“The Images Ye Have Made of Me”
The Industrial Revolution was a great two-edged sword that cut very deeply in both directions. It was the greatest transformation in day to day living since the invention of agriculture. It dramatically improved daily life and created new possibilities for millions of people. The price for that change was, and remains, high. Industrialism transformed ideas of property and work that reduced once independent and skilled tradesmen to paid chattel minding mechanized assembly lines. Villagers who held resources like water and pasturelands in common for centuries now found themselves uprooted and homeless when rural commons became private property. The skilled trade became the unskilled job. The tradesman became an employee. People who once owned their homes and their shops became renters. The convenience of some depended on the misery of others.
Industrialism and mass production transformed daily life for millions of ordinary people in ways that were profound. It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the change. Simple things like mass-produced cotton underwear, wood furniture, ready to wear clothing, soap, canned food, inexpensive and replaceable dishes and pots and pans improved life and health for millions. Mass production put things like marble topped furniture, porcelain dishes, indoor plumbing, and silk fabric within the means of the children and grandchildren of indentured peasants.
Industrialism created a certain measure of basic dignity and decency for people who knew neither for generations, like this 19th century Scottish working class family seen here in an old photograph.
The Industrial Revolution raised the expectations of thousands upon thousands of people for their own lives, for their children, and for the world. Those great expectations went on display in London in 1851 in the great Crystal Palace exhibition. The prosperity created by industry and international commerce went on display in a building that was itself a creation of new technology; a building built entirely out of glass and cast iron. Even in retrospect, the Exhibition exudes confidence and great expectation.
The Crystal Palace exhibition building, 1851
interior of the Crystal Palace
display room in the Crystal Palace
While these improvements in life were unprecedented, they came through means that were timeless; conquest and exploitation. The new prosperity of the many depended on the poverty of many more. Beneath the public optimism of the mid 19th century lay a private anxiety, a deep terror of the poor.
There were those who advocated abandoning the ideal of equality all together. Social Darwinists applied (misapplied according to some) Darwin’s concept of “natural selection” to the social realm. Those who were best suited to survive and prosper in the new industrial world did so, while those who could not had no claim to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” frequently misattributed to Darwin. Spencer and others like him believed that some kind of natural competition for survival would do God’s work of sorting out the sheep from the goats. There were some like Cornelius Vanderbilt who believed that labor was a class of people to be sacrificed for the greater good. The problem with this point of view was that the playing field for this great game of king of the mountain never was level. No one chooses the circumstances into which they are born. And what happens when those assigned to the sacrifice refuse to go along with the ceremony? What is more, the boom and bust cycles of capitalism could transform today’s economic winners into tomorrow’s losers through no fault of their own. People who worked hard and honorably all their lives could be discarded for their failure to adapt to changed circumstance. People who thought gambling was a sin ended up losing everything through speculation. Hobbes’ nightmare vision of the state of nature as the “war of all against all” seemed to come true in the world remade through industrial capitalism.
The novelists of this time detected the deep anxiety behind the public confidence. Novelists like Dickens, Thackeray, and Edith Wharton exposed the savagery that lay just beneath the veneer of Victorian social convention.
In some ways, this terror of the poor, and of poverty, was the heir to the constant fear of rebellion by slave owners, the terror of being murdered in one’s bed by trusted hands, the terror of feeling the sting of the lash inflicted on others.
In 1848, the expectations, and the divisions created by industrialism, broke out into revolution. The worst nightmares of the privileged and newly prosperous came true. The poor (together with a large portion of the middle classes) rose up all over Europe and demanded bread and freedom. Almost all of those uprisings were brutally put down in the name of social peace and public safety. King Louis Phillipe of France fell from his throne, replaced by the short-lived Second Republic. The hopes for a "Social Democracy" came undone when the new conservative government reversed gains for the working class provoking the "June Days," three days of civil war in the streets of Paris between the National Guard and the Parisian poor. After the army was called in to put down the rebellion, 1500 lay dead in the streets, and thousands more were rounded up and sent to exile in Algeria.
