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Historic Mural "The Meaning of Social Security"


"I feel that the whole Social Security idea is one of the real fruits of democracy. There may be some limitations to my powers of exposition, but at least it is my aim to make the mural a clear and feeling picture of Social Security, and, I hope, one that may be understood by average Americans."

- Ben Shahn
Letter to Edward Bruce
Section of Fine Arts and Painting
July 14, 1941




Ben Shaw Mural West Wall
View Slideshow of West Wall
Ben Shahn
built his mural "The Meaning of Social Security" around the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, giving pictorial form to the President's June 8, 1934 address on the Social Security legislation:

"This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated from this man-made world of ours."

The Social Security Act was passed on August 14, 1935 as part of the New Deal program of sweeping social reforms that responded to the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Shahn's Social Security mural vividly captures the ambitions of the New Deal programs and also serves as an example of government efforts to extend patronage to the arts in the 1930s.

The growth of the arts was encouraged and administered by the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the Federal Works Agency. As a consequence, original works of art grace many federal buildings in Washington, D.C., such as the Wilbur J. Cohen Health and Human Services Building, originally designed in 1940 to house the Social Security Administration. Murals and sculpture were envisioned by the architects to embellish the thrifty design, enhance the workplace, and contribute to a growing national collection of fine arts.

The Artist: Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn
Read more on Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1898, migrated to the U.S. in 1906, and died in 1969. A son of craftsmen, the artist grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., exposed to both observant Judaism and working-class socialism. Shahn studied at the Art Student's League, New York University, City College of New York, and later at the National Academy of Design. He also took art classes in Paris in the 1920s and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. As a struggling, politically active painter during the Great Depression, Shahn's first critical recognition came from his controversial Sacco and Vanzetti series (1931-32). This work secured his reputation as a "social realist" devoted to fighting injustice and promoting the human rights of underprivileged peoples. Shahn was prolific in a variety of media: paintings, prints, photographs, posters, drawings, murals, stained glass, and mosaics, gravitating towards work that could reach a wide audience. Today, his work can be found in cultural institutions worldwide.

Restoration and Conservation of the Mural
Ben Shaw Mural East Wall Detail of a woman
View Slideshow of East Wall and Restoration
In 1993 under the close direction of the U.S. General Services Administration, Public Buildings Service, the mural was restored by art conservators, and public access to this significant cultural asset was greatly improved. On October 17, 1995, "The Meaning of Social Security" and the Hearing Room Lobby in the Cohen Building were rededicated to the memory of Ben Shahn and all artists whose works grace federal buildings by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Voice of America, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. General Services Administration.

Excerpted from brochure written by Guest Curator Laura Katzman, Associate Professor of Art, chair of the Art Department, and director of Museum Studies at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Full text available upon request from the Office of Public Affairs, 330 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20237; tel. (202) 203-4959, e-mail publicaffairs@ibb.gov.