“Let Them Eat Cupcake!”
by Darrell Taylor (2014)
Art must provoke. A work of art must challenge aesthetic expectations and tired clichés of its medium. Whether “rules” of style, color, subject matter, taste, or social norms of propriety, power, and normalcy, art must provoke--or it is not art, but interior decoration, a prop for tyranny and a tranquilizer for the soul.
I “paint” with appropriated images from the web, and from my previous work—hundreds of them—resizing, painting over, and distorting in Photoshop on the computer, to make them fit together into a collage-mural that pretends to be a photograph taken with a single shutter click. I have been making these “surreallegories” for more than twenty years, adapting my methods as photo manipulation software has grown more powerful. My work tends towards satire, politics, and critique of exploitation and human suffering. It skewers, where possible, the sacred cows and distorted “values” of class society. (See www.photocollagist.com for a sample of prior work.)
The subject matter of the current work is personal. My grandfather and grandmother, three aunts, my mother, and other family members worked for Commander Mills in Oklahoma—a cotton mill bought by the town founder, Charles Page, in South Carolina, then shipped and reassembled in my little town just outside Tulsa. My brother was a union man—a steamfitter for the Sheffield steel mill in that same town. On graduating high school, I worked at a non-union cardboard box factory, as did my father after I left for college. I spent my professional life as a professor of philosophy and member of PSC-CUNY, affiliated with the AFT Local #2334 union in New York. I learned early to see society from the bottom up--from the standpoint of those who actually do the work, make the products, and live in fear of the corporations that decide their fate. When the cotton mill and steel mill were closed, our town, as I knew it, died—cut in half by an interstate highway, and offering no viable alternative job options.
I heard from family members in Oklahoma, just as Mainers have been known to say, “God bless the mill! They put bread on our table.” And it is true that often the mill jobs were better than the alternatives, including hunger. But working conditions were tough. Temperatures would reach 115 degrees with 90% humidity on the spinning floor. Work days were long and exhausting. When mill owners lost profits after the Great War, and instituted the “stretch out,” increasing hours, reducing wages, the people had had enough. So in 1934 strikes occurred spontaneously in many states, especially in the non-union South—for fair wages and working conditions, and most state governors declared martial law and called out the National Guard to break the strikes. Strikers and by-standers were shot and killed. Biddeford workers walked out, and the Governor used the National Guard to force them back to work, and to discourage organizing, though violence in Maine was, thankfully, minimal. We no longer live in a Maine based in manufacturing (shoes, paper, fish canning, cotton sheeting, etc.), but one based in tourism, amusements, banking, insurance, and paper-shuffling.
Labor struggle and the situation of mill workers in England led Friedrich Engels to write The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, and, after introducing Marx to his work he collaborated with him on The Communist Manifesto four years later, beginning a partnership that lasted until after Marx's death, when Engels set about editing the multiple volumes of Marx's major work, Capital. It might thus be fair to say that political history from the mid-19th century to the current day was largely formed by conflicts arising originally in the cotton mills. (My satirical tribute is to show Marx and Engels arriving at the mills on a sight-seeing bus tour.)
Political art is doubtless as old as art, itself, but it has flourished since the 19th century. Think of the work of Goya, Géricault, David, Grosz, Rivera, Picasso, Daumier, Orozco, Ernst, the Surrealists, and in our own time, Ai Weiwei, Kara Walker, Barbara Kruger, and scores of others. These giants saw ways to call public attention to injustice and to the struggles of the working poor, whether in China, England, the South, or the mill towns of Massachusetts and Maine.
This mural is dedicated to the working people of Southern Maine, now and before. In the past two years Biddeford/Saco was embroiled again in labor struggles of national significance—the Hostess Cupcake strike and subsequent bankruptcy and sale of the bakery to preclude fair negotiation. I have fictionally conflated the mill struggles of old with these recent events. Recently the Market Basket conflicts and resolution have provided another case study for Maine's labor history. The pattern of boom and bust runs through so much of our history: the rise and fall of Great Northern Paper in Millinocket, where the old mills, a high-wage resource for workers only 50 years ago, are now being demolished for resale as scrap.
Biddeford is pursuing a more optimistic path, hoping to convert the mills into enterprise zones and business incubators. Time will tell whether this strategy can succeed. Though “Let Them Eat Cupcake!” takes a cynic's satirical view of capital's ventures in effecting change, it is my hope that the “rebirth” of Maine's old mill towns take full account of the needs of working people, and not serve merely as more trickle-up profit-taking by corporate owners and investors.
NOTE: Many satirical references and jokes in the picture will require a bit of searching. I rendered the historical past of the mills in semi-transparent black and white to suggest the “ghosts” that haunt these old buildings and streets.
This is a work of fictional art: any resemblance to actual existing people, corporations, places, or events is...somewhat...coincidental.