After the revolutions of 1848 (the year Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto with the famous opening line “A spectre is haunting Europe…”), some artists built careers on the terror of the poor created by events like the June Days.
One of them was Gustave Courbet who rejected both the idealism of Neo-Classicism and the exoticism of Romanticism to concentrate on the world as it was then (as Courbet saw it). Courbet was a country bumpkin with a huge ego who scandalized Paris in the 1850s.
He exhibited an enormous painting almost 20 feet long, the size and format for a big Classical epic or Romantic spectacle.
Gustave Courbet, The Burial at Ornans, 1850
Instead what he shows us in this painting are his neighbors in his home town of Ornans together at a funeral. What people found so shocking about this painting was the complete absence of any kind of transcendent content concerning death. Courbet, consistent with the positivism that dominated his era, said, “Show me an angel and I will paint it.”
The deceased comes in stage left instead of in the center. The center of this centerless composition shows a group of town officials around the empty hole of the open grave. The town priest with a group of bored acolytes appears with the mayor and a group of magistrates and officials. Courbet’s sisters posed for the weeping women on the right. All the figures in the painting are portraits of people from Ornans. Death in the end is only death, and a loss for the family and friends. It is an occasion for the town. Courbet resorts to the old isocephalic composition to show equality in the face of death. “The only real equality is in the cemetery,” says a grim old German proverb.
The Burial at Ornans was only a warm-up.
The Stone Breakers was another large painting, about 5 feet by 8 feet.
Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1851
We know it only from a few old color photographs. It was destroyed in World War II (during the firebombing of Dresden). It showed a father and a son together breaking large rocks into smaller gravel for road construction. The Parisian public was horrified, not only at the subject matter, but by the very prosaic way that they are painted. The two figures are almost faceless. The composition seems clumsy in its simplicity and directness. The lighting is very untheatrical and matter-of-fact. The stooped young man lifting a basket of gravel looking aged by his toil shocked the public. As the art historian Robert Rosenblum pointed out, it is a very dry-eyed look at human suffering.
The socialist author Pierre Joseph Prudhon used the painting as the basis for a long essay titled On The Principles of Art and Its Social Purposes proclaiming this painting to be an indictment of the greed and degradation of capitalism.
Courbet’s painting is much too matter-of-fact and undramatic to be useful for political propaganda. But, the very act of putting such laborers on the walls of the state salon exhibition before the eyes of the establishment that depended on such labor was a revolutionary act.
Courbet’s art never again had that kind of daring or inventiveness. He made himself into a kind of professional gadfly and revolutionary taking part in the Paris Commune uprising of 1871.
Jean Francois Millet had no such revolutionary ambitions. He remained very cagey about his political views in public and in private. That did not save him from getting into political scandal over his work. Millet was the son of peasants raised on a farm. He knew his subject matter through first hand experience. The subjects of his work are not prosperous peasants or independent farmers, but the rural poor; and the poorest of the poor.
Those rural poor are the subjects of his most famous painting, The Gleaners.
Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners, 1857
In the background of the painting is the busy activity of the wheat harvest. In the foreground, a group of three women go through the harvested field, gleaning it, looking for any lost or discarded ears of wheat to take home. They are scavengers. They are the rural poor scrounging for scraps to feed themselves and their families.
Millet gives them the dignity and monumentality of French public classicism in the tradition of Poussin. Their large dense rounded forms follow an a-a-b rhythm echoed in the b-b-a rhythm of the haystacks in the background.
What bothered the Parisian public was Millet’s very frank depiction of toil. Instead of happy rosy-cheeked swains and milkmaids cavorting in an imaginary Arcadia, Millet shows us the back-breaking struggle to win bread out of the ground.
Millet, The Man With a Hoe, 1862
Instead of the shepherd playing his pipes as he watches his flocks, Millet gives us the Man With A Hoe, his face haggard with exhaustion from breaking up the weeds and clods of earth all around him. Millet too candidly showed the Parisian public the toil that sustained their comfort.
