Shannon Price: Dewey & the Ashcan Artists

John Dewey and the Ashcan Artists: Radical Voices in the Progressive Era

Shannon Price

In the decades following the Civil War, America entered a stage of unprecedented industrial expansion characterized by mass immigration and urban growth. The progressive movement was a dramatic reaction to social and cultural changes sweeping the nation, and was largely focused on reforming the corrupt institutions created by industrialization. Reformers did not limit their efforts to the business or political worlds, however. During the progressive era, cultural and political events were so integrally tied that the work of artists, politicians, and philosophers can be aligned to provide a deeper understanding of the American public in this time of national transformation. John Dewey’s pragmatism and the Ashcan School of art represent key examples of how philosophical and artistic developments complemented and drove one another during the progressive era and beyond. Both the philosopher and the artists shifted the focus of their respective disciplines away from the elite to the everyday experiences of ordinary Americans. Their rejection of established doctrines and traditions led to a profound reevaluation of American democracy, reflected not only in their involvement in politics but in the democratic and social themes of their work. Ultimately, an evaluation of John Dewey’s philosophy and the Ashcan School reveals the common message that art is crucial in the formation of a democratic public, as an embodiment of human experience and as a driving force in the development of democratic culture.

Although the term ‘progressive movement’ implies a cohesive group or goal, in reality the movement was fragmentary, unified only in its zeal for reforming the institutions that dominated turn of the century America. Changes brought by rapid industrialization had essentially “obliterated the familiar contours of an older, simpler America…[and] all progressives grappled with the new world of corporations, factories, cities, and immigrants.”[1] Progressives advocated for everything from business regulation to services for the urban poor, and a reformer could be anyone from a wealthy businessman to a white collar worker or laborer. The strength of progressivism lay in the cities, and the movement was founded in the faith that social problems could be solved through organized action and scientific expertise.[2] Most progressives were not radicals; their goal was to “remedy the social ills of industrial capitalism, not uproot the system itself.”[3] However, the mixed results of reform efforts and great diversity within the movement ensured that for many, “the distinctions between [reformers and radicals] mattered less than the vision, common to all, of a ‘cooperative commonwealth’ in which reason would take the place of force…[M]en mixed art and politics with the same ease with which they mixed radicalism and reform.”[4] Dewey and the Ashcan School shared in this mixing of art and politics, of radicalism and reform, but were set apart by their focus on the value—rather than reformation of—the working class.

John Dewey published his first essays concerning pragmatism in 1903, with Studies in Logical Theory chronologically aligning the popularization of pragmatic philosophy with the progressive movement. For Dewey, pragmatism was a remedy to the errors of both realism and idealism, the two dominant philosophical doctrines of his time. Idealism, which holds that reality exists in ideas and is independent of human perception, is flawed for Dewey because it disregards the value of human experience. Realism, which holds that human perception is the entirety of knowledge, is flawed because it cannot support truth beyond individual observation. Both philosophies place epistemology at the core of their conceptions of knowledge and truth, and Dewey argues that this is their key mistake. Not only are realism and idealism impossible to test or prove, they “cut philosophy off from science. . . the most reliable method human beings had developed for knowing about their world.”[5] Pragmatism offers an alternative to strictly dualistic (idealism) or subjective (realism) concepts of knowledge, asserting instead that knowledge comes from the evaluation of human experience. Truth exists, but it is not found—it is made, through the application and success or failure of ideas. Experience, rather than knowledge, is the core of philosophical thinking, and ideas are proven true and good when they help humans to solve problems.   As much as progressivism was a response to modern industrialization, pragmatism was a response to modern scientific thought. Both were founded in the belief that scientific evaluation and organized action could better American democracy. Where progressivism and pragmatism differed was in opinions of how that evaluation and action should be implemented; progressive reformers had a tendency to impose reform from above, believing they were working toward a more ideal society, while pragmatism emphasized the value of ordinary experience and the uncertainty and contingency of societal development.

