Art and Politics

The Art of the Mural: Judy Taylor, Milan Kundera and Jose Clemente Orozco

While Vince Carducci and I see the relationship between art and politics differently, we share a common judgment that art, or as Herbert Marcuse described it, “the aesthetic dimension,” provides an important way to think about and do politics in an informed fashion. Today I respond to Carducci. Tomorrow, I will post the third in a series on art and politics: the reflections by Elzbieta Matynia on how an aesthetic work, in this case the architectural form of a bridge, informs politics. -Jeff

Reading Carducci’s latest post, on the removal of Judy Taylor’s mural, “The History of Maine Labor,” from the state’s Department of Labor building, and his earlier posts on the art of John Ganis’s photography,  and his posts on the politically engaged art world in Detroit,  “The Art of Dead Labor,” and “Detroit and the Art of the Commons” brought to mind a remark by Milan Kundera and the artistic masterpiece situated at the New School, Jose Clemente Orozco’s A Call for Revolution and Universal Brotherhood.

Kundera expressed, compactly and vividly, his understanding of the art in the novel and all other artistic forms in his book The Art of the Novel: “The novelist needs to answer to no one but Cervantes.” The primary responsibility of the artist is to address the questions raised by those who precede her or him, to develop the artistic form, as many other issues along the way come up. Such issues may be addressed, including political ones, but the first obligation is to address the formal challenges of one’s predecessors. Ironically, Milan Kundera, this most anti-political interpreters of art, is a political novelist despite himself, author of such key politically significant works as The Joke, The Book on Laughter and Forgetting, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He witnessed the absurdity of the previously existing socialist societies, as he developed his ironic form with Cervantes on his mind. He and other artists from that part of the world didn’t ignore political issues, but in order to actually be an artist, form mattered – real art versus the art of officialdom, socialist realism. As I put it in my forthcoming book, Reinventing Political Culture, this involved the power of culture opposing the culture of power. In the relationship between art and politics, form is where the critical action is.

In Kundera’s understanding, Cervantes did not only invent the form of the novel in Don Quixote, he invented the modern. All novelists, all moderns in fact, have to address the questions that were first raised in this masterwork, either directly or indirectly through intermediaries, more recent artists and novelists. I believe such insight is crucial in trying to understand the relationship between art and politics in general and in specific cases of political controversy surrounding art. And this is so for great as well as lesser works.

Taylor’s mural is not propaganda, although it does favorably depict the heroic struggle of the labor movement. The mural does not have to be fair and balanced in its portrayal of unions and management. Rather, the artistic form honors. It was commissioned to do this work, and it does so. Governor Paul LePage ordered the removal of the murals from the Labor Department building after receiving an anonymous fax declaring that it was reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.” I know socialist realism. I studied its aesthetic in the Soviet bloc. It was a politically mandated work, tied to a totalitarian power. I know this propaganda form, and Taylor’s work is not socialist realism. It is rather a gentle realism, like her paintings of the Maine coast. The work doesn’t trouble. It doesn’t agitate. Agitation is in the eyes of the tendentious viewer – in this case a Tea Party Governor and his anonymous fax sender.

Orozco’s frescoes present much tougher material. The work is a part of a larger artistic movement, of Orozco and the other great Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros at the summit of the movement. These were broadly recognized masters of a popular artistic form. They served the Mexican Revolution, as they imagined and created an art audience which included the previously excluded. They also developed a distinctive art form, committed to a democratic polity, indentifying it with artistic innovation and insight. The New School Orozco expresses the artist’s progressive view of history with an odd mixture of mysticism. Heroes of the twentieth century are portrayed, some who came to be seen as villains, i.e. Lenin and Stalin. This turned controversial, but unlike the Rivera commissioned for Rockefeller Center, demolished for its offensive political content, previewing Governor LePage’s move, the work wasn’t destroyed. Rather, to the New School’s later shame, the offending images were covered with a cloth during the McCarthy era.

One mural depicts the promise of science and industry, another, the warmth of the home. The center piece, “Table of Universal Brotherhood,” presents a generic multiracial, multicultural group of men around a table, with a book. The other two murals present the sweep of history, the struggles of the Orient, the struggles of the Occident. Some Orozco scholars consider the work a formal failure: the artist experimenting with techniques which he later abandoned. Others note that it marked his last moment of revolutionary hope, followed by more brooding pessimism. For me, the continuing success of the work occurs when people enter the Orozco room.  They look around and if they have a moment, deliberate consideration comes naturally. It is a place where serious discussions occur when people take note, often interfering with a meeting’s formal agenda. It presents a living artistic challenge.

I had the honor to work with the New School curators, Silvia Rocciolo and Eric Stark, on an exhibit which highlighted this, Reimagining Orozco. The exhibit combined serious discussion about the work itself and the questions it raises, with artistic development inspired by the work, including an exhibition of the drawings of a featured artist, Enrique Chagoya. Chagoya answered the formal and political questions posed by Orozco and this facilitated a community discussion about the problems of times past and our times. The aesthetic dimension opened a public space.

It is the same aesthetic dimension which reveals in the removal of Taylor’s mural the Tea Party foolishness in Maine.