Vincent Van Gogh worshipped Millet. He spent the first years of his short career trying to emulate Millet’s monumental poor laborers. He tried to add Rembrandt’s tactile paint quality to give his own peasants and laborers a grainy material presence. Van Gogh came to art as a kind of last resort. He failed as a gallery employee, as a schoolteacher, and finally as a missionary preacher. He found a true productive outlet for his manic energy and passion in art. He was not the most gifted of draftsmen, and struggled with the demands of classical form. Out of that struggle he created something new, original, and movingly sincere.
Van Gogh came out of the once large and influential Christian Left. This was the now forgotten Christianity of the Social Gospel, of the Methodist preachers urging miners to strike in the northern English coalmines, of Christian Socialism, and Catholic labor organizations. The struggle for labor, for the freedom and dignity of working people, was the struggle against the nihilism of capitalism, against its reduction of all values to values of use and exchange (celebrated by Marx), against its denial of the very idea of meaning beyond what’s written on a price tag. In the Christian view, modern laborers were not only alienated from their work, but from their souls. Van Gogh made the re-integration of the spirit divided by modern materialism his life’s mission. He proposed to accomplish this through the power of aesthetic experience, through art.
In his first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh gives the miners of the Borinage region of Belgium (to whom he was first sent as a missionary) a sacramental presence and dignity.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885
These very poor people eat a very poor meal of boiled potatoes and coffee. Van Gogh gives their meal the sense of drama and mystery of the Last Supper. The clumsiness of the painting technique only enhances its sincerity and pathos.
Van Gogh did several versions of Millet’s The Sower, seeing in the large powerful striding figure a religious meaning.
Millet, The Sower, 1850
The parable of the Sower in the Gospel is a parable about the Last Judgment. Millet may or may not have intended that dimension of meaning in his painting, but Van Gogh probably did in his versions of The Sower.
Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888
A large radiant yellow sun dominates the top center of one of his versions. Just below, a long row of yellow wheat ready for harvest runs across the full length of the picture. The ground dominates the lower two thirds of the painting. Van Gogh transforms Millet’s clods of earth into swirls of vivid color; blues and yellows. The sower strides off to the right sowing yellow grain; grain which is the same yellow as the sun.
There is no explicit religious imagery in this painting. However, the placement of the sun in the center of the picture, in the center of a radiating pattern of brushstrokes that fills the top of the picture, implies something divinely omnipotent. Color had emotional and symbolic meaning for Van Gogh, and yellow was always about light and power. Van Gogh was the son of a Calvinist preacher, and knew the Bible intimately since childhood. He knew that the Parable of the Sower was about the Last Judgment, about who was “good seed” and who was “bad seed.” He knew enough about agriculture to know that a field ripe for harvest would probably not be seen together with a newly plowed field ready to be seeded. The seed in the parable is about the future yield at the harvest at the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, and perhaps that’s what Van Gogh’s picture is about.
The most powerful images of early industrial labor are the photographs taken by reformers. They were out to document, and to show the larger public, the conditions of labor. The photographs of reformers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine remain powerful witnesses to the brutality of early capitalism.
Jacob Riis used a clumsy early flash camera to document the lives of the toiling poor of 19th century New York, determined to show the public how almost half the population of the most densely populated city in the world at that time lived.
Jacob Riis, "Five Cents a Spot," (Italian immigrant laborers in a Lower East Side Tenement photographed at 3AM.), photograph, circa 1890
Jacob Riis, Tenement Sweat Shop, Necktie Manufacturing, circa 1890
Lewis Hine’s photographs of child labor in the early 20th century United States are still shocking.
Lewis Hine, "Breaker Boys" at a Pennsylvania coal mine, 1911
Lewis Hine, young girl working in a cotton mill, 1908
These scenes are still with us. It is not hard to find tenement apartments crowded with poor immigrant laborers in New York today. All that has really changed is that they are scattered throughout the Five Boroughs instead of confined to the Lower East Side. We could find scenes of child labor as dramatic as anything photographed by Lewis Hine today in Latin America or southern Asia, if we cared enough to look. Now, as then, our comfort and convenience depends on the misery of many. If anything has really changed since the 19th century, it’s the contrast between “who may” versus “who must” became international. Conditions of brutal factory labor right out of the pages of Upton Sinclair remain even today in this country.
