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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

Ben Shahn

Handball, 1939, Gouache on paper mounted on board, 578 x 794 mm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, 28.1940, © 2021 Estate of Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Ben Shahn

Wheat Field, 1958, Screenprint with hand-colouring, 686 x 1016 mm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Rosenwald Collection, 1959.10.51, © 2021 Estate of Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington

Living Work

Comparative Commentary by

While our Gospel controversy is initially a technical one concerning whether Jesus’s followers had breached laws relating to Sabbath observance, it quickly develops into a dispute about the Law’s deeper purpose. Jesus is portrayed as a more faithful interpreter of the Law than the Pharisees, whose fixation on the minute details of religious observance is revealed as superficial, since it frustrates the Law’s essential goal: to be a blessing and a source of life.

The Gospels’ first readers in the early Christian communities would have found this story relevant for their own disputes about whether followers of Jesus (Jews but soon afterwards Gentiles too) were required to keep the Sabbath. Contemporary Gentile Christians are, as Hooker argues, likely to have understood it to mean that ‘they were not in any way bound’ by that command (Hooker 2001: 102). What is the significance of this for considering the status of work and rest for Christians?

By mandating a day of rest in imitation of God, the institution of the Sabbath relativizes the primacy of work in human life. Jesus’s interpretation of Sabbath rules—controversial to some of his hearers—does not undermine this general principle (other aspects of his teaching suggest a striking lack of interest in productive labour for its own sake—'Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them’; Matthew 6:26). Rather, it points forward to a further transformation of work, beyond a simple opposition of rest and toil.

As the late John Hughes argued, the ‘end’ of work (work’s goal) is not, for Christians, the end of work—all work ceasing, to be replaced by mere leisure—but its renewal, as something good. Alluding to the Sabbath healing story that comes directly after ours, Hughes writes: ‘the Sabbath is no longer a rest after creation, but is the day when the sick are healed, looking forward to the new creation, for as Christ says: “my Father is working still, and I am still working”’. Redeemed work is, like the Sabbath, to be a source of life rather than a drain on it: ‘…“work” that is also thoughtful, playful, restful, and delightful’ (Hughes 2007: 228).

Such a vision of work admittedly bears mixed resemblance to the alienated, stress-filled, joyless, unrewarding character of much modern wage labour. Ben Shahn was himself aware of this, being throughout his life a vigorous advocate for labour rights and improved working conditions. His three artworks featured in this exhibition attend in different ways to the transformed vision of labour described above, and do so partly as manifestations of his perspective on his own artistic vocation.

Handball—itself a depiction of improvisatory, informal play—is an example of what Shahn called his ‘Sunday paintings’: personal, small-scale works that he made for pleasure, as respite from formal commissions as a public muralist and documentary photographer during the New Deal (Fagg 2011: 1365). It embodies work, in other words, that for Shahn was Sabbath-like in its restorative, pleasant character.

Along the same lines, Shahn used a version of his Wheat Field print in an illustrated edition of Ecclesiastes, in which he identified the celebration of joyful labour in Ecclesiastes 3:22—‘I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work, for that is his lot’—as a central inspiration for his being an artist (Shahn 1967: preface). For Shahn, as for the writer of Ecclesiastes, the substance of good human living was work that could be rejoiced in.

What then of Supermarket as a symbol of American ‘daily life’? The artwork retains an ambivalence against the interpretive background we have been exploring here, in that its subject—grocery shopping—is a leisure activity that in a capitalist society is at the same time a sort of mundane necessity; a chore. But at the very least, as we ruminate on its boxy, angular play of line, shape, and colour, it can prompt us to consider in what contexts and forms of activity we ourselves find joy. Following the final trajectory of our Gospel passages, this may be the same as asking where we find our true work and true Sabbath; a question of what gives us life.

 

References

Fagg, John. 2011. ‘Sport and Spectatorship as Everyday Ritual in Ben Shahn's Painting and Photography’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 28.8–9: 1353–69

Hooker, Morna. 2001. The Gospel According to St Mark (London: Continuum)

Hughes, John. 2007. The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism (Oxford: Blackwell)

Shahn, Ben. 1967. Ecclesiastes, or, the Preacher (Paris: Trianon Press)

Next exhibition: Matthew 12:38–42 Next exhibition: Mark 3:31–35 Next exhibition: Luke 7:1–10