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BEN SHAHN, 1898-1969
MOSAIC, 98" X 581"

Ben Shahn dedicated his life to making art with a social message and this mural, visible from the Belt Parkway, is no exception.  In a 1956 radio interview Shahn explained that in thinking about an appropriate image for a trade high school, he wanted to warn students about the danger of technology divorced from humanism: “I want to emphasize that we are living in a technological society and are beginning to believe that technology will solve all problems that we are faced with (I personally don’t think so, I think that technology without an awareness of the humanities will lead to endless Hiroshimas.) So in this particular mural, I stressed both the good and evil of technology, and stressed the importance of the humanities in our society….”


In conceiving Science and the Humanities, Shahn had little opportunity to collaborate with the architect, since the location and medium for the mural were already specified, but within those parameters he was given total artistic freedom.  As did many other artists of the period, in the aftermath of the war Shahn expanded his repertoire of images to include allegory and myth to grapple with the horrors of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. 


The mosaic is divided into four primary segments leading the viewer on an epic journey from destruction to redemption.  Broad vertical bands of geometric patterns frame each segment.   The sequence begins on the left with twisted steel, a reference to massive destruction wrought by the atomic bomb, crushing a supine figure below.   A Phoenix rises from the ashes, shrouded in stylized flames, a metaphor for rebirth.   To the right of the Phoenix, Shahn overlaid a formula from Einstein’s unified field theory on an ancient view of the constellations, suggesting humanity’s ceaseless quest for scientific answers and balancing the negative view of the first panel.  The mural ends on a hopeful note with images of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides holding an open book inscribed with the phrase, “Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress,” both a warning and exhortation to students.  Stylistically, the mural draws on Shahn’s early training as a lithographer, his work as an illustrator, his fondness for the work of Bauhaus teacher and artist Paul Klee, and the organizing principles of cubism.


Schools in building:
P.S. 370
William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School

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Time Period
Modernism: Redefining Schools in the Post-World War II Years