“What is the Matter with Magazine Art?”: On Censoring the Masses

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

“What is the Matter with Magazine Art?”: On Censoring the Masses

By Lori Cole May 27, 2015

In January 1915, Max Eastman, the editor of the Masses, published an article titled “What is the Matter with Magazine Art?” lamenting how artists and editors alike were too “economically determined.” Eastman aligned what he called “true art” with democracy, decrying the fact that most magazines subordinated art to their commercial interests. Such profit-driven art, he wrote, “does not aim to achieve the beautiful, the real, the ideal, the characteristic, the perfect, the sublime, the ugly, the grotesque, the harmonious, the symmetrical” but rather instead, “desires to please everybody a little and displease none”; conversely, the Masses was founded as “a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers,” self-identifying as a wholly “free magazine.”1 This freedom was contested within the magazine by its own artists in 1916 and then more forcefully by the United States government, which challenged the Masses for its pacifist content under the 1917 Espionage Act (a law targeting critics of military recruitment), subjecting its editors to two trials and eventually succeeding in shutting the magazine down.

Stuart Davis. Cover, Masses, January 1915.

Founded in 1911 by Piet Vlag, a Dutch immigrant, the Masses was an illustrated socialist monthly. It did not achieve artistic and literary prominence, however, until Vlag gave the editorship in 1912 to Eastman, a politically committed writer, who brought on a like-minded novelist and journalist, Floyd Dell, as managing editor in 1914 (although the magazine was cooperatively owned and collectively edited). As a progressive journal, the Masses advocated for freedom of speech, racial equality, birth control, and women’s suffrage, and fiercely opposed sweatshop labor and militarism. As Dell wrote, “It stood for fun, truth, beauty, realism, freedom, peace, feminism, revolution.”2 It published poetry by Amy Lowell and William Carlos Williams, fiction by Upton Sinclair and Sherwood Anderson, and art by John Sloan, George Bellows, Djuna Barnes, and Stuart Davis. Because the Masses was cooperatively owned and operated by its contributors, it was not beholden to the commercial interests that propelled other magazines.3 For artists, this meant that the magazine offered a space “to gallop around in and be free,” according to the cartoonist Art Young.4 

Stuart Davis. Cover, “Gee, Mag, Think of Us Bein’ on a Magazine Cover!” Masses, June 1913.

Notably, a number of realist artists known as the Ashcan School found an outlet for their work in the Masses, which welcomed their quick, on-site sketches and depictions of everyday life in New York City. Sloan, the magazine’s art editor, wrote, “The Masses offered to many artists a first chance to make really good drawings for publication.”5 These artists were inspired by satirical magazines in Europe such as Jugend and Simplicissimus, which similarly featured provocative artwork.6 Davis’s radical cover of June 1913 explicitly targeted the magazine’s contemporaries and exemplified its satirical and realist stance: two women speak conspiratorially beneath their oversized hats; the accompanying caption “Gee, Mag, Think of Us Bein’ on a Magazine Cover!” reinforced Davis’s parody of a cover girl. Drawn in sickly blue and green crayon with sketchy, thick lines that mark their faces and necks, the women served as an antidote to the typical commercial-magazine cover, and the illustration received a great deal of press.7 

Despite championing artistic freedom, the Masses battled internal conflicts over the display of art even before falling prey to government censorship. In March 1916, Sloan led a strike in favor of artistic integrity, arguing that the insertion of captions under the drawings compromised the artists’ works for the sake of legibility. Eastman described the strike as a struggle between “art and propaganda, poetry and practical effort—between the very two interests whose satisfaction within the same covers had made the magazine unique.”8 Even politically active artists like Sloan saw their artwork as more than political propaganda. Young’s retort to the artists’ mutiny was that they simply wanted “to run pictures of ash cans and girls hitching up their skirts in Horatio Street,” indicating the origin of the Ashcan School name.9 After the strike, Davis and the artist H.J. Glintenkamp formed the short-lived portfolio magazine Spawn, whose manifesto announced, “It has no axe to grind or propaganda to propound. Its sole purpose is to reach an audience of picture lovers…in short, a traveling exhibition.”10 (However, many artists continued to work for the Masses, including Glintenkamp.)