  • vince carducci

    I appreciate Jeff’s distinction between political culture and cultural politics, and I agree that the notions apply to lesser works as well as greater. (This in response to Gary Kulak’s comment about Taylor’s work being “pedestrian.” Like Orozco, the Maine mural too has an aesthetic community in mind, for better or worse from a so-called high art perspective. The aesthetic dimension has a political underpinning as Jeff notes. This is true in the case of “art for art’s sake,” which presumes “disinterestedness,” itself a culture-bound concept as Pierre Bourdieu has demonstrated.) Jeff thinks my definition of propaganda is too broad. Perhaps it is. But in this case I see a difference between the Mexican muralists, who in the United States at least were given more room for self-expression. Taylor’s work was done on specification and guided by a particular agenda. It’s noteworthy in this regard that she adjusted her style to accommodate these circumstances. None of this should be read in a pejorative sense as the Cold War embrace of aesthetic autonomy did with respect to the art of the American Scene and social realism (small “s” and “r”) in general. I might agree with Kulak that the “History of Maine Labor” isn’t cutting-edge art. The difference is I’m not troubled by that. I see the field of cultural production as a continuum and from vantage point where this artwork was intended to sit, it works just fine.

  • Michael Corey

    Artist Judy Taylor worked with labor historian Charles Scontras to choose scenes to capture Maine’s labor history. Scontras stated, “Maine is a bit more than the stereotypical romantic images that have become commonplace and marketed by our gift and souvenir shops … Maine was not Nirvana. The creative roles of dissent, protest, conflict, and the demand for social justice in the workplace of the state, form an integral part of our historical legacy.”

    I wasn’t aware of the mural until the controversy arose, but panel 10 of 11 caught my interest, the one depicting the strike at IP’s Jay mill in 1987 (for some reason Taylor on her website identifies it as “The Strike of 1986”). This strike has been extensively written about. The conduct of the company, the union and outside organizers contributed to the tragic results: all union workers needlessly lost their jobs, and the mill was restarted as a non union facility in sharp contrast to a another mill owned by a different company which introduced elements of interest based problem solving to resolve issues. The other mill was owned by Champion International and was located in Bucksport, Maine. At the time, I worked for Champion; however, I was not directly involved with these negotiations.

    Those who valorize the strike at Jay point out that local-union members helped improve environmental problems at the Jay mill. Case studies have been written about the strike and the subsequent actions, many from an organized union perspective. Environmental improvements elsewhere occurred without the job losses and rancor.

    For me this raised the question of what is chosen for inclusion in this type of mural, by whom and why. My guess is that it is much easier to identify hardships brought about through confrontation rather than meaningful gains achieved through collaboration.

    Interest based problem solving was refined in ensuing years, including a successful application in Champion’s Sartell Mill in Minnesota in 1995. An interesting discussion of it was published in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law on March 1, 2003 by Caryn L. Beck-Dudley and Steven H. Hanks, “On Virtue and Peace: Creating A Workplace Where People Can Flourish.” The article concludes as follows,

    “The case of the Sartell Mill holds out hope that organizations can choose to become virtuous organizations that exhibit membership, integrity, holism, excellence, and judgment. Before these virtues can result in human flourishing, however, the organization and its participants need to choose to act on the virtue of peaceableness. Because one participant cannot choose peace without the cooperation and choice of peace by other participants, it is imperative that all members of an organization understand the benefits peace can bring. In the case of Sartell Mill, peace brought with it an organization that improved its productivity. It also enabled its employees to live fuller lives and created a place where individuals wanted to work. This, in and of itself, seems to be a worthy goal.”

    In Taylor’s mural, it might have been interesting to include a depiction of the negotiations at the neighboring Bucksport Mill which was an early adapter of interest based problem solving. The process did not go smoothly, but going through it helped refine the process and impart a different approach to resolving difficult issues. Sartell was a beneficiary of what transpired at Bucksport, as were other locations. It seems to me that these types of memories might provide alternatives to conflict and confrontation. The selection of what is chosen to remember in artwork does have an impact on how things on done today.

  • Vera Zolberg

    Michael Corey’s thoughtful reply, in which he lauds “alternatives to conflict and confrontation” in labor relations, has much to be said for it. I believe he implies that Taylor’s mural in which she relies too much on the historian, Charles Scontras’s interpretation of some of the events she highlights results in a biased account. In that sense, Corey appears to be justifying Governor LePage’s act of censorship. This is a not particularly subtle attack on the artist and the historian, which conveniently ignores the departure of a great deal of American industry from states where labor rights are relatively protected to “Right to Work” states and, eventually, to nations with far lower labor costs. Not having seen the art work except in the news account, I cannot judge it either aesthetically or as a reportage, but it does appear to present a fair account of the state’s labor development.

  • Michael Corey

    I don’t think that I actually commented on the censorship issue, but I will at the end of these comments. For me, the issue raised by the mural had more to do with the contestation for meanings and memories — what is selected to be remembered, and what by default may be overlooked or possibly forgotten.

    I am also concerned with the glorification of confrontation and forgetfulness about tragic consequences. Unless we understand the price paid for perceived glory, then we are condemned to suffer tragic consequences. In my view the strike of 1987 was tragic. I don’t believe that all of the workers at Jay permanently losing their jobs was worth some of the subsequent community benefits that could have been achieved through other means, and have been achieved through other means in other communities.

    I don’t have a problem with the mural remaining in place. We know that it was created from a specific perspective. While some might say we must have the courage that the workers at Jay had in 1987, other might say we cannot make the same mistakes, and allow tragic situations like this to repeat. Lessons can be learned by thoroughly considering all aspects of the strike of 1987.

    I asked in Vince’s first post on the issue if narratives accompanied each panel on the mural. If there were narratives, then I would have liked to know how the situations depicted are portrayed. Vince didn’t think that there were narratives. If narratives depicted only narrow aspects of the situation, then I would have liked to seen broader aspects considered.