectively real” . Realism was heavily against romanticism, a genre dominating French literature and artwork in the mid 19th century. Undistorted by personal bias, Realism believed in the ideology of external reality and revolted against exaggerated emotionalism. Truth and accuracy became the goals of many Realists.

From that important trend of Realism in France, came the development of Socialist Realism, which was to dominate Soviet culture and artistic expression for over 60 years. Socialist Realism, representing socialist ideologies, was an art movement that represented social and political contemporary life in the 1930’s, from a left-wing standpoint. It depicted subjects of social concern; the proletariat struggle - hardships of every day life that the working class had to put up with, and heroically emphasized the values of the loyal communist workers. Social Realism was critical of the social environment that caused the conditions pictured, and denounced the “evil” Tsarist period. Ilya Repin, a famous Social Realist said that his art work was aimed “To criticize all the monstrosities of our vile society” of the Tsarist period. The Ideology behind Social Realism by depicting the heroism of the working class was to promote and spark revolutionary actions and to spread the image of optimism and the importance of productiveness. Keeping people optimistic meant creating a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism, which would prove very important in the struggle to produce a successful socialist nation. The Unions Newspaper, the Literary Gazette, described Social Realism as “the representation of the proletarian revolution”. During Stalin’s reign it was most important to use socialist Realism as a form of propaganda in posters, as it kept people optimistic and encourage greater productive effort, a necessity in his aim of developing Russia into an industrialised nation.

Lenin believed that art should belong to the people and should stand on the side of the proletariat, “Art should be based on their feelings, thoughts and demands, and should grow along with them”, said Lenin. He believed that all soviet art forms should “expose crimes of capitalism and praise socialism...created to inspire readers and viewers to stand up for the revolution”. After the revolution of 1917 leaders of the newly formed communist party were encouraging experimentation of different art types. Lenin believed that the style of art the USSR should endorse would have to be easy to understand (ruling out abstract art such as suprematism and constructivism) in relating to the masses of illiterate people of Russia. A wide ranging debate on Art took place, the main disagreement was between those who believed in "Proletarian Art" which should have no connections with past art coming out of bourgeois society, and those (most vociferously Trotsky) who believed that Art in a society dominated by working class values had to absorb all the lessons of bourgeois Art before it could move forward at all.

The taking of power by Stalin's faction had its corollary in the establishment of an official art: on 23 April 1932, headed by Stalin, an organisation formed by the central committee of the Communist Party developed the Union of Soviet Writers. This organisation endorsed the newly designated ideology of social realism.

By 1934 all other independent art groups were abolished, making it nearly impossible for someone not involved in the Union of Soviet Writers to get work published. Any literary piece or painting that did not endorse the ideology of social realism was censored and/or banned. This new art movement, introduced under Joseph Stalin, was one of the most practical and durable artistic approaches of the twentieth century; with the communist revolution came also a cultural revolution. It also gave Stalin and his Communist Party greater control over Soviet culture; restricting people from expressing alternative geopolitical ideologies that differed to those represented in Socialist Realism. The decline of Social Realism came with fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Social realism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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