Friday, March 20, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art

With the global economy in meltdown, I've decided to do a series of postings on the working class in art, the Proletariat (as the Communists used to call them), or "Joe Sixpack" (as Republicans used to call this same class in their palmier days). These are the folks whose work  makes all the wealth and are the most vulnerable to changes in fortune. Let's see how that class of people whose labor feeds and sustains all human life, and who generate all the wealth that the rest of us use, appears in art down through time. Unlike the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I intend to consider farm and non-farm labor together. I may or may not follow this in chronological order.

The working class appears all over the art of some periods and cultures, like Egypt below and especially the 19th century where the Industrial Revolution transforms the nature of work and changes both peasant and tradesman into wage earners. The working class is conspicuously rare to absent in the art of a lot of other periods and cultures from Greece to India, and that itself is an issue to ponder.

So let's begin where most history begins, in Ancient Egypt.

The Egyptians were a conservative and prosaic people living in a wealthy country. Images of labor and production take up a lot of their art. On the walls of non-royal Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom tombs, religious imagery is surprisingly absent. Even on the walls of many non-royal New Kingdom tombs, it is very sparse.
Below is a wall from the tomb of an important bureaucrat -- and the worst kind, a tax collector-- by the name of Menna. Menna was a scribe employed by the Temple of Ammon at ancient Thebes (or Waset for those who like their Egyptian info purged of Greek terminology). His duty was to collect the god's share of every harvest on lands owned by the temple. He lived during the reign of Ammenhotep III in the New Kingdom (1391 - 1353 BC).
The scenes of harvest on this wall are vivid and remarkably candid showing all aspects of the harvesting, threshing, and winnowing of wheat.

Above is a photograph of the entire wall from Menna's tomb showing the harvest and tax collection. Menna is the large figure sitting regally on the left.

Above we see a detail of the wall showing the harvesting and gathering of the wheat on the bottom, threshing and winnowing in the middle, and surveying the crop to measure the temple's share on top. Egyptian farming appears to have been an intensely micromanaged business with scribes and officials supervising and recording every aspect of work. Note the official, presumably Menna himself, appearing twice standing under a canopy. On the left in the middle row are 4 scribes recording measurements taken of the harvest. In the days before currency was invented, this kind of inventory was vitally important.
Some of the scenes are remarkably candid. In the lower right corner is a trio of elderly farmers; 2 of them sit under a tree, while another leans on his staff and watches. They are too old to work, and no doubt are complaining about how much better things were under Thutmose IV. On the top register to the right is a small scene of field supervisor beating a subordinate while another begs for mercy.

Here is a scene of officials measuring the crop for tax collection. The farmer appears with a staff in the center pleading for mercy in a very contrite pose, presenting his youngest son to the indifferent official with the measuring rope. The farmer's oldest son and wife appear on the right ready with the bribes of wheat and offers of lunch. Even at the beginning of history, the tax man came down hardest on the most vulnerable. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For all the vividness of these scenes, we would be mistaken if we thought there was any sympathy on the part of Menna or the artist for these very hard working and hard pressed people. These figures, like all human figures in Egyptian art, are types, not individuals. What counts is their role in that immense machine known as the Egyptian state. Their needs must be met to keep that machinery running, but their thoughts and desires are a matter of indifference.
Laborers always appear in Egyptian art through the eyes of their lords who virtually owned them, or through the eyes of the bureaucrats who supervised them. Their appearance on the walls of tombs was testimony to the wealth and status of the deceased lord. The laborers themselves when they died were buried in the desert sand with a few meager supplies for their journey Over the Western Horizon, serving their lords in death as they had served them in life.

1 comment:

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

How I like this tale of horrors!

I have known for a long time now, that art-historians are much more informed about how things were, religiously, politically, socially and economically, than us poor History of Christianity types...

And I have always liked learning ;=)

Thank you again, dear Counterlight!