Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Labor and Industry



      If you drive around in the United States long enough, you will come upon a holiday. The Caravan’s first holiday turned out to be Labor Day. We were in the Midwest, so why not celebrate Labor Day near the city that I always considered the capital of Labor—Detroit. Planning ahead, Knightsmama reserved a space for the Caravan at Camp Dearborn, about thirty minutes or so from ground zero. For my peculiar set of values, aesthetics, and sense of irony, Camp Dearborn was perfect. First off, Camp Dearborn is not in Dearborn, Michigan, but in Milford, Michigan. In the late forties, when Dearborn was flush with Ford Motors money and Mayor Orville Hubbard was feeling all segregationist and such, he created this 626 acre park as what he called “The People’s Country Club.” There is so much wrong and right about its creation all at the same time, it makes your head spin. It is an odd vista where racism and populism and capitalism join. The camp includes six lakes, a golf course, a pool, a putt-putt course (which is not being maintained, as Captain Crunch and I can attest), hundreds of full-service spaces (meaning water, electrical, and sewage hookups). The camp also offers plots for pop-ups and tent camping, and several dozen of these cool tent-cabin kind of things that groups and families rent and string lights between for a very festive but bizarre appearance that somehow blends refugee camp with army bivouac with Fifties family car camping with hippy music festival. I would love to gather about a score of my closest and rowdiest friends for a four-day weekend there. Another life, I suppose.

Captain Crunch at DIA,
a casting of Rodin's Thinker

       What really caught my fancy was the happy regularity of the section where we parked the Caravan, all the RVs appointed perfectly in curving rows, cars parked in front, lawn chairs arranged around fire pits, grills smoking, wooden picnic tables covered in lovely festive cloth, and the kids coming and going on bicycles. It was as if it were 1950 and all of us GIs had returned from war, reunited with our sweethearts, and bought our own little homes in the new sub-division at the edge of town. Everything was so clean, so orderly, so similar, so perfect. In addition, of course, in the middle of all the middle-aged, middle- and working-class families were several large, class A motor-homes, piloted by seventy-year old retirees, your “millionaire next door” types. They are the equivalent to Mr. Wilson of The Dennis the Menace Show, if you can remember back that far. If you can, you are probably close to becoming Mr. Wilson (or Mrs, Wilson) yourself. Just for a few days, I could imagine myself being a regular part of good old America celebrating a good old American holiday.
      That it was Labor Day just made the fantasy all the more potent. Did you know that Labor Day became a national holiday under President Grover Cleveland in 1894 in an effort to respond positively to labor unions after pretty much the entire government, federal, state, and local, helped squash the Pullman strikes, which left 30 dead and 57 injured? It seems as if Waller Grant is revisiting the theme we discovered in Kent: the forces of hope versus the forces of power and fear. There are other instances of these struggles that I have not explored but maybe I will have to turn to at some point. One thing I discovered reading web pages today is that Eugene Debs was arrested for his support of the Pullman strikes. It turns out that Lyman Trumbull was one of his lawyers. Do you remember William Grant and Nora Lilley Grant from a previous post, my grandparents? They named my father “Lyman” after Lyman Trumbull, former Senator from Illinois, Republican, author of the 13th amendment to the Constitution and late blooming populist. So I am sitting here wondering, whose idea was this: William’s, the coal miner? Or Nora, the small town school teacher? Who was the populist? Both?
      One of the benefits of joining the crowd and setting up the Caravan in a popular, and somewhat populist, RV camp is that you meet people who just might be able to offer good advice. Knightsmama and Captain Crunch are the outgoing ones among us, So soon she struck up a conversation with the folks in the spot next to us. A day or two later, I joined on the gabfests. It turns out that they (I am terrible with names, so let’s call them Herb and Janet) are full-time RVs who originally lived in Michigan, but had sold their home and hit the road, doing what they wanted when they weren’t visiting sons and daughters in various parts of the country, including Texas, which, by what the wife said, was, to her frustration, most of the time. They belong to a group out of Livingston, Texas (which saves them on taxes and such), called “The Escapees.” I have to say that these Escapees were extremely helpful. Through the power of male shame, Herb inspired me to open up my battery compartment to discover, to my surprise, that I have only one 12-volt battery. He had six such batteries. Boy, did my penis shrink upon hearing that! But he gave me some distilled water and we got what little voltage I have, up and running fully. In addition, Herb was full of sage experience and calm encouragement. He walked me through the pluses and minuses of various generators, which Knightsmama and I suspected we needed when we attempted our two weeks in Acadia, Maine. Knightsmama already had reserved us a space in the National Park without electrical hook-up. That’s the thing about RVers and RV culture. Everyone wants you to succeed. RVers love the way they are living and no matter what kind of dunce you are, they want you to join them.
     When I told Herb that we were planning on going into Canada, he wished us luck. I asked, if he had ever travelled in Canada and he said, “No.”
      Surprised, I ask why. Captain Crunch was sitting with us playing with their puppy, Jenny. Another thing about full-timers is that they almost all have little dogs. Herb looked over at the Captain and back at me and said, “Well, I have too many guns on board.”
      The mention of guns always gives me the shutters and always gives the Captain a jolt of adrenalin. So, for the Captain’s entertainment, I asked how many. It felt like Herb listed at least a half dozen assorted rifles, shot guns, and handguns. And this is the thing about being peace-nick, no matter how unfaithful to the cause one might be in the short run, at a certain point our little limp manliness decides to express its resolve.
      “Well,” I said proudly, “we won’t have that difficulty, will we?” Captain Crunch frowned, as if ashamed his father did not tote an arsenal around in his storage compartments.
       Herb is a decent man, by all that I could tell, and knew my type and wasn’t looking for a fight. “You know, we do a lot of boon docking in the desert and we get rattlers pretty close to the trailer.” We all stood around the picnic table for a while, talking about the desert, and looking at the two Sandhill Cranes that were wondering around near our trailers. Then, it being time to head toward Detroit, the Captain and I excused ourselves.
      Herb and I had discovered a point where the Venn Diagram of our personalities separate. I am sure we wish each other well. Personally, I can accept that Herb feels the need to carry firearms. I mean, I have no need for guns. Maybe someday I might. I think people ought to be able to own a couple. Hell, I don’t trust the government anymore than the Tea-Partiers do. But, geez, I’d rather give peace a chance. I prefer to sit on the side of the room with MLK and Gandhi and Tolstoy. One of my problems is that I have too much music in my head like John Prine’s