Similar to the way that John Dewey’s pragmatism rebelled against philosophy’s established focus on epistemology, the Ashcan School of art broke with accepted teachings and conceptions of beauty in American art. The core of the Ashcan School consisted of six artists(i.e., Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, and George Bellows), who were brought together under the teaching and mentorship of Henri. Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan began their artistic careers as newspaper draftsmen in Philadelphia, which influenced not only their style but also their disdain for the rigid conventions of fine art.[6] Henri’s position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts allowed him to connect with students and local draftsmen dissatisfied with the Academy’s formal teaching, for whom his studio became a meeting place. In 1893, Henri helped these artists—including Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan—to form the Charcoal Club, “an alternative organization that sponsored unstructured life-drawing sessions, with Sloan as treasurer and Henri as chief critic.”[7] Henri moved to New York in 1900, but continued hosting open houses for his students, and eventually encouraged another student—George Bellows—to exhibit with the older Philadelphia draftsmen. In 1908, five of the six Ashcan School members exhibited together in the show “Eight American Painters” in New York, a display of American realism that was both highly controversial and wildly successful.[8]

Fig. 1 Sloan_Hairdresser's Window
Fig. 1

The Ashcan artists depicted urban life in a way that Americans had never seen before, blurring the lines between fine art and mass media. John Sloan’s Hairdresser’s Window (Figure 1, 1907) is exemplary of the methods that the artists used to invite viewers to experience the gritty reality of the city.[9]  Rebecca Zurier Hasty and unrefined brushwork reveal Sloan’s background as a newspaper draftsman. The scene is dynamic and chaotic, a fleeting moment in which Sloan captures the fast pace and lack of privacy in urban living. The rectangular shapes of the buildings and signs mimic that of Sloan’s canvas, directing the viewer’s gaze to the organic forms in the work—first to the hairdresser and her client, then down and outward to the crowd below. Just as the crowd looks up and through the hairdresser’s window to witness a personal interaction, the viewer of Sloan’s painting is invited to look through the window of his canvas and observe the rich variety of interactions that constitute urban life. Sloan’s viewer becomes part of the crowd on the street, experiencing the moment he depicts, encouraged to draw from the clues he provides (a sign advertising Curline for 25 cents, sample sections of dyed hair, a jar being held out to a beautician in rubber gloves) to determine what is happening.[10] Rebecca Zurier, art historian and expert in the Ashcan school, asserts that the Ashcan artists approached their art with understanding that the “concept of experience…[was] shifting authority from universal laws and descriptions of perception to the physical presence of the individual participant.”[11] The Ashcan artists were aware of the larger societal changes reflected in pragmatism, and took part in the elevation of experience above established knowledge as a method for viewing the world. Their work reflects this same shift of authority, directing the focus of art away from proper and often elitist traditions and toward the everyday experience of urban Americans.

The first major intersection of Dewey and the Ashcan school is in their shared philosophies of art, revealed in the work and careers of John Dewey and Robert Henri. John Dewey’s Art as Experience, published in 1934 from a series of his lectures at Harvard University, outlines Dewey’s philosophy of art as it relates to his pragmatism. Although the Ashcan artists exhibited together more than two decades before Dewey’s lectures, strong parallels exist between Henri’s teachings and Dewey’s philosophy. Both men taught in New York, invoked Emersonian individualism and experimentation, and formed friendships with radical figures of their generation.[12] Following the publication of Dewey’s School and Society, Robert Henri actively promoted Dewey’s educational philosophy, stating: “We need schools where individuality of thought and expression is encouraged, a school and instruction which offer the student the utmost help in the building of himself up into a force that will be of stimulating value in the world.”[13] Henri—as mentor to each of the Ashcan artists—passed along his personal philosophy of art to his students, where his ideas were expanded upon and put into larger practice. Connections between Henri and Dewey reflect the rippling effect that the two experienced in terms of their departures from progressive era thought. Ultimately, Henri’s work and teaching align closely with Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy, as both the artist and the philosopher advocated for art as a critical method for understanding human experience and cultural development.

Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy is rooted in pragmatism, which considers experience the ultimate source of truth and knowledge. As a result, the first several chapters of Dewey’s Art as Experience are concerned with the aesthetic “in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man.”[14] To create an aesthetic philosophy, Dewey asserts that one must first take a detour into the everyday experiences of ordinary men and women. Dewey argues that all organisms are in a constant flux of equilibrium and disequilibrium with their environment. For growth to occur and order to be achieved, a living creature must translate “a temporary falling out…to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those conditions under which it lives.”[15] Humans, unlike animals, are conscious of the rhythm of breaking and then reuniting with our environment. Our awareness allows us to reflect, to consciously strive for harmony, and to incorporate meaning into physical objects—including art. Art is “a window on ‘experience in its integrity’…[where] one confront[s] experience as a complex yet unified whole steeped in values…experience at its best.”[16] Dewey makes an important distinction between experiencing something and having an experience. It is possible for an organism to experience its environment and gain nothing. However, through thought, language, and reason, human beings have the ability to grow exponentially from the evaluation of their experiences, and to reach greater and greater fulfillment—this is a true experience. For Dewey, “art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reȅnforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is.”[17] The artist purposefully captures and unifies a moment of true experience, creating harmony and the potential for growth in those who view his or her artwork.

Robert Henri was directly influenced by Dewey’s educational philosophy, and was almost certainly conscious of changing conceptions of truth and the value of experience during his career.[18] Early in his life, Henri displayed a love of the arts, including writing and theater.[19] He maintained throughout his career that the artist must “realize that he has got to be a great man mentally, a philosopher, before there is any excuse for him to practice art.”[20] When Henri enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886, his devotion to life drawing and anatomy over more conventional artistic instruction (such as copying marble busts or master works) foreshadowed his later departures from artistic tradition.[21] Although Henri continually advocated for the development of uniquely American art, he was strongly influenced by his travels and study in Europe. He admired the work of Rembrandt, Franz Hals, and especially Manet, and addressed the issue of European influence by stating: “American art can be produced just as well in Spain as New Jersey; if seen through American eyes, it is American art.”[22] Despite his respect for other artists, Henri was emphatic that the work and styles of the old masters should not be studied for the sake of imitation. Such thinking was backwards, and crippled artistic progress. Art history was “not a shared tradition or model for emulation (as academicians had seen it), but a gathering of great men who responded to the life around them and set down their response for the ages.”[23] Henri shared with Dewey a foundational belief that true art was not simply an imitation of reality or history, but rather a reality in itself, a new experience captured in a physical object.[24]


Henri’s The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison), painted in 1906, is an excellent example of his artistic beliefs put into practice (Figure 1).[25] For Henri, “the sketchlike stroke became a declaration of spiritual independence.”[26] Visible brushstrokes on the features of subjects in Henri’s portraiture are his way of maintaining the vivacity and inspiration of the rapid stroke of paint. In The Art Student, Henri composes Nivison against a dark, empty background, which causes her face, hands, clothing and brushes to stand out sharply. The viewer’s eye is drawn first to the bright, cadmium red at Nivison’s shoulder, then up to her face and deep brown eyes. She stares outward with an intensity and sharpness that contrasts the soft edges of her smock, clothing, and curly hair. Her forceful gaze directly engages the viewer, and “characterizes her as active, assertive, and in motion…distinguish[ing] her from the meditative, slightly melancholic sort.”[27]  A slight curve created by tracing from Nivison’s face down her shoulder and to the paint brushes in her left hand is exactly the kind of detail Henri prioritized over strict imitation of reality. He “likened Nivison to ‘a human question mark,’ an apt description not only of her pose, but also of her psychological stance.”[28] The realism that Henri passed on to the Ashcan artists focused not on the accuracy of minute details but on expressing the dynamism and spontaneity of human experience. This contemporary realism “became a moral virtue” for Henri and his followers, “equated with truth, honesty, and direct experience as opposed to artificiality and deception.”[29] Henri addressed in his art and teaching exactly what Dewey identified as the purpose of art: the creation of a window to true, unified experience.

