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Labor in the Eyes of Artists: Zines, Scenes and Inbetweens

Exhibition Essay



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When researching labor in art, individual artists are not easily identifiable, and what emerges instead are various movements within the theme “labor in art.”  In the early twentieth century, political labor issues were prevalent in American society.  Politically charged socialist, anarchist and communist magazines represented the voice of the working class.  Artwork was used to illustrate their stance.  New Masses, one of the longer running periodicals (1926-1948), was a journal that emphasized art more than most other radical magazines.   New Masses displayed imagery that starkly revealed the injustices faced by working class Americans. Overall, periodicals that focused on labor issues and political dissention were considered radical and intended to be by and for the people. Likewise, the editorial boards of these periodicals aligned themselves with the working classes.

Striking connections can be made between early twentieth century radical press periodicals and zines.  Because zines, first known as fanzines, are not official publications and created by individuals or small groups, they have full license of expression. Therefore, zines are able to be politically radical, unapologetic in their blatant honesty, and rely on artistic play. Zines offer one of the purest forms of freedom of speech.

On a completely different end of the spectrum from zines was the installation of the Federal Art Project (FAP), a department of the Works Progress Administration that started in 1935.  This government-funded program was coordinated under the Franklin Roosevelt administration with multiple motivations. Part of the New Deal was the Federal Art Projects that assisted artists who were living in poverty and desperate for a way to earn a living. While the FAP employed artists, it also served as a propaganda tool.  The artwork did not portray labor struggles and worker strikes.  Instead, the artists were encouraged to create imagery of vital, healthy employment. In the wake of the depression and economic collapse, this was a way for the government to demonstrate that capitalism and democracy were thriving.  The most prominent and visible results of the WPA include murals on public buildings such as post offices, libraries, and schools.

World War II posters were also generated and funded by the U.S. government.  Their meaning was very clear with messages that encouraged all citizens on the home front to be involved in the war effort.  The poster aesthetic represented labor as a patriotic duty.  Slacking on the job was even portrayed as supporting the enemy.  Posters also depicted management and labor working together for the good of the war effort.  Tensions between labor and management were deliberately omitted from the artwork in order to avoid conflict with the government’s war production needs.

 The more recent movement, Occupy Wall Street (#ows), was derived by American citizens fed up with the inequalities in capitalism and wealth distribution that became grotesquely evident in the stock market scandals of 2011. The mission as written on the #ows website states that it is a movement “... fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.” The call for participation in the movement announced: “The time has come to deploy this emerging stratagem against the greatest corrupter of our democracy: Wall Street, the financial Gomorrah of America.” The literature produced by the Occupy Wall street movement is included in this exhibit to show how issues between big business, government and working class Americans continues.  The posters on display are directly from the movement.

Labor is illustrated in twentieth century American art in many different forms, styles and with multiple motivations.  Juxtaposed in this exhibition are the artworks created by the people and government-funded artwork.  Artwork was used to present labor unrest and injustices, labor cooperations, and labor production needs.