            Your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore,
            It's already overcrowded with your dirty little war.
            Now Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reason for.
            Your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore.

      Still, regardless of my many degrees in English, I am not so sure, I have the ability to reason with a rattler, whether he comes in serpent or human form.

       We had a great time in Camp Dearborn and Detroit, enough so that we extended our stay by a day. As I admitted in a previous post, Waller Grant had begun needing a slightly slower pace. At the Camp, the boys found time to swim, ride bikes around, and make friends with some Yankee kids, some of whom, I believe, Dr. J. is still texting with several weeks later. I skipped a a Sunday afternoon Tigers game thinking it was going to rain. Big mistake. Yet, Knightsmama and I found some pleasant urban style paved biking paths. We headed into Dearborn a couple of times—to visit The Henry Ford Museum (yes, I know the name is The Henry Ford, but that just sounds too strange to me), Greenfield Village, and the Rouge Plant (I skipped out on Rouge, heading to a downtown Dearborn Starbucks for a little writing time). Our blooper reel will feature some failed highway shenanigans, attempting to buy diesel and Major Dude’s refusal to accept that one location had perfectly fine fuel even though the price was dramatically lower than everyone else’s. “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true,” I sagely, and this time, wrongly, pontificated. I saw enough of The Henry Ford, but I really wished that we had had more time in Greenfield Village.
       I feel the same way about the Detroit Institute of Art, which has been in the news lately as the City of Detroit considers looting its world class art collection to pay its bills. Good God. Maybe this is the direction the city fathers and mothers will eventually go, but to do so is to give up, to admit that one is no longer a world class city. It would be both a symbolic and deadly honest admission of a city’s failure to envision and create a future—but, as far as I have been able to learn, I guess, that is the story of Detroit, from the very beginning, but especially in the 70s. I wish I could explain my feelings as we drove through Detroit and saw its inner devastation. Magnificent buildings, not just houses, but great granite banks, once handsome office buildings. It is a city experiencing cancer and cutting away on itself leaving gaps and half blocks of empty land, like scars.
       Still, the collection at the DIA is stunning. I hate to say it, but I ran through the European collection in a way that one scans through an Ipod playlist listening only to the greatest hits, skipping tunes you don’t immediately recognize: Bruegel’s “Wedding Dance.” Caravaggio’s “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” Artemisia Gentileschi's "Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holifernes," Courbet’s “Bather Sleeping by a Brook,” and “Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait.”
      I had begun in the American Wings and approached it more leisurely. John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” a particularly shocking painting. I particularly enjoyed the African American Collection and discovered the work of Hughie Lee-Smith, whose work has a lonely, haunted quality about it similar to Edward Hopper’s. It is funny how reading about an artist can make you see something more fully that you were sort of seeing before. I would not have been able to connect Lee-Smith’s work to Hooper’s, but once I read it I can’t quite separate them now. Another work I really appreciated was a video called "The Kitchen V:  Carrying the Milk."  The artist, Marina Abramovic, stands in an old kitchen holding a bowl of milk. She is dressed as someone in a Dutch Masters painting, starkly in black dress, hair pulled back tightly. The video is on continuous loop, and I approached somewhere near the beginning. Of course, I didn’t know where in the progress of the film I joined. I watched her for almost the full thirteen minutes. I just sat down and stayed and looked. I liked the way the viewing experienced was controlled by the unknown narrative and my not knowing where in the narrative I was. This is, of course, quite unlike the normal viewing experience of other works in a museum in which the viewing experience begins when you begin looking. There is no “where am I in this story?” experience at all. In the long run, this work throws so much meaning making back into the viewer; it becomes a meditation and a mining of associations and feelings about women, work, nurture, nutrition, then children, family, responsibility, love. A wonderful work, I think.
      But the great experience at the Detroit Institute of Art is, without a doubt, The Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera. Rivera created the frescos that grace the four walls of the great Garden Court of the museum in 1933-34, in the heart of the Great Depression. The experience of them, today, is close to overwhelming. If I tried to experience the rest of the museum as a version of greatest hits, this room forbade such an approach. The room is not a song or collection of songs, but a concept album, an opera. So many separate parts functioning alone but also referring and referencing and repeating and refuting other portions of the room. On the one hand, it is referencing the Renaissance and Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. On the other, its method hints at the great modernist fragmentary organization in works like The Waste Land or The Bridge or even Winesburg, Ohio, in which a work of art is conceived of in parts, but as greater than the sum of the parts.