Henri and Dewey’s philosophical approaches to art both reflect progressive era responses to industrialization and modern science, while at the same time departing from traditional perceptions of the role of art in society. The reconciliation of scientific progress and art was vital for Dewey, who stated that “without [practical science] man will be the sport and victim of natural forces which he cannot use or control. Without [aesthetic appreciation], mankind might become a race of economic monsters, relentlessly driving hard bargains…bored with leisure or capable of putting it to use only in ostentatious display and extravagant dissipation.”[30] In his artistic teaching, Henri consistently “invoked metaphors of development, a common theme during the Progressive Era, to describe a world in the process of continual change.”[31] Henri and Dewey agreed that artistic individualism (the idea of art for art’s sake) and the segregation of artwork to museums had a negative impact on society.[32] Dewey believed that the problem stemmed from “changes in industrial conditions [causing] the artist [to be] pushed to one side from the main streams of active interest.”[33] An industrialized and mechanized society encouraged one of two artistic responses, both of which Henri and Dewey disdained: the artist either sacrificed artistic integrity and mass produced meaningless works, or divorced himself or herself from the public through artistic individualism. However, neither Henri nor Dewey believed that the progress doomed artistic expression. Rather, the great mistake aesthetic philosophers made was to isolate art from its context and from the experiences of ordinary men and women. Decisions to elevate master works to museum status and condemn new forms of art (like the Ashcan school) created a gulf between aesthetic and ordinary experience. To bridge this gap, Henri taught that the artist “must immerse himself in the life and conditions of his time…and then learn how to express them.”[34] For both Dewey and Henri, art played a vital role in maintaining the importance of culture in a mechanized society and enhancing the experience of the common man.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3

In the decades that Henri taught young art students, he developed a distinct message that broke sharply with traditional artistic instruction. He did not believe in the concept of personal style, and instead insisted that art must be about ideas of value, not about techniques.[35] In the artist’s own words: “I don’t care for drawing. I don’t care for color; I don’t care for composition, excepting as they serve me as servants, helping me to carry out my purpose which is not to do any of these things well, but to express myself when I see most truly and most simply.”[36] Henri focused mainly on portraiture in the latter part of his career, but in Street Scene with Snow (57th Street New York City) (Figure 3, painted in 1902)[37] his influence on the Ashcan artists and adherence to Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy is clear. A dominant undertone of sepia acknowledges the dirtiness of the city; mud peeks out from beneath the snow, and the many buildings blend together in a line of greys, browns, and black. However, hints of alizarin crimson and cerulean blue give life to the work, drawing the viewer’s eye deep into the space and toward the vanishing point in the center of the composition.  The figures populating the street are composed of quick, thick brushstrokes, conveying the dynamism of the scene. Henri told his students that “progress comes only through changes in the causes of painting.”[38] In this case, Henri’s cause is to record the rapidly changing reality of the industrial city. Street Scene with Snow is a single moment of the urban experience frozen into time, colored by Henri’s perceptions of the city, artistic teachings, and personal beliefs.

The significance of Dewey and Henri’s shared philosophies of art is immense, particularly considering its context in and around progressive era America. By defining art in terms of constant, everyday experience, Dewey and Henri took art out of the museum and asserted that the true place of artwork is in the lives of ordinary people. At a time of national transformation, Dewey and Henri argued that art must have a place in modern America. The museum was not enough; the aesthetic was too deeply rooted in all experience to be segregated from ordinary life. Henri put Dewey’s idea of art as a window to experience into practice, as he was “not interested in any one school or movement, nor…art as art,” but rather art as life.[39] Henri urged his students to immerse themselves in their subjects, to have what Dewey would consider a true and fulfilling experience, and then to respond to that experience in their work. For both the artist and the philosopher, art was a vital way to understand and to approach the world. The artist had a responsibility to contribute to his or her society and culture. Henri passed on to the Ashcan artists the same belief that Dewey professed in Art as Experience, that the artist plays a crucial role in capturing experience in its purest form. Individuality, innovation, and total immersion in a subject were the characteristics of true art, not technique, tradition, or imitation. Art and science did not have to be opposed, and progress—particularly industrialization—did not mean that great works of art must be hidden away in the museum. Instead, all art should be taken for what it is: the physical embodiment of unified experience, rooted in its time yet full of potential to create fulfillment in those who appreciate it.

