ART / ‘Man at Work’ Exhibition Has Lessons for Today

At the Grohmann Museum in Milwaukee: Frederick Arthur Bridgman, The Seaweed Gatherers, 1912 / MSOE.

Workers Built the Modern World

[The Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection ‘Man at Work,’ continuing installation of 700 paintings and sculptures spanning 400 years of history. Also, touring exhibition, ‘Cradle of Industry: Works from the Rhineland Industrial Museum,’ January 16 – April 5, 2009. Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Milwaukee.]

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / April 4, 2009

The Grohmann Museum, a modern building with a cylindrical entrance way reaching up to the fourth floor, is nestled among a variety of interesting and renovated older buildings in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The museum is a block from an old Blatz Brewery building that looks like it has been converted into high income condominiums.

Inside the Museum is an extraordinary collection of paintings, over 700, covering 400 years of artistry, all about work and workers. An additional visiting exhibit, “Cradle of Industry,” added paintings of German industrialization from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1960s and some recent documentary photos.

The paintings together illustrated the evolution of work, from agriculture, to crafts people (cobblers, blacksmiths, cork makers, glass blowers, and taxidermists), to miners and forgers, bridge builders, and steel makers. Additional paintings presented women picking hops for beer making, a seventeenth century accountant pouring over his books, and a surgeon opening up a patient’s head. Some of the paintings portrayed twentieth century factory work and a few documentary photos showed workers amassing in strikes against their bosses.

The paintings were collected by Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, a local entrepreneur who acquired and expanded a local aluminum casting and engineering company in Milwaukee. Grohmann reported that as a child he visited his grandfather’s marble processing company in Poland where he watched stonecutters and sculptors engaging in their craft. It was there, he reported, that he grew to appreciate hard work not as “an idealized concept but a principle of life.” Grohmann’s goal was to present in these paintings “a clear image of the honor of work.”

Viewing these many images of work, the viewer develops a profound appreciation of the centrality of human labor to the evolution of civilization. The paintings suggested how classical economists like Karl Marx could develop theories based on the idea that the value of all commodities came from the amount of work time that went into their production. In short, labor was the basis of all value.

Unfortunately, while the paintings powerfully underscore the basic Marxian idea about the value of work, contemporary politicians see work and workers as disposable. If they are organized in their work places they are impediments to human progress.

So goes the recent hint by the Obama administration that it will force General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy court. The New York Times wrote on April 1 what the consequences of this might be for workers: “In bankruptcy, companies can seek to persuade a judge to set aside labor contracts and terminate pension plans, by making a case that they are too expensive, forcing workers to rely on smaller government-provided retirement checks.”

In addition, Republicans, so-called moderate Democrats, Bank of America, Starbucks, Costco, the Chamber of Commerce and other representatives of big capital are marshaling resources to forestall the Employee Free Choice Act from becoming law. EFCA would make it easier, in the face of company pressures, for workers to form unions. If workers have a realistic chance of voting in unions they will do so. If they do have unions, wages and benefits will rise and workers’ basic quality of life and sense of security will rise. Finally, increasing numbers of workers with jobs at livable wages could stimulate economic growth.

Visiting the Grohmann Museum suggests the profound gap between the history of human civilization, built on the skills and energies of workers, and the way in which the contemporary political economy denigrates, marginalizes, and humiliates workers. Empowering and rewarding the working class must be central to progressive change in the days, weeks, and years ahead.

Harry Targ, who posts to Progressives for Obama, teaches political science. This article also appears on his website, Diary of a Heartland Radical.

The Rag Blog

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1 Response to ART / ‘Man at Work’ Exhibition Has Lessons for Today

  1. The story of the art collection (and example) was beautiful – just as beautiful, as the rest of the story was ‘ugly’….

    I’m a former Michiganer; my uncle was VP of Ford – have a brother-in-law who owns a Ford dealership; another friend who owns a GM dealership, and aside from their current financial ‘woes’, I’ve got many friends and family who’ve retired and have relied upon their substantial pensions to live on.

    It sounds to me as if the car manufactuers are just too chicken-shit to announce they can’t afford to keep up their retirement obligations; afford union wages, so they’ve run to the government with their plight. It’s easier to load it onto the government; have the government ‘appear’ to DENY financial assistance, when they really want an out from the mess they’ve put themselves into.

    If the government appears to be the ‘bad guy’, then they can go back to their shareholders and employees/retired personnel, and say there was nothing they could do but file for bankruptcy; get rid of the entire debt, and then they’ll regroup and miraculously recover.

    It will hurt the millions who’ve ‘already worked for food’ – it’s an underhanded scheme, and it smells to high heaven.

    I’ve got a dear friend who called me this morning; her husband died – she’s relying on her pension from GM to help her with her ongoing expenses. Her social security won’t support her, and she’s had to take out a reverse-mortgage on her home so she can keep her home, and handle extensive repairs. I’m sure there are thousands just like her, and I don’t believe for one minute the car companies are as bad off as they claim.

    I think they figured they could get bail-out money like the banks did, so they climbed on the poverty band-wagon, and now they need to be rescued by actually being told ‘no’….no, so they can escape from something they’ve been trying to get rid of for the last 20 years.

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