Friday, August 1, 2008

"The Images Ye Have made of Me!"

Above is a photograph by Lewis Hine of a child laborer in a textile mill at the beginning of the 20th century. So many of the artists that I've discussed, Pugin, Morris, and more to come, were deeply shocked by the brutality of early modern industrialism.
Is the harsh cruelty of early capitalism a thing of the past, a thing of museums, history books and old photographs that look sad, but harmlessly quaint?

No, it is still very much here. That past is not yet past at all. We are as much in the middle of it as the early 19th century artists I've discussed ever were.  So often even now, our convenience depends on someone else's misery.

Here is an article from the NY Times from July 27th about the shutdown of a kosher meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa. It has immigrant laborers, child labor, brutality, dangerous working conditions, crackdowns on the workers while the company goes unpunished, everything you would find in a muckraking expose from a century ago by Upton Sinclair.

Here is something close to home for me, from a Frontline documentary. It's Tyler Pipe in Tyler, Texas, reputed to have one of the highest death and injury rates in the country. The last time I was in Tyler about 3 years ago, I went by that plant. It was surrounded by a very high fence topped with barbed wire and covered with canvas so no one could see in or out. It reminded me of a labor camp.

Jacob Riis began his famous expose of poverty in New York City, How the Other Half Lives, with this poem by James Russell Lowell:

"With gates of silver and bars of gold
Ye have fenced my sheep from their father's fold;
I have heard the dropping of their tears
In heaven high these eighteen hundred years."

"O Lord and Master, not ours the guilt,
We build but as our fathers built;
Behold thine images, how they stand,
Sovereign and sole, throughout all our land"

Then Christ sought out an artisan,
A low-browed, stunted, haggard man,
And a motherless girl, whose fingers thin
Pushed from her faintly want and sin.

These set he in the midst of them,
And as they drew back their garment-hem,
For fear of defilement, "Lo here,' said he,
'The images ye have made of me!"


Grandmère Mimi said...

Very moving post, Counterlight. I wish I didn't know this sort of cruelty was happening in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but most of all, I wish that it wasn't happening at all.

So often even now, our convenience depends on someone else's misery.

Yes! "Only the destitute are innocent."

Counterlight said...

Thanks Grandmere!

Bonnie said...

"So often even now...." Generation after generation, after generation. When will we ever learn? Sometimes, I think "never." But an upside (may I say evangelical side?) of "Jake's" retirement is an increase of the voices that will continue to point out the victims of our blindness and an absolute need to increase our pleas for social justice and equity for all people.

Impressive is how others along with you have taken up this cause.