Ties between John Dewey and the Ashcan School are present not just in the way that they treated art, but in the way that they treated democracy, particularly the role of art in democracy. Key to John Dewey’s arguments concerning democracy is the distinction between democracy as an idea or way of life and democracy as a political system (a distinction also very present in the work and political activism of the Ashcan artists). For Dewey, true democracy is “a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best.”[40] Democratic systems of government are not the embodiment of democracy itself, but mechanisms by which a civilization can attempt to achieve democracy as a way of life. In his metaphysics, Dewey provides an “intellectual warrant” for this wider conception democracy.[41] He believed that neither realism nor idealism supports a world in which democracy is reasonable, for the conception of freedom provided by both—especially in response to modern science and industry—was “not one which is spontaneously congenial to the idea of liberty in a society which has set its heart on democracy.”[42] Instead of reason, Dewey bases his metaphysics on human intelligence, rooted in experience. Robert Westbrook explains the immense significance of this decision in terms of democracy:

For Dewey, substituting intelligence for transcendent reason or uninterrogated desire in the moral life of a culture required vesting authority not in the insights of philosophers [or scientists] but in the deliberations of ordinary men and women skilled in the art of practical judgement—the lowly artisans with their humble, contingent, probable knowledge would claim the temple denied them by Plato and nearly every philosopher since. Philosophers might help their fellow citizens understand the logic of practical judgement, but the day-to-day exercise of that logic was the responsibility of the public.[43]

Dewey believed that democracy required “a universe in which there is real uncertainty and contingency. . . a world which in some respect is incomplete and in the making. . . [and] may be made this way or that according as men judge, prize, love, and labor.”[44] He sought to avoid the separation of nature and experience he found inherent in both realism and idealism. If nature and experience are unified, and intelligence is the basis of metaphysics, then the dilemmas and reasoning of the common man become a viable basis for a form of government. The lofty judgements of intellectuals concerning the nature of reality pale in comparison to the practical judgements of ordinary people, who translate their desires and ideals into the intelligence necessary to manage their society.

Dewey’s faith in democracy as a way of life also permeates his view of culture, which is where the work of the Ashcan School once again becomes significant. He argued that culture “not only posited a reciprocity of the ideal and material, it brought together the too often compartmentalized realms of experience—religion, politics, art, economics, etc.”[45] The importance he grants to art in his philosophy is predicated on the belief that art engages culture and human experience to create an enduring record and celebration of both, especially in the midst of cultural changes.[46] In the work of the Ashcan school, the democratic elements of Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy are strongly manifested.   Twentieth-century New York, as depicted by the Ashcan artists, was “a place in which classes and a wide variety of ethnic (if not racial) groups were beginning to mix…a place that, while threatening to some…was described by others during the Progressive Era as the birthplace of a new, ‘transnational America.’”[47] Though not all of the Ashcan artists directly participated in politics, the engagement of their work with controversial social issues and the changing urban landscape fulfilled exactly the role that Dewey expected of art in a democratic culture. With their radical subject matter and techniques, the Ashcan artists acknowledged, commented on, and contributed to the evolving urban culture of twentieth century America.

Fig. 4
Fig. 4

George Luks’s comic series, Hogan’s Alley, provides a concrete example of how the Ashcan artists confronted social and democratic issues in their work. The star of the series was the infamous “Yellow Kid,” a troublemaking but loveable Irish street urchin living in the imaginary tenement of Hogan’s Alley. The cartoons undoubtedly reflect prevailing stereotypes of race and the ghetto in the early 20th century, but differ from typical representations of the time because of the consistent tension between the subjects and the established social order.[48] The Hogan’s Alley children are exactly what middle and upper class readers of the New York World (where the cartoons were published) most feared in their city. The Yellow Kid and his fellow tenement children are disorderly, defiant of all authority, and unreformable; when Santa Claus visits Hogan’s Alley in Luks’s cartoon, he is mugged at gunpoint (Figure 4, Santa Claus Held Up in Hogan’s Alley).[49] Social, ethnic, and racial distinctions are clear in the way that Luks draws his characters: “Adults had the apelike features and cherry nose of the stereotyped Irishman, while the children included a panoply of hook-nosed Jews, thick-lipped blacks, and assorted ragamuffins quite unlike the depictions of the well-to-do.”[50] However, the cartoons presented these working class figures as a subject of affection and laughter rather than fear, and the children were never reprimanded for their behavior or transformed into respectable citizens. Luks viewed the slum as simply a less prosperous version of the “uptown” world that Progressive reformers often confined themselves to, stating that “humanity is essentially the same” in both settings.[51] He depicts the residents of Hogan’s Alley as a rightful part of New York City. They dominate any attempt at social control, forcing the viewer to question the very dynamics and practice of democracy in the industrial city and among the working class.[52]

