Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: 20th Century Political Art, People vs. The People

Vera Mukhina, Worker and Collective Farm Worker, 1937

A lot of art in the early part of the 20th century turned working people into The Worker. The reductivist political ideologies that ruled the first half of the 20th century produced imagery of people reduced to type and stereotype. Among the most famous is Vera Mukhina's sculpture above. They are a giant man and a giant woman who look like no one in a pose that is inconceivable outside the realm of artistic rhetoric. The parables of the Cave and the Potter in Plato talk about ideal prototypes for which all the things we see in this world are but flawed and fleeting shadows. These images are also ideal prototypes, not in the mind of God, but in the mind of the ideologue determined to untie the Gordian knot of human life.

What I find so amazing about this art is its sameness across national borders, and across the ideological spectrum. The far right stuff is identical to the far left stuff when the identifying flags and symbols are absent. One of the these 2 paintings was produced in Nazi Germany and the other in Stalin's Soviet Union. See if you can tell which is which.

Both of these paintings show healthy and hard working farm workers who selflessly labor to sustain the rest of society. Both paintings make implicit appeals to the idea of the superior virtue of the simple rural life rooted in the soil of the nation. There is neither conflict nor complexity in either of these paintings. All of these farmers are types, not people.

It is sometimes said that the extremes of left and right ultimately meet. Far left and far right both despise the bourgeois class and its preferred form of democratic government. They both despise this class for the smallness of its outlook and its ambition. Bourgeois weaknesses and hypocrisies provide the fodder for both movements out to destroy this class from both ends. They both claim The Answer to the complexities of life and history. Both are out to rationalize and simplify the wretched mess of human life. Both declare "We have been naught, we shall be all!"

The American versions of this are not any better whether they come from left or right.
Here's an example from the right, a print by Grant Wood.

And from the left is an example by Ben Shahn.

They both show Worker types hard at work. The only give away might be the slightly more conservative style of Grant Wood.

I used to be a skeptic of the whole Frida Kahlo phenomenon of the past 15 years, but now I'm starting to come around, especially when I compare her work to her husband's.
The Mexican mural painters were head and shoulders above their counterparts in the United States and in Europe. Diego Rivera, like his colleagues, gave these big ideological didactic murals an excitement and visual drama rooted in the long history of native Mexican art, and was way beyond the anti-modern stylistic conservatism of ideological painters in North America and Europe. These paintings are stirring even more than they are instructive, which is why they remain loved and admired long after their particular historical moment has passed.
Here is one of the murals titled Industry which he painted for the Detroit Museum of Fine Art.

And yet, as stirring as this painting is, it is just as much a collection of simplifications and types as any other didactic ideological art.
His wife Frida Kahlo painted this picture titled Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick.

At first glance it appears naive and quaint, another use of Marxism as a substitution for lost Christian belief and an outlet for lingering religious passion. But, I don't think that's entirely fair. If anything, considering the autobiographical nature of Kahlo's art, and her extraordinary health problems and the suffering they caused, this painting has more authentic feeling about it than all of her husband's murals. Instead of ideology, her vision of faithful expectation comes out of hard experience.

I look at all this ideological art from the early 20th century and Benjamin Constant's famous remark about the French Revolution comes to mind, a holocaust of individuals offered up to The People.

I hope this continuing series of posts on how working people are portrayed in art is much more than an idle academic exercise. I want it to be a meditation on human dignity. I credit the late Dr. Norris K. Smith for setting me out on this path. Smith was a nut case, but a brilliant one, a hard Calvinist conservative Republican who always asked the question of art or literature, "Where does the goodness lie?" That question is still with me, but it has been overtaken by another idea he planted in my brain years ago, the idea that the way we portray the human image says a lot about how we value and think of humanity; an idea he always called Imago Hominis. Dr. Smith, I'm sure, would be shocked and horrified at how I've understood that idea and how I've applied it. My outlook is closer to Montaigne than to Calvin. My politics are social democratic in contrast to his oligarchic republicanism. However, thanks to Smith, I will never look at anything from paintings to advertizing the same old way again.

The images at the top of this post summarize everything I hate about the century that is just passed. Ideological reductivism and abstraction are a gin that runs through all of its politics and its thought. No wonder that century was so awash in bloodshed. It's so much easier to shoot people when they represent a type rather than themselves. It's so much easier to use and discard people when they are reduced to a function, or simply to an entry in a ledger of profit/ loss.
The nihilism of the mass market and the urge to radically simplify are still with us in the new century. All that has changed is that religious fundamentalism appears to be stepping into the role played by political ideology in the last century.

Hannah Arendt ended her famous exploration of the origins of totalitarianism with the myth of Procrustes and his bed, forcing victims to lie on that bed and amending them with an axe if they didn't quite fit. That monster is still with us, and Theseus is each and every one of us.


motheramelia said...

Truly fascinating. I really have learned a lot by reading your posts. I have seen murals in San Francisco done as WPA projects and others in the Soviet Union. They really do have a similarity about them.

JCF said...

the myth of Procrustes and his bed, forcing victims to lie on that bed and amending them with an axe if they didn't quite fit.Heh: in the immortal words of Dr. Beverly Crusher (Star Trek: The Next Generation), "If there's nothing wrong with me, there MUST be something wrong with the universe!" (In her case, she was right *g*)

Thought-provoking as always, Doug.

I confess, I love some of the the more abstract early Soviet work: the ones where The Revolution is more a hopeful feeling, as opposed to Happy Lil' Automaton Workers (robotniks, from whence the word "robot" comes from).

As I have begun my *3rd* year of unemployment this past month, the promise "We have been naught, we shall be all!" does have its appeal, fer shur... ;-/

Counterlight said...

Thanks JCF,

I love the early Soviet modern stuff too. Maybe I'll do another post on it. Significantly, Lenin did not love it, and Stalin really hated it.

With all due respect and sympathy for your predicament, "We have been naught, we shall be all!" is a siren's song. The passion that drove all those people to sign up for those extremes of right and left in the last century was not the burning desire for justice, but the burning lust for revenge.
And they got it, and all the grief and infamy that come with it.

June Butler said...

I shall guess about the second and third paintings. I'd say No. 2 is from Nazi Germany and No. 3 from Stalin's USSR. My reasons are that the farmers in No. 2 look more Aryan, and the women in No. 3 have thick legs and ankles, which I associate with Stalinist ideas of women. I admit that my reasons look pretty silly typed out. It's something subliminal, too.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Counterlight said...


You are correct.
I would have thought the woman farm supervisor with the clipboard would have been a give-away. The Nazis believed women should remain subservient. The idea of a woman in command of anything would have been abhorent to them (however, there were some very powerful Nazi women close to Hitler like Leni Rieffenstahl).

June Butler said...

I like Rivera's works, but you're right. Frida's painting has more life.

Your old professor may be shocked that you've become a fecking commie, but I don't know that he'd be disappointed.

Counterlight said...

Fecking is about the right word.

June Butler said...


IT said...

Doug, I agree i learn an incredible amount from your posts. Like all historians of art, you are also an expert in literature, history, politics, etc. I would love to take your class. Education is wasted on the young.

paul macfarlane said...

I spent two years studying under Norris K. Smith. Your essay is wonderful. We should talk about his classes sometime and reflect on imago hominis.