Editorial: Maine at the Crossroads - when art becomes a threat to the establishment

Posted Monday, April 11, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Maine at the Crossroads - when art becomes a threat to the establishment

Judy Taylor's mural (detail), now in storage.

It is happening again. Someone In Authority considers a work of art, in this case Judy Taylor's mural of the history of working people in Maine (commissioned by the state and paid for largely by a federal Department of Labor grant at a cost of $60,000) to be something so threatening that it must be suppressed – even if it costs Maine taxpayers to do so.

In itself, the removal of a mural is a small thing in the scheme of one's working life in Maine. Indeed, before Gov. Paul LePage demanded its removal, it is fair to say that few even knew it was there, as working people tend to spend their work weeks, well, working, rather than lobbying the Statehouse. LePage has given Taylor's work and the issues it presents about Maine's workers' history new life ... probably unintentionally.

LePage ordered its removal after receiving an anonymous fax from a "Secret Admirer" who wrote:

"In this mural I observed a figure which closely resembles the former commissioner of labor. In studying the mural I also observed that this mural is nothing but propaganda to further the agenda of the Union movement. I felt for a moment that I was in communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses."

Union. Propaganda. Communist. Brainwash.

Any of this ringing any bells? Are we seeing a pattern here? We should be. In the 1930s, many artists created murals in public buildings, notably post offices, but other buildings as well, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. A good number of them were subsequently destroyed because Someone In Authority felt they contained elements of communism or anarchism, including the mural at 30 Rockefeller Center by Diego Rivera, "Man at the Crossroads."

"Man at the Crossroads" was meant to be (and was) a visual examination of 20th century thought and the possibilities inherent in the American Century. Just one of the issues of 20th century thought that Rivera examined was communism – one of the seminal schools of thought of the early 20th century – and his mural included a portrait of Lenin among people marching for workers' rights.

Nelson Rockefeller ordered Lenin to be painted over, and when the artist refused, Rockefeller ordered the mural to be draped. Subsequently, without Rivera's knowledge, Rockefeller Center workers destroyed it, carrying pieces away in wheelbarrows. Later, the mural, in a much smaller form, was re-created by Rivera in Mexico City at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, based on photographs of the original.

Ah, but that was long ago, right? Those things don't happen in the Modern Age.

Except, of course, that they do.

In the 1980s, the Taliban systematically destroyed ancient statues of the Buddha because they felt that it was an affront to their religion.

In 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the statue of the Spirit of Justice in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice covered in a burka-blue cloth because he objected to the statue's nudity.

And in 2003, during the run-up to the attack on and invasion of Iraq, the U.N. Security Council covered over the tapestry of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" – a painting which shows the horror of war (especially unprovoked war waged on civilian populations) – while the Security Council was considering a resolution that would allow the U.S. and its allies to attack that country.

At the time, we called the U.N. to ask about that, and were told that the tapestry's pattern was "too busy" for television. Yes, war on civilians can be a very messy thing.

War waged against workers is also a messy thing. It's awfully nice that Paul LePage wants "fairness" at the Department of Labor. He may want to start, not with Judy Taylor's WPA revivalist mural, but with the pay gap – now about 300:1 – between CEOs and the average worker in larger firms. Or how about requiring companies to play fair with health insurance, pensions, stock options and other fundamentally important issues to Maine workers? How about solving the perennial problem of the cost of higher education in Maine, which primarily affects the working class? How about supporting the efforts of communities to prevent big box merchants from destroying the vibrant nature of their small towns and disrupting the already valuable worker/employer relationships on Main Street?

Then, and only then, when the playing field is totally level between workers and employers, let's start suppressing all the subversive communist union propaganda art, like Judy Taylor's (historically correct) mural, which is so very capable of brainwashing the masses.

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