Fig. 5
Fig. 5

Luks was not the only Ashcan artist to use cartooning and caricature to comment on social issues—Bellows and Glackens were both also known for their cartooning work, and Bellows especially carried forward influences of cartooning into his painting. In Stag at Sharkey’s (Figure 5),[53] Bellows uses the same kind of tension and contrast that Luks does to force viewers to question their conceptions of the working class and the new mixing of classes and ethnicities in the city. The faces in the crowd are crude and grotesque, with hasty and unrefined brushstrokes, but the bodies of the boxers deliberately reference classical sculpture.[54] The use of caricature to represent the chaotic crowd—but not the boxer’s themselves—“establishes a contrast between the fighters and the ‘immoral atmosphere’ around them, each with its own seductions, and makes the fight both horrific and beautiful.”[55] The viewer’s eye is drawn first to the focal point of the work, the heroically clashing boxers, then down to the leering face of the man with cigar, who is with the viewer in the crowd. Rather than maintaining a traditional distance from the spectacle, Bellows places himself in the crowd as the balding man on the right hand side of the work. His face is barely visible as he looks half up to stage and half away from it, encouraging the viewer “to watch the unwatchable…to confront a darker side of urban spectatorship.”[56] Stag at Sharkey’s, like Hogan’s Alley, acknowledges the tension of social inequality in a democracy supposedly founded on principles of equality. It creates an atmosphere that is both enticing and repelling, scorning—in the same way Dewey would—any artificial separation between the beautiful and the grotesque that together make up human experience.

At the cornerstone of Dewey’s belief in participatory democracy is his assertion that “in social and moral matters, equality does not mean mathematical equivalence.”[57] Instead, equality means the subservience of quantitative differences in wealth, position, and even ability to “the fact of individuality, the manifestation of something irreplaceable.”[58] Dewey argued that every human being was defined and made unique by their interactions with each other and with their environment. He stated: “To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community…who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values.”[59] Democracy is the expression of qualitative individuality in a functioning community, the only form of government that properly accounts for the value of human experience. Art becomes a vitally important part of a democracy, because it is a physical “manifestation of something irreplaceable,” an essential component of “the give-and-take of communication” of being human. In Art as Experience, Dewey asserts that there are both transient and the enduring elements of a civilization. Each human life and mind is, inevitably, transient.   Art, however, is an enduring force for consolidating the progress of culture and civilization. Great art is created in context of the environment and experience of the artist, then becomes part of the environment and experience of all humanity, our inheritance from past cultures and civilizations. Dewey identified the growing isolation of art from the public at large as “one manifestation of the incoherence of our civilization produced by new forces” of industrialization and mass urban growth—the same conflicting forces that the Ashcan artists depicted in their art.[60] By engaging issues of social change and democracy and attempting to capture the urban experience, the Ashcan School actively participated in and encouraged the “give-and-take of communication” that Dewey believed was essential to democracy. They broke down artificial barriers between art and the experience of ordinary men and women, responding to the problems of their age and setting that response down for generations to come.