George Bellows. Cover, Masses, April 1915.

The freedom to produce politically provocative work in any form was challenged by the United States government with the start of World War I. As early as September 1914, the Masses questioned capitalism’s implication in the war in its critical essays and drawings that increased and escalated along with the war. Even Bellows, who ended up supporting the war effort, contributed an antiwar cover to the April 1915 issue. In dark pencil lines, Bellows depicted fallen bodies lying on a battlefield underneath a man on horseback, who looks down as one figure holds another supplicating, dying figure whose face is contorted in agony. Beyond the pages of the magazine, the editors of the Masses were also active in antiwar organizations, and John Reed, an editor who covered the war in Europe, testified before Congress to oppose both conscription and the Espionage Act.11

The postmaster of New York sent the Masses a letter in July 1917, deeming the August issue unmailable.

The Espionage Act was passed on June 15, 1917, two months after the United States declared war on Germany, penalizing those who were convicted of interfering with military recruitment with up to twenty years imprisonment or fines up to ten thousand dollars. It also authorized the postmaster general to ban the circulation of newspapers and magazines that might obstruct the draft or otherwise conflict with the law. The postmaster of New York sent the Masses a letter in July 1917, deeming the August issue unmailable. The magazine’s editors were used to such battles; past issues had been banned from the New York Public Library, subways, and newsstands in New York, and by distribution companies in Boston, Philadelphia, and Canada.12 The Masses published all of its encounters with suppression and its opposition to the proposed censorship law in April 1917, even before it found itself in the law’s grip.13 

The works cited as treasonous by the government included four cartoons: two by Glintenkamp, one on conscription and the other a drawing of a cracked Liberty Bell; one by Boardman Robinson, captioned “Making the World Safe for Capitalism”; and one by Young, described by the New York legislature as: 

…a group of corpulent gentlemen gathered about a table and apparently discussing war plans. A figure stands in the doorway representing someone who apparently has attempted to interrupt the conference about the table, and whose interference apparently is resented by the group. The figure represents Congress, and the following language appears below the cartoon: “Congress: ‘Excuse me, gentlemen, where do I come in?’ Big business: ‘Run along, now! We got through with you when you declared war for us.’”14

The editors of the Masses offered to delete the parts of the magazine deemed objectionable but were refused this option, and so the magazine filed an injunction against the postmaster.15 In 1918, the editors were the defendants in two trials, both of which ended in hung juries. The trials were a real threat to the publication and its editors, but they also served as platforms from which to advocate for the freedom of speech. Eastman even corresponded with President Woodrow Wilson about the contested law and submitted Wilson’s response for publication in the New York Times, which read: 

I think that a time of war must be regarded as wholly exceptional, and that it is legitimate to regard things which would in ordinary circumstances be innocent as very dangerous to the public welfare, but the line is manifestly exceedingly hard to draw, and I cannot say that I have any confidence that I know how to draw it. I can only say that a line must be drawn, and that we are trying, it may be clumsily, but genuinely, to draw it without fear or favor or prejudice.16

Such an anguished response from the president underscores how uncertain all sides were about the Espionage Act. Nevertheless, by May 1918, more than four hundred publications in the United States had been withheld by the Post Office Department under this act.17 A more widely known example is the censorship of James Joyce’s Ulysses, serialized by the Little Review magazine, beginning in March 1918. The Little Review was put on trial in 1921 under the 1873 Comstock Act, which made it illegal to circulate material classified as obscene through the US mail. The Little Review was found guilty, requiring the payment of a fine and a halt to publishing Joyce’s work.18 The Masses quoted the Little Review as early as 1916, saying that the United States has “the most perfect system of Birth Control for genius and art ever devised—The National Board of Censorship.”19

While the Masses folded under the pressure of lawsuits, it quickly reformed as the Liberator (1918–24), featuring the opening statement: “Never was the moment more auspicious to issue a great magazine on liberty.”20 When that magazine ended, much of the same group formed the New Masses (1926–48), including many artists who had gone on strike, such as Davis and Sloan. Despite its successes, the eventual capitulation of the Masses to government censorship demonstrated that the struggle to define a “free magazine” persisted. Moreover, while the artists who left the Masses later worked for its successors, their battles with the magazine teach us that freedom of the press—both artistic and political—is ever precarious.


