Over the last weekend in March, a mural depicting Maine’s labor history was removed from the lobby of that state’s Department of Labor building and put into storage at an undisclosed location by order of first-term Governor Paul LePage (R). Along with banishing the mural, LePage directed the renaming of several conference rooms, currently honoring prominent labor figures, to give them a more “neutral” connotation. The governor’s decision was based on complaints he reportedly received, including one asserting the mural constitutes propaganda akin to that of “communist North Korea, where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”
In a written statement on her website, Judy Taylor, the artist who created the work, notes: “The purpose of the mural is historical, the artistic intent to honor.” This doesn’t necessarily preclude it from being propaganda, but it does beg the question as to what it all means.
The 36-foot long “History of Maine Labor” mural comprises 11 vignettes, starting with scenes from the nineteenth century when workers learned their trades as indentured apprentices, child labor was common, and young women were sent from home to toil in local textile mills. Other panels depict milestones such as the first state Labor Day in 1884 and the inauguration of the private ballot in 1891. While the figures are generally represented as character types, there is one noteworthy portrait, Maine native Frances Perkins, the first woman US Cabinet-level appointee and Labor Secretary under FDR. The mural cycle concludes on a somewhat uncertain note with the failed strike against International Paper begun in June 1987 in Jay, Maine, and a group of workers looking tentatively into the future as the last two panels. The mural was created over the period 2007-8 under the auspices of the Maine Arts Commission, which held an open competition to select an artist to complete the work. Taylor won the competition and consulted with historian Charles Scontras as to which signal events to represent.
The mural was unveiled three years ago to generally positive reviews. In anticipation of the public display, State of Maine Labor Department Deputy Commissioner Judy Gilbert was quoted as saying, “this is going to be a very important piece of art in the long haul, and it is going to be an accurate depiction of organized labor’s role in the history of Maine.” Nationally, The New York Times and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, among others, have criticized LePage’s move, and locally a poll conducted by The Bangor Daily News shows more than 80 percent of respondents against the mural’s removal.
Governor LePage claims the action was based on the desire not to appear “one-sided” in the state’s dealings with both employers and workers, and yet it’s hard to believe that objectivity is the primary factor for someone who has repeatedly avowed an “Open for Business” stance on the part of his administration. Indeed, LePage has joined a number of other recently elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and elsewhere who have acted swiftly and concertedly in instituting policies and legislation that roll back the very gains the “History of Maine Labor” celebrates.
The style of the mural, done in oil, is markedly different from the rest of Taylor’s work, which employs a highly naturalistic approach to noncontroversial subjects such as portraits, figure studies, still lifes, and landscapes. Her only other public commission, for Mesa State College, is a series of paintings of Maine coastlines that could have just as easily appeared on the cover of an LL Bean catalog.
The “History of Maine Labor” uses grisaille backgrounds, evoking vintage photographic archives, behind flat graphic color foregrounds to project iconic status for the images depicted. The vignettes have been selected to portray a narrative trajectory of a rise from servitude to a seeming emancipation that in the end may prove all-too fleeting. As the storyline reflects the interests of a particular group, in this case, workers, one might well argue for the mural as functionally propagandistic. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad or unworthy of public display. Anti-smoking advertising, as Harold Laswell noted more than 80 years ago, is also propaganda from a functionalist perspective, though these days we put a gloss on it by calling it “social marketing.” St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and Raphael’s fresco “The School of Athens” in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City are basically propaganda, too, though we call those things “fine art.”
To be sure, given the pressures on the public sphere in recent times with increased media concentration, the “History of Maine Labor” offers a much-needed counterpoint to the valorization of capital that continuously bombards us, starting with the Monday morning weekend box-office receipt reports, to the semi-daily monitoring of mercurial financial exchanges, to the 24/7 flow of pop-up ads and product placements, to the media rhapsodies on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, to the whole spectacle of what Leslie Sklair of the London School of Economics calls the culture-ideology of consumerism as well as what is now known as the military-entertainment complex, and so on, all of it propaganda.
The future of “History of Maine Labor” is undecided at this point. But in the debate over the representation of class power in these United States, it’s done its work wherever it ends up.