Challenging the conventional wisdom that the 1930s were dominated
by literary and photographic realism, Sensational Modernism
uncovers a rich vein of experimental work by politically
progressive artists. Examining images by photographers such as
Weegee and Aaron Siskind and fiction by writers such as William
Carlos Williams, Richard Wright, Tillie Olsen, and Pietro di
Donato, Joseph Entin argues that these artists drew attention to
the country's most vulnerable residents by using what he calls an
"aesthetic of astonishment," focused on startling, graphic images
of pain, injury, and prejudice.
Traditional portrayals of the poor depicted stoic, passive figures
of sentimental suffering or degraded but potentially threatening
figures in need of supervision. Sensational modernists sought to
shock middle-class audiences into new ways of seeing the nation's
impoverished and outcast populations. The striking images these
artists created, often taking the form of contorted or disfigured
bodies drawn from the realm of the tabloids, pulp magazines, and
cinema, represented a bold, experimental form of social aesthetics.
Entin argues that these artists created a willfully unorthodox
brand of vernacular modernism in which formal avant-garde
innovations were used to delineate the conditions, contradictions,
and pressures of life on the nation's fringes.