Dewey’s beliefs concerning democracy as a practical political system are more difficult to classify than his arguments about democracy as an idea, due to both the fragmented nature of the progressive movement and the evolution of Dewey’s beliefs over time. Robert B. Westbrook, historian and biographer of John Dewey, suggests that the progressive movement can be divided into three major efforts: “the reconstruction of American capitalism by. . . corporations and their allies; a wide variety of middle-class reform initiatives for which we might reserve the term ‘progressivism’; and the attempt of American labor organizations. . . to preserve the traditional prerogatives of labor and, in some cases, to establish new forms of workers’ control.”[61] Dewey’s role in the progressive movement is often simplified to his educational reforms. However, Westbrook argues that Dewey’s beliefs align most closely with labor, “especially with those elements of the labor movement committed to workers’ control.”[62] The radical side of Dewey’s philosophy stems from his unwavering support of participatory democracy, and even ties Dewey to the socialist movements of his time. William English Walling, a journalist and leader in the pre-war socialist movement, stated that “pragmatism is Socialism, if taken in what seems to me to be its most able and consistent interpretation, that of Professor John Dewey.”[63] Walling believed that Dewey’s pragmatism “freed science from nineteenth century conceptions of inevitable law and….deterministic evolutionary thinking. . . [and] offered a democratic method to replace science as law and scientists as lawgivers.”[64] By establishing truth in the application and success of human ideas, Dewey abolished the elitism that inevitably accompanied idealism, while preserving the value of individual inquiry and experience that realism discarded. Walling’s argument proved to be immensely perceptive; he “anticipated Dewey himself in tying his version of pragmatism to a socialism that, as Dewey would later put it, was not state socialism.”[65] Dewey’s view of a fully participatory democracy is much more radical than it first appears, and links his philosophy to the far political left of the progressive era.

The artists of the Ashcan School also participated in radical politics during the progressive era, far more overtly than Dewey but in the same spirit of democracy and the working class. John Sloan went so far as to join the Socialist Party in 1909 and run for office on the Socialist ticket in 1910.[66] Multiple Ashcan School artists worked closely with The Masses, a magazine which openly advocated for socialism and whose mission statement embodies many of the most revolutionary and criticized features of Ashcan School art:

A revolutionary, not a reform magazine…a magazine with a sense of humor and no respect for the respectful; frank; arrogant; impertinent; searching for true causes; a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found; printing what is too naked or true for a money-making press; a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers—a free magazine.[67]

Fig. 6
Fig. 6

Like The Masses, the Ashcan artists were not concerned with the formal traditions and techniques of their field. George Luks’ proclamation of “Guts! Guts! Life! Life! That is my technique!” embodies their disdain for the “rigidity and dogma” of the established art world.[68] Their art displays a heightened awareness of the plight of the urban working class, which certainly corresponds with the aims of labor unions and the socialist movement. George Bellows’s Why Don’t they go to the Country for a Vacation? (Figure 6) was published in The Masses in August of 1913.[69] In a similar way to Hogan’s Alley, Bellows’s work deliberately mimics the style of newspaper cartoons that morally crusading progressives found so disturbing. Bellows sought to convey a representation of tenement life in the universal language of newspapers, not softened to appease middle-class sensitivities, but jarring and even admiring of the “pugnacious, cartoon-like children” whose mischief both repels and captivates the viewer of the piece.[70]  Grotesque, elongated limbs and sharp, menacing features dominate the characters in Bellows’s composition, who are heaped on one another in a chaotic and crowded space. The viewer’s attention is drawn from the violent interactions at the bottom of the piece back into the seemingly endless sea of distorted figures, creating an appalling representation of human misery and conflict in the urban setting. Bellows’s title is deliberately provocative, confronting readers of The Masses with the question of why these miserable figures will never simply “go to the country for a vacation” in the manner of the middle class? The answer is simple: they cannot. Bellows forces viewers to confront the inequality of opportunity that dominated the lives of the working class, revealing a deep-seated questioning of the meaning of democracy in his work and in the progressive era itself.

The combined message of Dewey and the Ashcan School resonates as both a warning and a hope for the future of American democracy. Both the artists and the philosopher support the claim that art is vital to the formation of a democratic public, as a mechanism for engaging social issues and an embodiment of culture and human experience. Dewey cautions, however, that “as long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure.”[71] If progressive era America continued to build barriers between nature and experience, between the elite and the social realities of the working class, the incoherence that Dewey identified in industrial society would only worsen. Progressives could attempt to reform and moralize the American public, but for Dewey, “art is more moral than moralities. For the latter are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo, reflections of custom, reinforcements of the established order.”[72] By challenging the status quo and engaging issues of social change and democracy, the Ashcan artists provided a vital service to American democracy. In the words of The Masses, both Dewey and the Ashcan School were “searching for true causes. . . [and] directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found.”[73] Ultimately, their rejection of established doctrines and traditions led to a profound reevaluation of American democracy, reflected in the ties Dewey and the Ashcan artists share to socialism and radical politics. The Ashcan School returned the focus of their art to the urban experience, depicting not what was picturesque or proper, but what they viewed as a realistic representation of American life. In doing so, they validated not just the importance Dewey gave to art in his philosophy, but the necessity of art to a democratic nation—in progressive era America and as long as democratic civilizations endure.


