At first look, Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s order to dismantle a series of painted panels chronicling the advances of the labor movement seems almost comical, akin to former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s to cover the bare breasts of the Spirit of Justice statue in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice. There are surely similarities there; literally covering up Justice has given way to packing up organized labor and putting it out of the way of impressionable citizens.
But what is most astonishing is the low threshold LePage, a Republican supported by the Tea Party movement, has for political themes in art. The murals, painted by Maine artist Judy Taylor, were displayed in the state Labor Department waiting room. The new governor, according to an excellent and disturbing piece in the Washington Post, decided the murals were not pro-business, and ordered them removed. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]
The paintings are lovely, but hardly radical. With an almost Norman Rockwell-ish family friendliness, a few scenes mark some of the history of the labor movement—an end to child labor, the Maine women inspired by Rosie the Riveter, who worked in the state’s shipyards during World War II. There’s a mural depicting Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as a cabinet official. They’re pretty benign paintings, with no unflattering depictions of business. Not even a bare breast in sight.
And yet LePage finds the murals politically offensive. He should take a look at the powerful, wrenching work of Kathe Kollwitz, a Prussian-born 19th- and 20th-century artist whose searing drawings of the Weavers' Revolt depict the painful struggles of working people. The highly acclaimed drawings are enough to turn the most devoted corporate apologist into a card-carrying member of the AFL-CIO. [See a slide show of the most unionized cities.]
But if LePage wants paintings that celebrate corporate America, why not? He could start with a mural of Wall Street executives, collecting their fat bonuses while Washington lawmakers, hamstrung by the financial services community’s hold over the U.S. economy, crafted a bailout program to save the very industries that ruined the economy. Maybe there could be a series on industrial sector executives who cut corners on safety to collect higher profits (the photos of those who died at Massey Energy’s West Virginia coal mine and in BP’s oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana would not be part of the exhibit). Let’s have a big painting of smiling GE executives, whose company has legally avoided paying any federal taxes two years in a row. And how about a nice portrait of those auto executives who flew to Washington on separate, private planes to beg for public funds?
Kollwitz was a socialist and a humanist, and was punished for her views and her art. She and her husband were visited by the Gestapo and the Nazi regime in Germany, who forced her to resign her faculty position at the Akedemie der Kunst since she had signed a document, with other artists and scientists, opposing the Nazis. Kollwitz's work chronicling the weavers’ struggles was nominated for a prestigious art award in Berlin, but Kaiser Wilhelm II withheld his approval. Surely, elected officials in our democracy can do a better job at dealing with artistic differences.