Supermarket No. 1 by Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn

Supermarket No. 1, 1957, Colour screenprint, 676.3 x 1016 mm, Minneapolis Institute of Art; Gift of Mrs. Edith Halpert, 1960, P.12,802, © 2021 Estate of Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: © Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA / Bridgeman Images

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Affirmation and Authority

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Our Synoptic Gospel passages each end with Jesus saying that the Son of Man is ‘lord of the Sabbath’. This statement of his own authority rests on Jesus’s demonstration, by appeal to Scripture and the deeper principles of the Torah, that his interpretation of Sabbath law is authoritative. In him the Law is being fulfilled, not laid aside.

The dispute is followed in all three Gospels by a similar one, where the Pharisees again accuse Jesus of breaching the Sabbath, this time by an act of healing. Jesus’s response suggests that the Sabbath is faithfully kept by doing good in the service of life (Mark 3:4). Across both passages, Jesus’s authority in handling the Law finds expression in words and actions that affirm and restore.

Ben Shahn’s Supermarket is a quintessential image of American consumerism, even appearing on the cover of a book on the subject (Gagnier 2000). Shahn was known for his leftist politics, and it is tempting to read the work as a critique of life under capitalism, perhaps contrasting its angular, jagged shapes—evoking the metallic artificiality or even violence of industrial mass production—with the natural, softly sweeping lines of the pastoral Wheatfield, discussed elsewhere in this exhibition. Yet Shahn himself linked Supermarket with Wheatfield and two other prints, Silent Music and TV Antennae, as ‘abiding symbols of American daily life, to be celebrated and brought into awareness’ (McNulty & Shahn 1967: 114). He also gave a copy as a gift to the owner of a local supermarket that had suffered a fire.

Perhaps therefore the artwork is better understood as a simple affirmation of people’s ordinary lives in ambivalent social and economic contexts. Considered thus, its patterning of shapes and colours evoke a sense of lightheartedness, whimsy, even humour rather than harshness. This affirmative mood is closer to that which characterizes the authority of Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels—for example, in many of his parables (Bailey 1983)—and serves to illuminate it.

 

References

Bailey, Kenneth E. 1983. Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Gagnier, Regenia. 2000. The Insatiability of Human Wants: Economics and Aesthetics in Market Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Kulju, Jen. 2017. 'Ben Shahn Exhibition Benefits JMU Students, Madison Art Collection, James Madison University', https://www.jmu.edu/news/arts/2017/04-03-ben-shahn-exhibition.shtml, [accessed October 21 2020]

McNulty, Kneeland and Ben Shahn. 1967. The Collected Prints of Ben Shahn (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art)


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