Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 2, 2000
Melissa Dabakis Visualizing Labor in American Sculpture: Monuments, Manliness, and the Work Ethic, 1880–1935 Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 312 pp.; 312 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0521461472)

This solidly researched book examines a diverse array of outdoor monuments, small sculptures, and other images that represent themes of U.S. labor between the 1880s and the mid-1930s. Author Melissa Dabakis concludes that the objects in this broadly defined group, ranging from Albert Weinert’s sixteen-foot Haymarket Monument near Chicago to Saul Baizerman’s five-inch Cement Man, constitute a significant U.S. visual art tradition on the subject of work that predates New Deal-era fanfares to American labor. The book focuses on the role they played in contemporary discourses about the work ethic, masculinity, immigration, and collective memory.

While the text runs just 224 pages, Visualizing Labor in American Sculpture is a dense and challenging book whose multiple themes do not quickly coalesce into a unified whole. The author, who is an associate professor of art history and co-director of American Studies at Kenyon College, eschews a purely chronological progression of style, content, and context in favor of a collection of case studies and thematic essays in which she sometimes injects her own voice, explaining her goals in the first person. Dabakis diligently explicates key issues, drawing attention to the multiple and elastic readings these sculptures allow, the “ideological rifts” and “historical complexities.” She states that the book, part of the Cambridge Studies in American Visual Culture series, “integrates the theoretical perspectives of new historicism with the interdisciplinary concerns of labor studies, gender studies, and visual representations” (6). The reader is rewarded with a richly nuanced analysis of sculpture produced between the 1880s, the decade in which the American Federation of Labor began representing skilled workers in trade unions, and the 1930s, when the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) was founded on a strategy of organizing both nonskilled and skilled workers industrywide. In addition to its thorough investigation of a select group of public monuments, the book calls attention to the largely forgotten careers of a number of immigrant artists who made small-scale figures of laborers.

The opening chapter introduces readers to the earlier model of the American worker who embodied values of dignity, morality, and diligence—the work ethic. The chapter begins not with a sculpture, but with John Neagle’s painting, Pat Lyon at the Forge (1826-27, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), in which a muscular master craftsman is pictured at his forge, the place where he creates strong, utilitarian, three-dimensional forms; an apprentice stands behind him. This ideal of the proud, autonomous, and virtuous man whose work is his calling becomes a nostalgic image with the rise of urban industrial capitalism—"a system in which wage labor prevailed and the product of one’s toil no longer served as one’s own" (12). Dabakis argues that by century’s end the work ethic was manipulated by elite groups to retain social order and to manage the lives of working people, who had lost the old satisfaction of self-expression in labor. Labor interests also used the idea of the work ethic, however, to develop self-respect, class-consciousness, and empowerment. The chapter ends with a discussion of George Gray Barnard’s sculptural groups for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg (1911), which present a utopian ideal of workers sharing in civic prosperity, an ideal Dabakis contends could appeal to both groups.

Two monuments present competing histories of the Chicago Haymarket Affair (1886) and are the focus of Chapter two, “Martyrs and Monuments,” which emphasizes themes of collective memory and gender. The Police Monument, Johannes Gelert’s realistic portrayal of an officer holding up his hand to signal “halt,” was dedicated in 1889 in Haymarket Square to honor the seven policemen killed and sixty wounded in the melee. The Haymarket Monument by Albert Weinert was dedicated in 1893 in a suburban cemetery as a reminder of the unjust trial of eight anarchists, four of whom were hanged for their part in the clash. The sculpture features a female allegorical figure standing protectively before the corpse of a male worker whose head lolls backward and limp arm hangs down in a gesture reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Women have little place in this book, but Dabakis sees conflicting gender signals as well as signs of class in the powerful form of the “female worker”; she signals both nurturing tendencies and the threat of aggressive social disruption. The sculpture is thus seen as a response to the “phallic” Police Monument.

