Saturday, March 26, 2011
Daniel Kany's comments at the 3/25 Press Conference
Erasing Anyone’s Cultural History is not an option
Text of presentation at “Maine Labor History Mural” press conference
In some ways, Maine was born from Slavery. We entered the union as the 23rd state as part of the Missouri Compromise – a reminder that Slavery was a national issue of labor and political power. Many wanted to end Slavery because of the downward economic pressure it put on workers: How could free market labor in the north compete with slave labor in the South?
It was illegal for slaves to marry or learn to read and write – erasing and denying access to cultural memory is a standard tool of despotic oppression. But Slavery was a national issue because of this two-tiered economic division.
Maine’s flag was adopted in 1909. It shows our state seal in the center of a blue field. A moose sits under a tree. Our motto “Dirigo” – Latin for “I lead” – floats above a star over the tree. The flag also features a farmer and a seaman in honor of the working people of Maine. Our agricultural and marine industries, in other words, were represented by workers – not plantation owners and sea captains - but the regular working folks of Maine.
Judy Taylor’s “History of Maine Labor” mural also celebrates the regular people of Maine: People who work hard at tough jobs to feed their families.
I am an art historian and an art critic. In both terms, I think the “History of Maine Labor” is a very successful work of art. Historically, it is an honest an accurate portrayal of some significant events and people in the history of industrial labor in Maine. As a work of art, it’s excellent. It’s well-designed, intelligent, well-painted and handsome.
The idea of a governor just 50 days into office targeting art for removal for political purpose conjures nothing but chilling echoes of some of the very darkest times in history.
Especially in this super-charged atmosphere – think Wisconsin and LePage’s NAACP problem - as a Mainer and an art historian, I hope Governor LePage does not rush to spend thousands of dollars to remove the mural from its public home. Attacking workers – even symbolically – is hardly pro-business: it’s precisely the kind of thing this mural seeks to put behind us.
The mural’s images represent our cultural history and it’s wrong to pretend that history wasn’t paid for dearly in blood, toil and human misery. Images of child labor and indentured servitude - as past history – remind us how we as a culture have triumphed over many of the ugliest demons faced by our forebears.
Rosie the Riveter worked at Bath Iron Works. How cool is that? And Frances Perkins [was the first female member of a U.S. Cabinet. Labor Secretary for 12-years under F.D.R., Secretary Perkins was crucial in developing the minimum wage, Social Security and unemployment insurance.] Why dishonor her memory?
Yes, there are strikes depicted in the mural, such as the 1937 shoe mill strike in Lewiston/Auburn, but these strikes were not simply about petty wage discrepancies. They were about working conditions and safety. They were difficult but historically important times for our communities.
If Governor LePage’s position is genuinely not “anti-union,” then why the rush to label our cultural history as degenerate? We have no room for Savanarolas in a nation predicated on free speech.
If Governor LePage wants an alternative viewpoint, then why not call for submissions for art that showcases the innovations, accomplishments and philanthropy of business in Maine? Everyone here in the hall can see we have plenty of wall space, and surely, our business community would help.
I grew up in Waterville and when I was the age of my young boys, most of my schoolmates’ families worked at Scott Paper, Keyes Fiber, Wyandotte, Cascade or the Hathaway Shirt Factory. We all rooted for these businesses to thrive: Their prosperity meant prosperity for our entire community. In turn, when they closed one by one, we all felt the pain of ruin.
For seven years during the 1990s, I was a member of UAW Local 2110 at Columbia University [(the same local, by the way, that organized the staff of the Museum of Modern Art). For no additional pay, I was a shop steward and then elected to the negotiating team when our contract was due. See,] there was a problem facing our 807 members: Whites made over $1,000 more a year than their non-white counterparts when balanced for experience and education, and men made over $1,000 more than women. You would think that racial and gender bias wouldn’t be such recent issues at an Ivy League bastion of liberal enlightenment, but even there we needed a union to help sort out the unconscious but widespread problem of bias in the workplace.
It’s why I absolutely believe we still need unions.
One of my political heroes is Margaret Chase Smith and my only major complaint about Ms. Taylor’s mural is that Senator Smith isn’t prominently featured. Senator Smith pressed for years to help nurses get full standing in the American military.
Maine has always been a tough place to scrape out a living. Our timber, manufacturing, agricultural and marine industries present dangerous and difficult work. Safety in the workplace – or the lack thereof – is a historical fact about life in Maine.
It is wrong to erase that honest cultural history. Our forebears had it tough so we could live better and we should appreciate them for it.
How the working poor became the middle class on which the American economy grew to become the most significant economic power in the world is something we should be proud of.
Maine’s creative economy is actually one of our strongest fiscal engines: According to the Maine Arts Commission, the creative economy supports 8.4% of Maine’s labor force – more than 70,000 jobs. Art in Maine is big business and cultural tourists are an incredibly important revenue source. It won’t help if they start to think of us as an iconoclastic cultural backwater.
“History of Maine Labor” is one of the strongest works of art owned by the people of Maine. It would be a travesty on many levels if it is removed – and very bad for business.
Posted by Daniel Kany at 10:03 AM