In the sense that I have continued to dwell on the “Dignity of Labor,” I would say that it was a success. Featuring work by artists Brian Zimmerman and John Dillemuth installed amongst SDMA’s collections and spaces, a screening of the documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class and a live performance by “primal party rock band” LUMPS, the evening’s events were meant to encourage us to consider the idea of the dignity of labor in the context of this year’s overall SSS theme: What does a city need? Each week is meant to offer another layer, proposition or answer to that question, so it seems fair to take the SSS at its word and entertain it seriously: What do dignity and/or labor have to do with what a city needs? And where and how does art enter into this conversation?
First off, this phrase: “the dignity of labor.” It is so very loaded, and yet imprecise. Is there dignity in all labor? For whom? What does dignity even mean, anyway? And, for that matter, what is meant by labor? Its connotations are specific, and its use requires consideration, particularly in the context of SDMA’s exhibition Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement. In my view, this phrase refers to particular kinds of labor, and particular kinds of laborers. What kinds? Well, perhaps the kinds described in Class Dismissed: the so-called working class or blue collar. We do not speak of computer programmers or office managers in these terms, though they certainly perform labor. When we speak of dignity in labor, it is usually in reference to the farmer, the mechanic, etc.—manual laborers. Similarly, there is also the artisan, craftsmanship strain of this discourse, seen in carpentry, woodworking, masonry, etc.
This is where Gustav Stickley, a furniture manufacturer who “offered customers a complete lifestyle based on his philosophy of simple design and quality materials,” becomes relevant. Stickley and the Arts & Crafts Movement generally, were very much a product of turn-of-the-20th century nostalgia for a supposedly simpler and more just pre-industrial era. Nostalgia was accompanied by a romanticization and aestheticization of the working classes, and of the products of their labor. This nostalgia, and the romanticization, should be quite familiar to us in the 21st century. The more stuff we acquire, the more shackled we are to electronic devices, the more “work” conjures up images of overflowing email inboxes and never-ending Skype meetings, the more we seem to be wistfully looking back to an imagined past where people made things and had tangible skills. The white-collar economy, built on speculation, inequality and hype, falters. What replaces it? I’m not sure, but judging from the popularity of “handmade,” “locally-sourced/produced,” “DIY,” etc., narratives and products these days, I’d wager that some of the answers floating around aren’t so different from those Stickley and his peers came up with over a century ago.
But what of art, museums and cities? While I was unable to view the Stickley exhibition—it was closed for a private viewing by the Circle Donors and their guests—I would guess that the exhibition of his furniture in a museum space would run somewhat counter to the ethos under which it was originally produced. In contrast to Brian Zimmerman’s impossible chairs, low and precarious, crumpled in corners, and towering on stilts, Stickley’s furniture is, by definition, for use. John Dillemuth’s hybrid sculptures require that we interact with them, but they are not exactly utilitarian. Instead they are fantastical and absurd renderings of functional objects: a wheelchair rocking chair, a pedal-powered bellows (of sorts), etc. The hand and labor of the artist are evident in all three, as indeed they are in the surrounding works of art in SDMA’s collections. What is also evident, however, is the scarcity of other types of labor (and other types of laborers), particularly of the “dignified” variety addressed by Class Dismissed and invoked by Stickley.
Fundamentally, these are questions of class. Class Dismissed asks us to consider how the working class is represented and framed by television; I would encourage us to also consider how the working class is represented and framed by museums, through this event and overall. “Dignity” in the context of “labor” is generally charged, and becomes even more so in certain settings. In attaching “dignity” to “labor,” it is possible that we participate in the erasure of a history of elevating some types of work and some types of workers over others, and of romanticizing class and class interaction. There are real consequences to such erasures and wishful thinking; they affect people’s lives, particularly in an urban setting. In the end, dignity and labor—as real things, not abstract notions—have a lot to do with what a city needs. Acknowledgement of the value and importance of all workers and all forms of work, as demonstrated through services, legal protections and representation, is integral to the success and vitality of a city. We all contribute, and we should all be included and addressed with equal consideration, and on equal terms.