Renée Loth

Revisionist art history

Maine’s governor sends a message about labor by removing a cherished mural

Governor Paul LePage said the 36-foot mural “sends a message that we’re one-sided, and I don’t want to send that message.’’ The mural was removed and taken to an undisclosed location. Governor Paul LePage said the 36-foot mural “sends a message that we’re one-sided, and I don’t want to send that message.’’ The mural was removed and taken to an undisclosed location. (Reuters)
By Renée Loth
April 2, 2011

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GOVERNOR PAUL LePage of Maine and his staff don’t know much about history. Labor history, that is. And they don’t want anybody else to know, either.

Last weekend the governor ordered a 36-foot wide mural depicting scenes from Maine’s labor past removed from the state capitol in Augusta and taken to an undisclosed location. LePage, a colorful and pugnacious Tea Party favorite who has been governor for two months, is wasting no time letting the public know “which side are you on,’’ as the old labor hymn has it.

“I’m trying to send a message that the state of Maine looks at employees and employers equally, neutrally, and on balance,’’ he said. “The mural sends a message that we’re one-sided, and I don’t want to send that message.’’

He complained that the mural — which had been hanging in the state Department of Labor — omits the contributions of industry.

Uh-oh. Also on the state capitol grounds is the Maine State Museum, which celebrates “the historical origins of Maine’s resource-based industries and agriculture such as the granite quarrying, wood harvesting and the sea,’’ according to promotional materials. Exhibits include “The Lion,’’ an 1846 steam locomotive, and a full-size textile loom. Will LePage now cover these symbols of Maine’s industrial history in velvet drapes so as not to offend the state’s “neutral’’ sensibilities?

The labor mural was commissioned by the state in 2008 and painted by contemporary artist Judy Taylor. Its eleven panels mix black and white and color images of worker protests, strikes, and elections in the familiar two-dimensional style of Thomas Hart Benton. Among its recognizable figures is Rosie the Riveter, symbol of women’s contributions to the war effort, and Frances Perkins, labor secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first female Cabinet member in US history.

Uh-oh again. Perkins is a beloved daughter of Maine, born in Boston but buried with her family in Newcastle. As labor secretary she encouraged the inclusion of artists, writers, and musicians in the Works Progress Administration, which, according to the Frances Perkins Center, created more than 5,000 jobs for artists during the Great Depression. The center “deplores the secret removal of the Maine Department of Labor’s mural,’’ it said in a statement.

Mount Holyoke College, where Perkins was an undergraduate, also is unhappy with the governor’s actions. President Lynn Pasquerella wrote LePage earlier this week saying that removing the mural “conjures thoughts of the rewriting of history prevalent in totalitarian regimes.’’

LePage is climbing on the antilabor bandwagon that is currently rolling through the states. But his stunt isn’t even original. In 1995, the new Republican majority in Washington, under the command of Newt Gingrich, removed a 5-by-10-foot painting by the artist Ralph Fasanella from a House labor committee room. The painting depicted the 1912 “Bread and Roses’’ strike in Lawrence, Mass., led mostly by immigrant women textile workers.

Both these works of public art tell a narrative of the long struggle to gain the standard of living Americans now enjoy — a struggle not by coddled bureaucrats in the Registry of Motor Vehicles but by workers in mines and factories who risked their lives. The government once commissioned such art because the notion that there is dignity in every worker was a shared American value. Now a rising group of iconoclasts wants to efface that memory.

To the victor go the spoils, and all that. LePage won the election (albeit with 38 percent in a three-way race) and understandably wants to put his stamp on his administration. History is replete with efforts to adjust the past: St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad in 1924 and then changed back to St. Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991. All ideological stripes have their targets, from the Dixie Chicks to the giant Buddhas of Bamyan.

Still, art is long; governors’ terms are short. History may be written by the winners, but they shouldn’t have the right to blithely airbrush the parts of America’s portrait that they find unflattering.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.