  1. Max Eastman, “What is the Matter with Magazine Art?” Masses, no. 6 (January 1915): 12–16. Eastman’s article was originally commissioned by Norman Hapgood at Harper’s magazine, who didn’t print it. Eastman next wrote a piece called, “What is the Matter with Magazine Writing?” Cited in Max Eastman, Enjoyment of Living (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948), 540.
  2. Floyd Dell, quoted by Eastman, Enjoyment of Living, 559.
  3. “This magazine is owned and published cooperatively by its editors. It has no dividends to pay, and nobody is trying to make money out of it.” This statement ran in every issue, starting with volume 4, number 5 (February 1913).
  4. Art Young, quoted in “Wanted Magazine to Gallop Around In, Says Artist,” New York World, April 23, 1917, cited in Rebecca Zurier, Art for the Masses: A Radical Magazine and its Graphics, 1911–1917 (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1988), 35.
  5. Zurier, 42.
  6. Benoît Tadié, “The Masses Speak: The Masses (1911–17); The Liberator (1918–24); New Masses (1926–48); and Masses & Mainstream (1948–63),” Oxford Cultural and Critical History of Modern Magazines, Vol. II: North America 1894–1960, ed. Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (New York: Oxford University, 2012), 834.
  7. Oliver Herford, “Pen and Inklings,” Harper’s Weekly, no. 58 (September 6, 1913). The cover was also mentioned in the New York Globe (May 24, 1913).
  8. Eastman, Enjoyment of Living, 548.
  9. Art Young, quoted in New York Sun (April 8, 1916): 6.
  10. See Spawn, no. 1 (February 1917), cited in Zurier, 57.
  11. John Sayer, “Art and Politics, Dissent and Repression: The Masses Magazine versus the Government, 1917–1918,” The American Journal of Legal History 32, no. 1 (January 1988): 44. Sayer cites antiwar material included in the 1917 issues of the Masses: no. 9 at 5, 7, 8–9, 18–19, 21, 34–35; no. 7 at 16; no. 8 at 4, 5, 23, 24; no. 10 at 10, 18, 25, 26–27.
  12. Sayer, 47.
  13. See, for instance, “Some Recent Workings of the Censorship,” <http://dlib.nyu.edu/themasses/books/masses066/5> and “Which do you agree with? Ward and Gow vs. the Public,” Masses 8, no. 12 (October 1916): 5, 36; <http://dlib.nyu.edu/themasses/books/masses066/36>.
  14. New York State Legislature, “Newspapers and Periodicals,” New York Legislative Documents 18, no. 50, part 2 (Albany: J.B. Lyon, 1921): 1231.
  15. Sayer, 48: “The objectionable written passages included a Max Eastman piece advocating respect for Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, an unsigned piece on non-religious conscientious objectors, and an Eastman editorial praising the courage of draft resisters who had gone to jail.”
  16. Woodrow Wilson, to Max Eastman on September 18, 1917, in “Hard to Draw Line, Wilson Tells Eastman; Things Innocent in Peace Perilous in War,” New York Times (September 28, 1917).
  17. This included the magazines Revolt (New York City), Alarm (Chicago), Blast (San Francisco), Voluntad (Spain), Volni Listy (Bohemia), among many others. See “Some Recent Workings of the Censorship,” Masses 8, no. 12 (October 1916): 5, http://dlib.nyu.edu/themasses/books/masses066/5; and Sayer, 53.
  18. See Adam Parks, “Obscenity and Non-Reproductive Sexuality: Ulysses and The Little Review Trial,” Modernism and the Theater of Censorship (New York: Oxford University, 1996).
  19. “Some Recent Workings of the Censorship,” Masses 8, no. 12 (October 1916): 5, http://dlib.nyu.edu/themasses/books/masses066/5.
  20. Max Eastman, Liberator, no. 1 (March 1918): 3.

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