What ideas of belonging are shown in the painting Unemployment by Ben Shahn, 1938?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that it is extremely important to understand Shahn's background when examining his portrait, "Unemployment."  Shahn was a firm advocate for workers' rights and a staunch believer that all individuals will find success if they understand each others' predicaments and seek to broaden understanding of one another.  This is part of the reason why he became an artist of the New Deal, being commissioned to compose murals and frescoes that emphasize ideas that are associated with the New Deal.  We see this in Shahn's portrait.  All of the individuals in the portrait look strikingly similar, with eyes gazed on a distant point attracting all of them.  Perhaps, the vision upon which they are fixated is an end to what is being experienced.  They come from different walks of life, as one is injured, another one of color, and all of them bear some level of difference.  Yet, the social and economic contexts of the time make them the same, and this might be where Shahn's point is the most powerful.  The essence of America during the Great Depression was that capitalism ends up hurting everyone in much the same way, with the exception of the richest 1%.  This belonging  is one where material reality, the essence of capitalism, is a setting where most people end up feeling the same pinches, enduring the same struggles, and find some level of commonality and solidarity in their predicaments.

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