Pudding Seminar: Ella Nowicki (JCR), ‘If I did not know prison life’: Ben Shahn’s rejected murals for Rikers Island Penitentiary (1935)

In 1935, social realist painters Ben Shahn and Lou Block planned a mural for the new prison on Rikers Island. Funded by an emergency relief program, the mural contrasted “unenlightened” punishment (chain gangs, overcrowding, and torture) with the reforms instituted at Rikers (education, work, recreation, medical care). The mural was rejected by New York’s Art Commission as artistically inadequate, subversive, and “psychologically unfit” for incarcerated audiences. Leftist artists saw the rejection as unfair censorship resulting from the Art Commission’s stylistic and political conservatism. Yet Shahn’s mural was also rejected by some incarcerated people in a 1935 survey, on the grounds that prisoners should have “something to look at, that is pleasant, not horrible.” This paper explores the dual rejection of Shahn’s mural, arguing that Shahn fulfilled neither the needs of the state nor the needs of incarcerated viewers. How did Shahn’s mural simultaneously serve and threaten the carceral state? What happens to public art on prison walls?

Ella Nowicki is a third-year undergraduate in History of Art at Newnham. She is interested in twentieth-century American art and her dissertation focuses on Ben Shahn’s Rikers Island murals. As an intern at the New Britain Museum of American Art, she curated a (forthcoming) virtual exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton’s murals and lithographs. She is from Madison, Wisconsin.

Content warning: This presentation will show images of Shahn’s artworks, which include paintings of racial violence within the penal system.

All staff, students, senior members and alumnae are warmly invited to attend the Newnham Pudding Seminars. For more details please visit https://newn.cam.ac.uk/research/pudding-seminars/ or email Jessie Sklair (js222@cam.ac.uk) or Hana D’Souza (hd425@cam.ac.uk