The other day I was talking with a friend at work when he informed me that last year he purchased a snow blower. He admitted that being a city dweller he only had about forty feet of sidewalk to clear, a task he could usually knock off rather quickly, but he had felt that it was time to move to a mechanized approach to snow removal. I was confused. My friend, having been a frequenter of the local gym for many years, is in terrific shape, sporting bulging biceps that, appear to me, sufficient to toss an abominable snowman, let alone a few shovels-full of snow, a football field’s length.
I’ve noticed over the years that most Americans find honest, purposeful labor to be distasteful. They will eagerly pay a professional to mow their lawns, landscape their properties, plow their driveways and even walk their dogs. The more ambitious among us buy snow blowers and ride-on mowers and actually do the jobs themselves. Ironically enough, many of these same folk purchase gym or health club memberships to secure a location where they can exercise or tone up on modern equipment with a personal trainer to goad them on to ever greater exertions.
I’ve always believed that the individual must resist the allure of inertia. If I have the choice between a flight of stairs or an escalator, I opt for the stairs. If I’m close enough to my destination to make the journey on foot, I never take a subway or bus. When a handsaw will do the job, why resort to power equipment. When my wife and I purchased our current home over twenty years ago, I recognized that the property presented some new challenges, the cleared portion measuring about an acre and its driveway being immense. At the time, I thought to myself that I was still pretty young and determined that I would do as much as possible of the labor about the place manually… at least, until inevitable physical deterioration prevented my doing so. Hence I cleared my driveway of snow myself with a shovel, working slowly and methodically over an hour or two… sometimes even longer. If I got out early enough after a storm, I began my work in a perfect silence with only the crunch of my boots in the snow to disturb the profound austerity of the moment. But with time, my neighbors would emerge from their homes and a chorus of throbbing engines would accompany my labor. Occasionally a kindly neighbor, having quickly completed his work, would come over with a mechanized plow or snow blower to assist me, but I would wave him away with an appreciative smile; I savored the sense of accomplishment when I finished the job myself.
In warmer weather, my lawn ( for want of a better word that is how I will refer to the mesh of chicory, skunk grass and dandelions which surrounds our home)… my lawn presents difficulties, being sprawling, untamed, littered with rocks and debris and topographically challenged (meaning that there are runs at nearby ski resorts that are sloped less acutely). But being ever the Luddite, I determined that I would mow the “lawn” with a standard, gas-powered mower, even refusing to upgrade to a chain driven model. Again, as with the shoveling, the job takes a while, but I always feel that in going the more difficult route I am gaining the benefit of working my heart and lungs and pushing my muscles to perform as they were intended. I do my own house painting, carpentry and plumbing. I’ve put down floors in my home, laid cement slabs, hung sheetrock and done masonry work. I’ve cleared downed trees myself using a chainsaw and a wheelbarrow. I must admit that the quality of my workmanship can vary greatly, but whatever job I tackle generally holds together.
As our four sons grew up, one by one, they began participating in the regular maintenance that our property requires and, of course, they are acolytes within my religion of the sanctity of manual labor and self-reliance. Now that there are no longer little ones about the place to attend to, my wife often assists with the upkeep too. I can’t say how long my stubborn practices will last, but I hope to continue them for as long as possible. I believe that when I first moved in my neighbors viewed me as a hopeless rube newly transplanted from NYC; now, two decades later, I suppose I’m considered an eccentric crackpot. That’s okay with me. Running with the pack always makes me a bit uneasy.