The police memorial continued to be interpreted by some critics as a site of unjust authority in the twentieth century, and was attacked with paint and explosives several times during the Vietnam War era. While the Haymarket Monument is discussed as a “sacred center” for American radicals, more consideration might have been given to its continuing role as a pilgrimage site and ritual space. Also little is said about Weinert’s ideology and how the monument fits within his overall artistic production.

A central essay on the issue of gender analyzes the masculine response to Douglas Tilden’s big Mechanics Fountain (1901), commissioned as part of the “City Beautiful” movement in San Francisco. The Paris-trained Tilden called this image of five vigorous men straining to activate a punch press “the greatest apotheosis to labor in the world.” The figures are virile white males of varying ages, all skilled machinists wearing only strategically placed aprons or loin cloths. The author says this monument “participated in a discourse that consistently offered the strong bodies of skilled manual workers as visions of manliness to middle-class and elite patrons” (91). The sculpture, she argues, responds to a crisis in masculinity at the turn of the century when middle-class men held more sedentary jobs and sometimes played out their concerns in the new craze for sports and the “strenuous life.” Located on the West Coast, the monument also is seen as taking part in a “cult of the primitive” in which images of Native Americans, cowboys, and hunters linked the frontier with manliness. In its form and content, the monument “both allows and refutes homo-social desire” (93).

Although the title and cover suggest the book’s principal topic is public monuments, a substantial portion focuses on other matters—small sculpture, private patronage, and the ideological debates of the 1920s and 1930s. Chapter five argues that an exhibition of work by Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier, which traveled to six U.S. cities in 1913-14, “reinvigorated Protestant middle-class notions of the work ethic at a time when industrialism had radically altered the traditional nature of labor in the United States.” While European audiences often interpreted Meunier’s figures as containing messages of labor protest and resistance, the book contends that American audiences saw instead “perfect modern workers”—efficient, productive, and submissive—in an era of progressive ideology.

“American Genre Sculpture in the Progressive Era” is the longest chapter. It documents a surge of small-scale sculpture by artists such as Mahonri Young, Chester Beach, Abastenia Eberle, Charles Oscar Haag, and Adolf Wolff, who held a variety of viewpoints about the work ethic and working class culture. Some were sculptural counterparts to the Ashcan School painters and exhibited at the same Macbeth Gallery in New York. The book suggests that all were inspired by Meunier, yet it is doubtful the 1913-14 exhibition transmitted that influence since many of the sculptures illustrated predate it.

The small sculptures of Max Kalish, paintings of Gerrit Beneker, and photographs of Lewis Hine and Margaret Bourke-White are interpreted as supporting a corporate strategy in the 1920s and 1930s of glorifying skilled laborers as partners in progress in order to instill worker loyalty. In Kalish’s New Power, for example, a brawny worker wields a pneumatic drill in a triumphant unity of man and machine. His Steelworker, an “Apollo of the skyscrapers,” parallels photographs of workers striding steel beams in the sky. Meantime, immigrant sculptors Saul Baizerman and Wolff, a professed anarchist active with the John Reed Clubs, made small-scale figures depicting an alternative view. Baizerman, the subject of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation, adopted a modernist vocabulary to represent unskilled immigrant laborers.

The book closes with the 1933 dedication of a Washington, D.C., monument honoring AFL President Samuel Gompers and with the 1935 formation of the breakaway CIO. The monument by Robert Aitken is described as a conservative tribute to exclusionary craft unionism, which often limited membership to American-born white males. The CIO’s industrial unionism became the new paradigm for collective action. In the many images of workers produced in the New Deal era—the topic of considerable existing scholarship that carries on where Dabakis’s book leaves off—these industrial workers take center stage.

Like the diverse world of U.S. labor it studies, Visualizing Labor seems to engage a shifting multitude of truths and perspectives about labor history, gender, and art. The reader will note many “pointing” phrases scattered throughout, explaining where the book has been, where it is going, and how the parts connect to overarching themes. In the end, the pieces do make a compelling whole. The book is a considerable achievement, illuminating an important area of American visual expression.

Cynthia Mills
University of Maryland