Abstract: The Popular Front in the United States and the Corporate Appropriation of Modernism

Shannan Clark


During the 1930s, members of the leftist avant-garde in the United States embarked upon a range of ambitious cultural initiatives to promote visual modernism as a means of furthering radical social transformation. To achieve their cultural objectives, as well as to cultivate class consciousness among the designers, commercial artists, copywriters, and the other "hacks" who worked in the mass culture industries, these radicals initiated an unprecedented collaboration with liberals at the sites of mass cultural production. Yet instead of creating conditions conducive to the decline of corporate dominance, the collaborations of the Popular Front unintentionally abetted the assimilation and appropriation of modernist aesthetics by business in order to legitimate corporate capitalism. This essay will examine three aspects of the American Popular Front: the Design Laboratory, which was the first comprehensive school of modernist design in the United States; the Left-led unions of cultural workers, such as the Book and Magazine Guild, the American Advertising Guild, and United American Artists; and trade publications in the graphic arts like Production Management (PM) that were sympathetic to the Popular Front's agenda.