By now just about everyone from Maine to Timbuktu has heard about Gov. Paul LePage’s order to remove the labor mural from the walls of the state’s Labor Department. Friends I have not heard from for years have written and even my father, who suffers from severe dementia, got on the phone to ask after the governor.
LePage’s actions are hardly out of step with the long march of organized conservatism. Who, after all, could forget New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s rabid attempt to revoke the lease of the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 when it dared to exhibit “Sensation,” a collection of work by a group of British artists? Taxpayers, he argued, should not have to be exposed to such “disgusting” things.
In 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft expressed an equally protective concern for the moral sensibilities of the public ordering curtains to be installed to block public view of Lady Justice, the art deco statue whose left breast stood exposed in the chilly Great Hall of Justice. For $8,000 of taxpayer money, Ashcroft made Justice not just blind, but invisible, too.
There have been as many explanations for this right-wing aversion to “art” as there have been orders for its removal — perhaps the uncertainty it often represents, the inconvenient truths it highlights, the disruption of fixed ideas and the so-called “natural” order of things. Art also can make visible those long hidden from history, including the shoe and paper mill workers, female riveters, Bath ironworkers, and other working men and women whose images were nowhere to be seen in the Maine state Capitol until 2008 when Judy Taylor painted them onto a wall and into public memory.
As curator Diane Mullin argued during the recent exhibit “Exploring democracy and citizenship through Art” at the University of Minnesota, “Democracy is about representation, representing someone’s voice, representing someone’s position, having a seat at the table.” Indeed, one of the images expunged from the wall is of a knot of people casting their votes into a ballot box, an image sure to send many a tyrant off the wall.
But in this case, the visual arts have offered residents more than a candid portrait of Maine’s laboring past: It has provided a peek into the hearts and minds of policymakers who want to cripple its future. Having made working people visible, art now is exposing the well-financed and highly organized forces against it and, I would argue, democracy itself.
Whose images, we might ask, dance like sugar plums before the eyes of Gov. LePage?
There are, of course, the cigar-chomping bosses behind the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank funded by billionaires such as David Koch. But if you want to see the truly organized who are writing the Republican, and LePage’s policy scripts, just look up the American Legislative Exchange Council and its senior director of membership and development, Chaz Cirame.
There you will find a list of legislative priorities complete with legal briefs, user-friendly language and talking points, available to legislators perhaps too busy to investigate on their own, some who actually believe this stuff, or others swayed by the “nonpartisan” label on the Web page.
What you will not find are the “people” who finance these so-called policies in the public interest.
For that you need to go to Media Matters Action Network where the art of money — big money — is on display. Whose interests do we find in need of balance with those people on the labor mural? Far too many to list, but they begin with: the Walton Family Foundation (assets: $1,383,589,798) and David Koch (assets: $85,276,005), then move on and on. Cigna (assets: $1,393,516), Ava Marie (assets: $11,952,496), Exxon/Mobil, and Eli Lilly … Organized capital such as this never is on the wall; its interests carefully cloaked but always at work.
Who needs art? Maine does. Democracies can’t live without it. That’s because art can make you think, and that’s always dangerous for those who claim to speak in the “people’s” name but organize night and day to keep their wages down, end their right to bargain, deny them health care and push their history off the wall. Art makes democracy breathe.
Ardis Cameron is director of the American and New England Studies Program at the University of Southern Maine.