Arts/Culture

“The [R]evolution of Food Chain Workers in Art: the Rise of the Working Class in the Modern Era”

By Julia Fernandez (FCWA Intern,  UCLA art history major)

I am an undergraduate senior in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. My goal as an Art Historian is to utilize the history of art to focus on the visualization of labor and workers in popular art forms. In the following, I summarize significant moments in art history where the worker or working-class person has been the subject of art work. I hope this will show the power that an image holds in visualizing a cause for an entire group of people; and as a result, serve as an inspiration for the Food Chain Workers Alliance to partner with artists in creating new art forms in support of labor and workers.

18th and 19th Century: Paintings

The history of art has often been plagued by elitist thoughts and subject matter. This may be credited to the fact that prior to the 18th century, art consisted mainly of religious imagery, history painting, and portraits of the royal or wealthy classes. However, in the mid-18th century, images began to evolve, becoming more naturalistic or humanistic. There was special attention to human capacity for feeling, sensibility, and emotions. Therefore, art started to become more sympathetic to the feelings and emotions of the ordinary and everyday person, especially the suffering of the lower and working classes while critiquing the wealthy class. In the early 19th century, artist Eugene Delacroix depicted the uprising of the workers in the French Revolution in his painting titled “Liberty Leading the People” from 1830 [Figure 1] . In this image, Liberty is seen as a working-class woman leading the working class rebellion. This painting was meant to inspire workers at that time. After the French Revolution, artist grew tired of the idealized image, and preferred to depict scenes of reality; thus, creating the artistic style known as Realism. Several Realist artists, for the first time in history, depicted the rural or urban laborer as the primary subject matter, in large-scale works of art. For example, Gustave Courbet depicted two figures performing back-breaking labor in his 1849 painting, “The Stone Breakers” [Figure 2] . Additionally, artists themselves, like Jean-Francois Millet, came from working or peasants classes, so therefore were able to further sympathize with the rural workers. Millet’s most famous painting, “The Gleaners” from 1857 [Figure 3], not only depicts rural laborers, but Millet paints them in a way to inspire an emotional response from the viewer. Millet is telling his viewer about the political situation at the time, and puts the rural laborer in social and political context. Realism was not limited to Europe. American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner also depicted the everyday struggles of the working class. His painting from 1894, “The Thankful Poor,” shows the humility and dignity of people, simply trying to make ends meet.

20th and 21st Century: Photographs, Murals, Prints, Posters

During the early 20th century, the Great Depression brought the most attention to the working class in America. The rural workers suffered the most during this time; forcing many to become migrant workers. In 1935, photographer Dorothea Lange captured the distress, worry, and strength of these migrant workers. Her most famous image is of Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant pea farmer. The image from 1935 is known as “Migrant Mother, Nipomo Valley” [Figure 5] , and captures the worry and strength of a working mother with her children, who huddle beside her for comfort. When the image was submitted to the San Francisco paper, it brought attention to these starving workers, and food was soon rushed to their aid. This is a great example in seeing the power and voice that a single image can have upon a nation. During this same time, artists in Mexico were also giving voices to their workers. After the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, several artists took to the streets and created large-scale murals or began printing collectives in support of the working people. Three of the most famous muralists, known in Spanish as “Los Tres Grandes,” included Jose Diego Maria Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Additionally, printing collectives, such as El Taller de Grafica Popular, produced socially and politically relevant subject matter mainly dealing with agrarian workers [Figure 6] . Influenced by such printing collectives, artists in the U.S. used the political poster to express support for the workers. For example, the Chicago Women’s Graphic Collective produced a poster in support of the United Farm Workers, and calls for Americans to stop buying lettuce and grapes [Figure 7] . Again, we see the power of an image in mobilizing an idea or cause.

Art to increase the dialogue of food chain workers

As seen throughout world history, a single image has the power to express the voice of an entire group of people. Additionally, as history has shown us, art is no longer solely for the elite, but instead belongs to the entire race of people to express their struggles and triumphs. Art is an essential tool in the dialogue of social, political, and cultural issues. Images have been partners to movements worldwide and must continue to be so. Therefore, it is essential that food chain workers and supporters in the labor movement continue to take advantage of the use of art to advance their cause. An image can capture and expose the struggles and injustices that may be hidden to the world. As the old adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Therefore, let’s continue to utilize art to visualize the voice of the food chain workers across the nation and the world.