The weather’s been somewhat nasty this past February, with significant snowstorms hitting us every few days followed up with frigid temperatures. The last major storm we experienced brought particularly heavy snow accumulations, and we spent a good part of the day digging ourselves out. Exhausted, I went to bed early that night, only to find myself lying in bed wide awake at 3:00 AM the following morning. Exasperated, I left my bed, got a tall glass of water, peered out the window to be sure that we didn’t get any more snow and then sank into a chair in our family room. I glanced around the dimly lit room, my eyes settling on my work boots still sitting side by side precisely where I had placed them after pulling them off upon coming in from my day’s labor. I couldn’t help but think of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of his own boots completed more than one and a quarter centuries ago.
|Van Gogh - A Pair of Boots - 1887|
Van Gogh painted his footwear several times during his career. He didn’t have a foot fetish, nor was he just looking for a banal subject matter to tackle on a day when the weather wouldn’t permit him to get outside. His boots make a statement. They are not the possessions of a wealthy, powerful man. They are not expensive, polished or fashionable. They are work boots constructed with purpose in mind, destined for years of labor. Van Gogh’s boots are splattered with filth and worn and pitted with the abrasions that come from regular use. They lie splayed on the ground, their laces strewn about them, just as Van Gogh left them, discarded after his day’s work. These are the boots he wore while trudging across fields and meadows and along dirt roads in search of an acceptable scene to record in paint. These are the same boots he wore while standing for hours in the elements focused on his canvas. By presenting us with the reality of these boots, Van Gogh is informing us that he doesn’t see painting as the activity of an effete, educated elite. He sees himself as a laborer, a man of the people.
Van Gogh was born in 1853 in a southern
. The son of a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, Van Gogh was always pulled between the poles of art and religion. An early effort to establish a career with a firm of art dealers ended with his termination at the age of 23 because he could not hide from his employers and customers how unhappy he was selling art like a hawker of hand soap or legs of mutton. Van Gogh then was drawn to a religious life, studying for nearly two years to become a pastor. When appointed in 1879 to a temporary missionary post in a mining community in province of Holland , Van Gogh felt that he should live like the people to whom he preached, residing in a small shack, sleeping on straw and eating the same food as the workers. Church authorities, feeling that he was degrading the dignity of his office, removed him from his post. Even once he fully embraced his vocation as an artist, Van Gogh continued to empathize with the plight of the working class. He greatly admired and emulated the work of Jean Francois Millet, who presented images of the peasant at work as the ideal Christian laboring in a sanctified landscape under the watchful eye of a benevolent god. Belgium
|Millet - Shepherdess with her Flock - 1864|
While still working on his Potato Eaters, he wrote the following to his brother:
“The point is that I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and – a meal honestly earned. I wanted to convey a picture of a way of life quite different from ours, from that of civilized people. So the last thing I would want is for people to admire or approve of it without knowing why.”
He goes on to state:
“And similarly, in my opinion, it would be wrong to give a painting of peasant life a conventional polish. If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam, fine - that's not unhealthy - if a stable reeks of manure - all right, that's what a stable is all about - if a field has the smell of ripe corn or potatoes or of guano and manure - that's properly healthy, especially for city dwellers. Such pictures might prove helpful to them. But a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.”
- Vincent Van Gogh Letter to Theo Van Gogh, April 30, 1885
|Van Gogh - The Potato Eaters - 1885|
Throughout his short career, Van Gogh lived among working people, painting their portraits, their abodes, the establishments they frequented. Even once he had relocated to France and had fallen under the influence of the avant garde, Van Gogh continued to paint the common folk who peopled his world: peasant farmers, a postman, a zouave, fishermen, a gardener, café owners and an orderly, just to name a few.
|Van Gogh - The Red Vineyard - 1888|
Van Gogh and Millet are certainly not unique in their interest in addressing themes relating to the working class. Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet, Gustave Caillebotte, Ilya Repin, Wilhelm Leibl, Käthe Kollwitz, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros come readily to mind. I think that independent art sellers who catered to the tastes of middle class customers had to arise before work that presented laborers as significant and sympathetic could be marketed. After the French Revolution, intellectuals and politicians were compelled to consider how to reformulate their societies into more equitable structures that would permit laborers a higher standard of living and better representation in government. Later on, many artists embraced Marxist and Socialist theory, directly addressing themes in support of the proletariat in their imagery.
|Courbet - The Stonebreakers - 1849 to 50|
|Daumier - The Third-Class Railway Carriage - 1862|
|Repin - Barge Haulers on the Volga - 1872|
|Caillebotte - The Floor Planers - 1875|
|Kollwitz - March of the Weavers - 1893 to 97|
|Rivera - Woman Grinding Maize - 1924|
Two extremely good books that examine the function of art within the context of social revolution are Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art and Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art.
