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.