[1] Paul S. Boyer, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American people (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 642.

[2] Boyer, 643.

[3] Boyer, 643.

[4] Christopher Lasch. The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963 : the Intellectual as a Social Type.(New York: 1986), 287.

[5] Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), 124.

[6] James Duncan. “The Ashcan School: an American Rebellion,” American Artist (2011), n.pag.

[7] Rebecca Zurier. Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 25.

[8] Duncan, n.pag.

[9] John Sloan, Hairdresser’s Window in “Every Artist Paints Himself: John Sloan’s Hairdresser’s Window,” (2011) (accessed 14 February 2015). Zurier, 15.

[10] Zurier, 15.

[11] Zurier, 10.

[12] Zurier, 118.

[13] Henri qtd. in Zurier, 118.

[14] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Berkley Pub. Group, 2005), 3.

[15] Dewey, 13.

[16] Westbrook, 393.

[17] Dewey, 17.

[18] Zurier, 118.

[19] Bennard B. Perlman, Robert Henri: His Life and Art (New York: Dover Publications, 1991), 9.

[20] Henri qtd. in Zurier, 117.

[21] Perlman, 11.

[22] Henri qtd. in Perlman, 14.

[23] Zurier, 119.

[24] Zurier, 107.
[25] Robert Henri, The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison) in “File:Robert Henri – The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison).jpg.” (accessed 20 April 2015).
[26] Zurier, 107.

[27] Zurier, 127.

[28] Zurier, 127.

[29] Zurier, 107.

[30] Dewey qtd. in Westbrook, 286.

[31] Zurier, 117.

[32] Dewey, 8., William Innes Homer and Violet Organ, Robert Henri and his Circle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), 159.

[33] Dewey, 6.

[34] Homer, 159.

[35] Homer, 158.

[36] Henri qtd. in Perlman, 141.

[37] Robert Henri, Street Scene with Snow in “Street Scene with Snow,” (accessed 20 April 2015).

[38] Henri qtd. in Perlman, 144.

[39] Henri qtd. in Zurier, 118.

[40] Westbrook, 319.

[41] Westbrook, 361.

[42] Dewey, qtd. in Westbrook, 362.

[43] Dewey, qtd. in Westbrook, 360.

[44] Dewey, qtd. in Westbrook, 362.

[45] Westbrook, 346.

[46] Dewey, 339.

[47] Zurier, 13. The term “transnational America” belongs to Randolph Bourne, a student and later critic of Dewey who used the term to describe his version of cultural pluralism.

[48] Robert Gambone, “George Luks, ‘Hogan’s Alley,’ and Ashcan School social thought.” Aurora, The Journal Of The History Of Art (2005): 38. Literature Resource Center, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2015).

[49] Image from Gambone, 49.

[50] Zurier, 221.

[51] Luks qtd. in Gambone 39.

[52] Gambone, 43.

[53] Image from: Wikipedia contributors, “Stag at Sharkey’s,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 11, 2015).

[54] Zurier, 244.

[55] Zurier, 244.

[56] Zurier, 245.

[57] Dewey, qtd. in Westbrook 363.

[58] Dewey, qtd. in Westbrook 363.

[59] Dewey, qtd. in Westbrook 365.

[60] Dewey, 351.

[61] Westbrook, 183.

[62] Westbrook, 189.

[63] Walling qtd. in Westbrook, 190.

[64] Walling qtd. in Westbrook, 191.

[65] Westbrook, 190.

[66] Helen Gardner and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art through the Ages : the Western Perspective (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2014), 541.

[67] The Masses qtd. in von Mohrenschildt, 135.

[68] Luks qtd. in Duncan, James.

[69] Image: George Bellows. Why Don’t they go to the Country for a Vacation? in The Masses, (accessed 14 February 2015).

[70] Zurier, 228.z

[71] Dewey, 358.

[72] Dewey, 362.

[73] The Masses qtd. in von Mohrenschildt, 135.