Jacob Riis began his book documenting the conditions of New York’s poor, 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 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, through 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 they drew back their garment-hem,
For fear of defilement, “Lo, here,” said he,
“The images ye have made of me!”
Jacob Riis, "Street Arabs," (homeless children, Mulberry Street, New York), circa 1890
The Power of the Earth.
Hannah Arendt begins the second chapter of her book On Revolution with this epigram from the French Revolutionary leader Louis Antoine de Saint Just:
Les Malheureux sont la puissance de la terre (“The wretched are the power of the earth”).
Arendt argues that the rage of the exploited and the wronged, the victims of the modern global economy with its vast impersonal forces, is like a force of nature that destroys nation states and the very idea of law and civil society.
The greatest artist to articulate that rage was the German artist Kathe Kollwitz. Like Van Gogh, she too came out of the Christian Left, but from an even more radical wing of it. Her father was a radical Social Democrat and her grandfather was a Lutheran pastor expelled from the church because of his socialist sympathies. Kollwitz made a series of large etchings illustrating the Peasants’ War of 1525, a violent uprising against the nobility and the church by indentured tenant farmers who were treated as slaves.
Kathe Kollwitz, Sharpening the Scythe, print, 1902 - 1908
Kathe Kollwitz, Outbreak, print, 1902 - 1908
Kathe Kollwitz, Prisoners, print, 1902 - 1908
The uprising was very violent and its suppression was even more violent. Kollwitz clearly intended this event from the distant past to reflect upon her own time.
Her prints from this series show a growing crescendo of pent up rage and frustration released in bursts of violence that are more desperate than heroic. They are as frightening as they are stirring.
The rage and frustration of millions of people made destitute in the boom and bust cycles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries drove the totalitarian movements of both right and left. Those movements destroyed nation states and the rule of law, and replaced them with systems of total domination. Modern political ideology, like earlier forms of religion, is all encompassing in its claims. It is not simply a matter of policy differences or differing forms of government, ideology is a total view of the world claiming every aspect of life. Matters of belief and identity are bound up with the ideology, which requires a total personal investment and absolute loyalty from its followers. This is true for all ideology, not just the right or the left.
Earlier tyrants couldn’t have cared less about the thoughts and feelings of those they ruled. Totalitarian tyrannies required absolute and unswerving allegiance to the movement from all of its subjects. Public opinion mattered to these movements. Propaganda went to great lengths to persuade mass opinion, and to create a sense of belonging to a historic cause. Coercion required not only the brutality and pervasiveness of the police, but the active cooperation of citizens spying on each other and watching each other’s views and actions for any sign of disloyalty to the movement. Totalitarianism was participatory tyranny that parodied the participatory society of democracy.
Who was in and who was out of the movement replaced equality. Totalitarian movements depended on ancient irrational tribal passions of us versus them despite their abstract ideologies and universal claims. The art of totalitarianism is all about agreement; mass agreement with the ruling ideology and the regime. So much totalitarian art is about spectacles of mass agreement and adoration of the regime.
Hitler Youth rally, 1937
Yuri Kugach, The Glorification of Stalin, 1950
Paul Matthias Padua, The Fuhrer Speaks, 1940
Since totalitarian movements all proclaim the end of history, and the final solution to history’s ills and conflicts, totalitarian art is usually very bland and dull. Drama presumes conflict, and a world with no more to fight or argue about is a world without drama. In the end, the art created by the totalitarian movements of both left and right looks like each other. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the art created under Hitler from that created under Stalin without identifying movement symbols.
One of these paintings was created in Hitler’s Germany and the other in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Which is which?
The totalitarian movements of the 20th century tried to remake the world, human nature, and even the human species, in the image of a series of ideological abstractions. Those who fit the scheme remained, and those who did not were cut off.
In the end, the only real equality left was the equality of the damned in the labor and death camps.