“The socialist artist and writer adopts the historical viewpoint of the working class. But this does not mean that he is in duty bound to approve every decision or action taken by whatever party or character represents the working class in his work. He sees in the working class the determining, but not the only, force necessary for the defeat of capitalism, for the growth of a classless society and the unlimited development of material and spiritual forces of production to liberate the human personality. In other words, he identifies himself fundamentally with socialist society in its process of growth; whereas bourgeois artists and writers, if they are of any importance, inevitably dissociate themselves from the world of the triumphant bourgeoisie.”
- Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, 1959
“After 1830 these whims come to an end entirely and it becomes obvious that there is in fact no massive public apart from the middle class. But as soon as the emancipation of the middle class is accomplished, the struggle of the working class for its rights already begins. And that is the second of the decisively important movements which proceed from the July revolution and monarchy. Hitherto the class struggles of the proletariat had been fused with those of the middle class, and it had been mainly the political aspirations of the middle classes for which the working class had fought. The developments after 1830 first open its eyes and supply it with proof that, in fighting for its rights, it can rely on no other class. Simultaneously with the awakening class-consciousness of the proletariat, socialist theory acquires its first more or less concrete form and there also arises the programme of an artistic activist movement which for radicalism and consistency surpasses all previous movements of a similar nature. “L’art pour l’art” goes through its first crisis and has from now on to fight not only against the idealism of the classicists but also against utilitarianism of both ‘social’ and ‘bourgeois’ art.”
Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 4, 1951 Arnold
Both Fischer and Hauser recognize the development of a new form of art that represents the perspective of the working class. Certainly, broadening the perspective of art to address the concerns of the working class was a positive development. Prior to the nineteenth century, the worker or peasant was usually included in art and literature as a comic foil, the ignorant buffoon motivated by the basest of desires. The problem with art that champions the role of the worker is that it can often be pedantic and unnuanced, losing in aesthetics what it gains in clarity of message. Let’s face it, art that aims to glorify the role of the worker tends to reek of propaganda. Mukhina’s monumental sculpture makes me cringe a bit, leaving me feeling wary and manipulated. Compare her image of the proletariat with Caillebotte’s floor planers, who perform a tedious, strenuous job in a small, stuffy room and smell of the sweat of their labor, and the contrast between absurd idealization and sober reality becomes all too obvious.
|Vera Mukhina - Monument to the Proletariat and Agriculture - 1937|
|Chinese Cultural Revolution Poster|
On the other hand, art cannot be solely about aesthetics… about its makers’ ongoing dialogue with the art of the past and present. Such work becomes unintelligible and inaccessible to the masses and is doomed to be perceived as irrelevant by the society in which it has been created. I am not advocating a populist art such as that produced by, let’s say, Thomas Kinkade or Leroy Neiman, but I do believe that art that doesn’t provide an emotional “doorway” for the working class, as well as the intellectual elite, has failed in its purpose.
In my own work, I’ve learned to shy away from themes intended to “enlighten” my viewer, to expose some kernel of truth which I’ve gathered along the way on my life journey. I can readily think of two exceptions to that assertion. These works were both inspired by the collapse of the
Soviet Union, in particular my fear that, without a philosophical counterbalance, however flawed, to capitalist ideology, the worker would be vulnerable to all kinds of extreme abuse, resulting in an inequitable redistribution of wealth in our society. Unfortunately, I am witnessing my worst fears being realized today.
|Wickham - The Triumph of Capitalism (Etching) - 1990c|
|Wickham - Lenin Icon - 1989c|
|Wickham - Lenin Icon (detail) - 1989c|
I encourage all readers to comment here. If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: [email protected]
Please note: The photograph of my work boots was staged at a later date with the boots deliberately positioned to replicate the arrangement in Van Gogh’s painting.