Tag Archives: worker’s rights

The Discarded

IMG_0702Walking through the El Anatsui exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art the first thing one encounters are massive veil-like curtains. Made of the bits and pieces of modern refuse, carefully folded into a loose color rich chain-mail, its delicate beauty and fragility envelopes. Close up the dazzling perfection of the crafted tapestries and sculptures imbue the viewer with a feeling that is all at once strength and grace. El Anatsui is an Ghanaian artist that creates works of art with what is unthinkingly thrown away. He works with collected bottle caps and metal wrappers, the tin tops and bits of wood that litter our every step and what he creates is Byzantine mosaic meets Medieval tapestry meets Gustave Klimpt meets material seduction, and global commerce. The results are stunning.

His work is site specific and the conceptual ideas flow through the entire exhibit: what moves, what changes, what we leave behind and how distance gains us a perspective and clarity of place while the intimacy of detail reveals tangible subtlety. His world view is one where nothing is fixed, there is beauty in the fluidity.

There are short films throughout that show in which Anatsui explains his process both practically (a typical wall hanging will take some 25 workers three months) and philosophically. My daughter ( an artist currently doing a turn as an art-world intern) and I wondered about the the more mundane aspects of the work as well: did he pay for people to collect the thousands of pieces of debris, if so how much? Were we right to feel discomfited by Anatsui’s use of unpaid interns- in a world that so freely abuses the rights of workers I balk at arguments that suggest “the honor” and “experience” of working for anyone is worth compromising our sense of what’s fair. Neither of these topics came up in the show, but a discarded argument has as much power as a discarded bottle cap when joined in powerful numbers.

El Anatsui’s work is still mesmerizingly beautiful despite the pragmatic musings of two pecuniarily pressured women. But having just finished Zola’s Rome, (despite never actually beginning it- but never mind that) the interior space of my head still rattled with Pierre’s lament, In a quivering voice Pierre was bold enough to answer: “I look for some kindness and justice.” (87)

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Was it all for nothing?

“They’d drive you nuts,” said Mac. “Men are bad enough, but the bugs’d drive you nuts.” (327)
– John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle

DSCI0013Jim looked evenly at him. “Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a raise in pay, you were fired and a new man put in? Did you ever work at a place where they talked about loyalty to the firm, and loyalty meant spying on the people around you? Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Nothing except hatred,” Harry said quietly. “You’re going to be surprised when you see that you stop hating people. I don’t know why that is, but that’s what usually happens.” (12)

A few weeks back, probably more but no matter, I was having a fun discussion with my comrade blogger Tocksin. We were talking about Steinbeck and he mentioned that Steinbeck had written his books at a “fourth grade level,” as he had wanted them to be completely accessible to the masses. I have a son in the fourth grade, I didn’t think my boy would get through a Steinbeck novel, but I wondered if he would listen to one read aloud to him. Tocksin suggested that I read In Dubious Battle to him, and as I am highly susceptible to suggestion, I did.

Mac said sharply, “You think we’re too important, and this little bang-up is too important. If the thing blew up right now it’d be worth it. A lot of the guys’ve been believing this crap about the noble American workingman, an’ the partnership of capital and labor. A lot of them are straight now. They know how much capital thinks of ’em, and how quick capital would poison ’em like a bunch of ants.” (321)

My son really seemed to enjoy it. He liked the somewhat coarse language and tough talk, and after a few primers on geo-politics, political systems, and a brief history of worker’s rights, he got into the drama of the apple orchard strike. I think he liked the idea of a huge campout, and he bore  the protracted discussions of how to keep people engaged in a fight and the morals of instigating and agitating for a higher cause admirably well.

His knuckles were white, where he gasped the rail. “Comrades! He didn’t want nothing for himself—” (343)

Last night we came to the final chapter. We had a bet going on how it would end: would the strikers high tail it, or would they stay and fight for their rights? As I read, he snuggled close to me and every four pages or so I would ask the little head tucked between my arm and body, “Are you still awake?” “Yes!” he would assure me with a small measure of offense. In the end we both lost the bet, because Steinbeck does not finish that particular question, but those painful, frightening questions like:  was it worth it? was it all for nothing?- those are the questions that haunt.  What was it all for? Why did we ever start? I looked down at my son, and — heard him softly snoring.

“But do you think they’ve got brains enough to see it?”
“Not brains, Jim. It don’t take brains. After it’s all over the thing’ll go on working down inside of ’em. They’ll know it without thinking it out.” (322)

I think that’s true. We can’t know what sticks in our guts, or in our hearts. Perhaps it helps to be awake, but even so, it’s in there- and my dramatic retelling at the breakfast table was…entertaining as well. We can’t really see what the seeds we sow today will grow up to be, but all these sweet moments, and the hard ones too- they work down inside of us.