reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
Organized labor sure has had its hands full lately, and now laborers are facing a new, rather bizarre battle with Maine’s Governor Paul LePage, who has removed a 36-foot mural depicting the history of labor from the Maine Department of Labor.
The removal of the mural raises serious concern, not just because of the political overtones to this battle, but more so because the destruction of art in any form is itself an act of cultural violence. When LePage announced his intentions, two other famous murals instantly came to mind: Diego Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads,” which was destroyed in Rockefeller Center in 1934 (and later recreated in Mexico City), and Max Lingner’s “Aufbau der Republik” (Construction of the Republic) which still graces the wall of German Finance Ministry in Berlin. The histories of these two artworks form a powerful narrative to understand what is happening in Maine, and why LePage must be stopped.
Paul LePage ran for governor of Maine on a pro-business platform, gaining Tea Party backing by promising to cut the size of government. LePage won the governorship by a plurality of the vote on a crowded ticket, winning by a margin of 38% to 37%. Having been elected on such a thin margin, one would hope that LePage would approach his position of power with a sense of humility and seek to build coalitions. Unfortunately, this democratic principle seems utterly lost on the Tea Party’s approach to politics and power, and LePage has instead joined the battle against organized labor by making the rather extraordinary claim, via an “anonymous fax,” that the Maine mural at the Department of Labor is reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.” The mural in question was in fact commissioned by the State of Maine in 2007 for $60,000. The artist behind the mural, Judy Taylor, an accomplished painter and resident of Mount Desert Island, has defended the artwork, stating, “I don’t agree that it’s one-sided. It’s based on historical fact. I’m not sure how you can say history is one-sided.” The well-researched basis of this artwork, as it turns out, makes a vital difference in understanding what is at stake in this standoff.
LePage’s attack on the Maine mural involves two elements: the mural’s content and its appearance. As a businessman turned pro-business leader, some of the content in the Department of Labor mural must indeed be quite uncomfortable for LePage: child laborers, women in sweatshops, strikes and police officers. Uncomfortable as these images may be, they are Maine’s history and a fact of labor’s heritage. By attempting to erase it, LePage only serves to repeat those uncomfortable scenes, and he would be better served by reflecting on the content of the artwork rather than categorically denouncing it. It is a sad testament to the state of American politics that a governor would view the aims of labor and business as so adverse and so hostile, when their aims are clearly not mutually exclusive. In response, the AFL-CIO has denounced LePage’s plan as petty power politics, calling it “a spiteful, mean-spirited move by the governor that does nothing to create jobs or improve the Maine economy.”
Not only is Lepage’s action petty, it is a rather serious destruction of our cultural heritage. The removal of the mural from the Department of Labor is itself a form of destroying of art, and it is reminiscent of perhaps the most controversial destruction of art in American history: the demolition of Diego Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads” from Rockefeller Center in New York.
That travesty unfolded in the 1930s when Diego Rivera, a highly acclaimed Mexican artist and known Trotskyite, was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to paint the mural at Rockefeller Center in 1932. During the course of preparing the painting, it occurred to Rivera to include a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the painting. Rockefeller objected and requested that Rivera replace the portrait of Lenin with some unknown labor figure, but Rivera refused. Soon thereafter, Rivera was removed from the job and a drape was placed over the artwork, sparking protests. The gridlock was resolved at midnight of February 10, 1934, when workmen carrying axes entered the building and chopped the artwork off the walls. Diego Rivera, who denounced the work’s destruction as “cultural vandalism,” was then blacklisted from the American art community, though when he returned to Mexico that year, he recreated the artwork under the title “Man, Controller of the Universe.” As in the Rockefeller fiasco, today we are faced with ideological sparring over art, and there is no question that the removal of the Maine mural is a comparable act of cultural vandalism.
The second element of the Maine mural, its appearance, presents an equally fascinating story. The Maine mural is painted in the style of Social Realism, an art form which seeks to accurately depict the struggles of the working class and which became popular in the United States during the 1930s. By making a reference to North Korea, LePage is confusing this style with another art form: Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism, which was pioneered in the Soviet Union under Stalin, likewise portrays the struggles of workers, yet unlike its American counterpart, Socialist Realism was a form of art that was heavily influenced by state cultural ministries. Under Socialist Realism, artist worked with state bureaucrats to create artwork that supported the driving state ideology: communism. This required extensive revision of artwork, so that it accurately reflected what the state wanted it to reflect.
An excellent example of this style is the work “Aufbau der Republik” by Max Lingner, which was commissioned by the East German government to be placed on the facade of the House of Ministries in Berlin.
As with other works of Socialist Realism, Max Lingner was required to revise Aufbau der Republik multiple times by the Prime Minister of the East German state, and as a result, he purportedly hated it so much that he refused to look at it when he walked past.
Judy Taylor’s Maine mural stands in great contrast to this type of socialist style, as her work is a well-researched project based on historical fact, and at least until LePage stepped in, it was conducted without interference by state bureaucrats. So to compare her work to the works of communist artists is a gross mis-characterization that only serves to reveal Mr. LePage’s ignorance about art and art history. Judy Taylor’s work is without question a work of Social Realism–it is American art and it is our heritage. It is too bad that Paul Lepage does not like the way this painting makes him feel (art can be uncomfortable), but only a true philistine would seek to destroy art rather than reflect upon its content. Rather than remove or destroy the Maine mural, we ought to reflect on how we might enter a new chapter of labor relations to be added to the mural, instead of repeating the mistakes of the past.
Perhaps the best note to end this piece on is a tale of what happened to Max Lingner’s mural after the fall of communism. The building on which it was located, the former East German House of Ministries, was converted to the unified German state’s Finance Ministry (whose first tasks was the wholesale liquidation and privatization of the East German state). And the mural? It was restored, received weatherproof coating and still exists there today. Why would the Germans leave a communist mural on their state Finance Ministry? Because they understand that the artwork is part of their cultural heritage, and as such, it is more important than anything that could ever be made to take its place. Let’s hope Americans realize the same.