Erasing Labor History

Erasing Labor History

Maine Governor Paul LePage’s secret removal of a mural celebrating the state’s labor history is just one in a long line of struggles over publicly-funded depictions of American workers.


There’s a kind of movie glamour to stories about vanished works of art: the Mona Lisa hidden under a hotel bed, The Scream held for ransom or the giant Diego Rivera mural commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller that was smashed to bits after the artist refused to paint over a portrait of Lenin.

To that list we can now add the mural that was taken down—in secret, over a weekend in March—by Maine Governor Paul LePage. Created by artist Judy Taylor, who won a competition co-sponsored by the Maine Arts Commission, the mural was installed in the lobby of the state’s Labor Department in 2008. It features eleven panels illustrating Maine’s labor history from colonial days to the present: in the first, a cobbler teaches an assistant; in the last, a retiring worker passes on his hammer. In between are child laborers, women in textile mills, two strikes and Frances Perkins, who as Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary (and the first female cabinet member) helped pass some of the most important pieces of labor rights legislation in US history.

Newspapers have reported that the action was prompted by an anonymous fax to LePage’s office whose author, visiting the Labor Department lobby, “felt for a moment that I was in communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.” LePage and his administration called the mural too one-sided in its depiction of labor history—though the Associated Press has reported the governor never viewed the mural in person.

Responding to a federal lawsuit in April, State Attorney General William Schneider argued that the removal was an exercise of “government speech,” an expression of the administration’s right to make its positions known. The plaintiffs—a group of artists and First Amendment advocates that doesn’t include Taylor—filed a temporary restraining order against the governor, hoping to guarantee the mural’s return. But in late April a federal judge ruled the removal “constitutionally permissible.” And so for now, as the plaintiffs decide their next step, the controversy limps on.

The struggle over publicly funded depictions of US labor has a long history. Throughout the 1930s the Roosevelt administration funded thousands of murals, plays, symphonies and guidebooks through the WPA Federal Arts Projects, or Federal One. The program was controversial from the start. Conservatives argued that the government should not be in the business of funding art, especially not the kind the era’s painters and writers were likely to make. The projects went ahead on the grounds that they would provide work for thousands of Americans, but they were dogged by fierce criticism.

The artists’ work was often informed by a patriotic sense of duty to celebrate the country at a time of deep crisis. Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theater Project, set out to dramatize efforts “to turn the great natural and economic forces of our time toward a better life for more people.” The series, called “Living Newspaper” (the form originated in Bolshevik Russia), translated current events for the stage: agricultural policy, the workings of the Tennessee Valley Authority, syphilis testing, workers’ rights. But in 1939, funds were cut after the Dies Committee (a precursor to HUAC) questioned the leftist leanings and labor sympathies of the artists and administrators.

The Federal Writers Project—with its collections of folklore, slave narratives and keystone “American Guide” series—was the source of similar scandals, among them a guide to Massachusetts that was banned after the governor took issue with the writers’ account of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

Unlike the work of the WPA artists, who were often closely tied to the left and allied with workers, Taylor’s mural was not political—the panels provide a straightforward depiction of state labor history. The controversy came after the mural was taken down, not when it was unveiled. In the weeks after the Wisconsin protests, the removal came to symbolize not only attacks against workers around the country but LePage’s own push for antilabor legislation.

A few Maine conservatives have rallied around their governor, with vitriolic statements and press releases—the Maine Republican Party called the mural “a taxpayer-funded insult to working people”—and an offer to buy the artwork from the Labor Department. One state representative reportedly suggested burning the panels.

As the incident fades into the past, the mural is still gone. History is a kind of narrative-making; the stories we tell ourselves about our shared past change with time. But LePage’s removal of the mural was not a move to correct a historical error. It was an attempt to erase an important piece of Maine’s past. This act of “government speech” has allowed an administration’s politics to eclipse both the voice of the artist and the collective voices of the workers whose stories are told in the eleven panels.

Thankfully, there are many who are unwilling to forget how labor has shaped and continues to shape American history. In the weeks after the mural’s disappearance, the Labor Department lobby was crowded with hundreds of protesters, among them artists and union workers. A local artist asked that his work be removed from the Statehouse in solidarity. And on June 19 the Associated Press reported that the governor has received more than 1,000 overwhelmingly critical e-mails, faxes and letters about the incident.

The governor’s office prefers a blank wall in place of the mural. Judy Taylor has offered instead to hang her father’s Bronze Star, awarded for his service in Korea, as “a symbol of the importance of remembering our history, and not shuttering it away.”

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