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Art & Money

by Eleanor Heartney
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The notion of the “Working Man,” once a staple of populist political rhetoric and Hollywood social drama, has become almost quaint -- as much a vestige of earlier times as is the apparently antiquated concept of class. In the era of outsourcing, crowd-sourcing, digitization and the triumph of global markets, labor is just something you save with ever more sophisticated electronic devices.

Needless to say, the wrenching changes wrought by technology, globalization and post-industrialization have irrevocably altered the meaning and nature of work and the economic security it brought to individuals and whole communities.

Nowhere is this clearer than in North Adams, Mass., once a thriving factory town dominated by the capacitor manufacturer Sprague Electric. After the company closed in the mid 1980s, the town languished until 1999 when it was born again as a cultural mecca with the establishment of the massive arts complex known as MASS MoCA. Cultural tourism has recharged the local economy, but without bringing back the kind of well-paid blue-collar jobs that were once the backbone of this community.

Itself an emblem of the art world’s uneasy relationship with labor -- remember the 2000 MoMA strike in which it was revealed that the median salary of the employees of America’s most elite art institution was a paltry $28,000? -- MASS MoCA is currently host to “The Workers,” an exhibition of nearly 40 works. Presciently conceived by co-curators Susan Cross and Carla Herrera-Prats before the Republican campaign against public-worker unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere made headlines, this exhibition presents 26 artists’ projects dealing with various facets of the contemporary labor force.

It is a fascinating show, both for its strengths and weaknesses. In format, the works range from documentary to conceptual, with one interactive, multi-faceted project by the Bureau for Open Culture involving a workshop-cum-beer garden located outside the museum proper.

Several artists deal with the global scope of the declining power of labor, with a focus on the peculiar place of workers in the failed worker’s paradises of the former Soviet Union, or the unintended consequences of the 1994 NAFTA agreement on the Mexican labor force.

Much of the work in the show focuses on manual labor and blue collar wage earners as emblems of the quintessential Worker. The proletarian ideal, if it can be called that, also makes a telling appearance in Stephanie Rothenberg’s Portraits: Second Life Workers, which reveals that workers have it no better in virtual reality than in the flesh-and-blood world.

Several of the more absorbing videos turn the camera on workers and let them discuss their battles with management and their struggles in the global marketplace. These include Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre’s feature length study of activist workers at the maquiladoras, the multinationally owned sweatshops in northern Mexico, and Oliver Ressler’s documentation of bazaar traders in post-Soviet Armenia caught between a failed socialism and a bankrupt capitalism.

Other works run the risk of treating real people as specimens. Brutally so, in the case of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, who here pays Iraq War veterans minimum wage to stand for hours facing a corner in the gallery, in a provocative tableau of humiliation. Or typically, in Claire Beckett’s photo portraits of soldiers heading off to the Middle East. Or allegorically, as in Adrian Paci’s video of a staged tableaux of day laborers grouped together like modern dancers on a detached mobile airline staircase, an image of workers left high and dry in the global economy.

Also included in the show are a number of works that present emblematic objects: Jason Dodge‘s pile of inside pockets cut from the uniforms of various workers, for instance, or Susan Collis’ MASS MoCA lab coat embroidered with faux stains and splatters. By connecting craft-oriented art activity with real blue-collar work, Collis intends to elevate the value of labor that ordinarily goes unnoticed.

A welcome, lighter note is sounded by Yoshua Okon’s work Canned Laughter, which comprises a series of videos and an assembly line installation from an imaginary canned laughter factory manned by actual unemployed workers.

The bloodlessly conceptual nature of many of these presentations reveals the enormous distance artistic depictions of labor have traveled since the days of Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton. Though the museum has made an effort to be welcoming to former Sprague employees -- to the extent of including several works that incorporate aspects of the factory’s history -- this show remains firmly directed at art world sophisticates.

For that audience, the show’s most interesting aspect is its revelation of the ambiguous role of artists in the international economy. Despite sporadic attempts by artists to identify themselves with the working class -- evidenced in the late 1960s by the formation of the Art Workers Coalition, or the industrial rhetoric and workman’s demeanor of Minimalist artists like Carl Andre, Robert Morris and Richard Serra -- artists tend to operate more as independent contractors or even, in the case of artists like Takashi Murakami or Jeff Koons, factory owners. This intermediate position may explain the detachment of much of the work.

In an intriguing essay in the catalogue that accompanies the show, cultural theorist Andrew Ross suggests that the “no collar” work style of artists in general has become the norm for companies seeking a non-unionized work force. These days, neither artists nor workers seem able to join together to advance their own interests, as industrial workers were able to do during the height of the union era. This sad fact may account for the nostalgic feeling conveyed by “The Workers.”

“The Workers,” May 29, 2011–Mar. 15, 2012, MASS MoCA, 87 Marshall Street, North Adams, MA, 01247.

ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a New York art critic and the author of Art & Today (2008) and many other books.