Art and Politics

Belaboring the Representation of History in Maine

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.

  • vince carducci

    Just wanted to give the photo credits. The image of the full mural at the top of the post was take by James Imbrogno, courtesy of Imbrogno Photography and the artist. The images of the individual vignettes were taken by Judy Taylor, courtesy of the artist.

  • Scott

    And if they use the space for advertisements, I suppose that isn’t propaganda? Why not replace it with a mural of the history of union busting; perhaps they can start with the Haymarket Affair. Would that be more “balanced”? Anyways, propaganda is not normally place in a lobby of some government office, its put in a public space where as many people can see it as possible, a la corporate advertising.

    La Page’s approval ratings are currently at 43 percent approve, and 48 percent disapprove. When there’s a democratic governor again, perhaps he or she will put the mural back in place again. The whole thing may eventually become comical at one point; in fact Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have already made it so.

    (Btw, the analogy between corporate advertising and propaganda is rendered plausible when one considers that the pioneer of modern marketing, Edward Bernays, opted to eventually opted to use the term “public relations” rather than “propaganda” only because the Germans had given the latter term a bad name. He was a master of publicity and many large corporations, such as the American Tobacco Company were his clients. The work he did for corporations was not qualitatively different than the work he did for the US government.)

  • vince carducci

    Indeed, Bernays literally wrote the book on “Propaganda,” which was published in 1928. My perspective on it is essentially functionalist, that is, propaganda in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. As Laswell noted, propaganda as a form is akin to a faucet, it’s what flows through it not the apparatus that is the issue. For Bernays, advertising was a subset of propaganda, which he believed was a necessary tool of mass democracy. This of course opens up other issues of media and social control. The WPA mural program and FSA photos of the 1930s were propaganda. Abstract expressionism was pressed into service as propaganda in establishing consensus of “the American Way” during the Cold War. The point really is about debate in the public sphere. LePage is attempting to put labor history into the memory hole. The fact that it has backfired is noteworthy. More attention has come to the issue with the removal of the mural than happened in the three years it was up and minding its place.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    In a few hours I am going to post a piece on Taylor’s murals and the Orozco frescoes at the New School for Social Research. I think they both are art. Better to have a precise understanding of artistic acheivement, than a too loose understanding of propaganda, I think.

  • Michael Corey

    Is there a narrative on each one of the panels? I’m familiar with the failed strike of the IP mill that took place in 1987. I knew people that worked at another paper mill in Maine at the time and had members of their families who were on strike at the Jay Mill. It tore the family members apart. While IP took a confrontational approach and the unions resisted change; another paper mill owned by another company ultimately chose interest based problem solving to address similar issues. Feedback from customers on quality issues ultimately helped both sides at the competitive mill to engage in an alternative approach to the one used at the Jay mill. The Jay mill ultimately replaced its workforce. Art can be used to explore history. In this case, a closer look at the stories behind the one panel that I am familiar with would reveal the pressures brought on by the globalization of the industry; lack of competitiveness of older facilities and work practices; a battle between a company and union over compensation and work practices; growing concerns over local environmental issues; turmoil in the a small community and among family members; and alternative approaches. Are these types of stories told about each one of the panels, or does the art speak for itself?

  • vince carducci

    I don’t believe that there is a written narrative. However, there is a legend for each panel available at the artist’s website. The panels were completed with the consultation of Charles Scontras of the University of Maine, who is arguably the leading authority on the state’s labor history. Another thing I think worth noting is that several of the panels actually represent failed efforts in addition to the Jay mill strike. The panel depicting the 1937 women’s strike (panel 7) is an example. There is in fact a much larger narrative (AKA social history) that informs these panels, which I doubt the casual viewer would have any idea of. And in response to Jeff, I don’t think my understanding of propaganda is at all loose. It’s that I think that it is entirely possible for art to have a propagandistic function, for better or worse, in addition to aesthetic. As I said in the post and in my response above, that’s neither good nor bad. Every “official” portrait, be it David’s portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps (or as Hegel would have it, “history on horseback”) or Kehinde Wiley’s spin on it featuring a hip-hopper, has that element to it as part of its reception in the public sphere.

  • Gary Kulak

    I think it is interesting so much time is being spent on work that is not only provincial but pedestrian at best.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    OK, Vince not too loose but broad, including any art that has a political message, or is it any message? I fundamentally agree with you that art can both be art and serve one instrumental purpose or another. But I think there is a difference between an art that is just an instrument (i.e. mere propaganda) and art that is meaningful as art. I try to make the distinction in my post today. Mine is a position with different emphasis. I think following the position I outline in my post, I can understand Taylor’s murals as fundamentally artistic, and Governor LePage’s response being repressively political.

  • Scott

    Yes, good point. Removing the mural has brought it into a wider public sphere, and to the attention of those, like myself, who would have otherwise never known about its existence. And it is certainly repressive maneuver, and one that will certainly backfire. According to Rachel Maddow, such measures are being undertaken by newly elected governors through the country, and beneath the rhetoric of Libertarian Conservatism is Authoritarian Conservatism as we might have intuitively expected.