North Wall, Detroit Industry mural
    The murals, seen as one work of art, are startlingly ambitious in scope and intention. Here is the energizing force of nature and humanity brought together. Nature fully expressed, root to fruit. Nature tamed and redirected to the benefit of humankind. Human beings as thinkers and creators. Human beings as makers—Homo faber, as Sam Keen would call us in The Apology for Wonder. Industry and machines as the creation of humans. Industry and machines as rooted in the forces of nature. Organized humanity as a force of nature, brought together, creating bigger, better, more than any individual human could. Native, American peoples and European peoples. Native intelligence. The Western Intellectual tradition. Pantheism and Christianity. Christ being vaccinated in the glories of Western science. The four elements of steel, the four races of humans, labor and management, and finally the machines of peace and the machines of war. It is a large and complete vision, and it seems to me to be an honest one, beyond ideology.
      Which, of course, means that the various ideologies have had to complain. It does not praise capitalism enough. It is an insult to the Fords, who helped fund it. It praises capitalism too much. Rivera was a communist, right? What’s he doing taking corporate money? It is too fully steeped in Catholicism. It is not Christian enough. It’s too classical and contains nudity. It’s too modern and contains machinery. It’s not American and is created by a Mexican. It is a tribute to the Anglo-Protestant work ethic, which has been exploitive of native peoples. So much to complain about.
       So much to complain about, most likely, because it is so overwhelming in its particulars as well as in its overall expression. And if one can’t understand it in a glance, can’t place it in a category quickly, can’t pigeon hole it and then dismiss it, then it must be a threat. And though I was not able to live with the work—which I believe would take many repeated visits, as one would visit and revisit a cathedral—I do believe the work is a threat. It is a treat to all of us because it eventually does move beyond ideology. In the long run, I don’t believe this work is a summative work. I don’t think it presents itself as final statement. This work is threatening because it is, ironically, one man’s temporary vision about where all of humanity has arrived in the industrial age. It this sense, it is a Romantic work, the work of a man who envisions himself as heroic. We have progressed. Progress is not evil. But what have we progressed to, he asks? What is progress doing to us? It reminds me, therefore, of the early 17th and 18th century essays, those that title themselves, “On . . .,” such as “On Work” or “On Smell” or “On Cruelty.” No one was offering a final statement. They were all just trying to contribute something to the long conversation that we humans are having with each other over the generations. I read Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals as an essay: “On Labor and Industry.”
      To see these murals, over Labor Day Weekend, in a city built on industry, but in a city that has essentially abandoned itself, well, I don’t know. That is part of a longer conversation.

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful description of a work that was painted long before Detroit declared bankruptcy. I wonder what he would think now? Reading your description I can recall sitting and staring at the same work, being overtaken by all that is represented. Of course, I, in no way, could've put the words together that you have. Thanks.
    Being somewhat slow I realized as I was reading this that today's blog is the same "serialization" that writers wrote for the periodicals of the 18th and 19th centuries: It's your book! Write on, brother!

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