Labor’s Centennial, 1881-1981,1985

Danielle Fallon

Robert Rauschenberg’s 1985 print Labor’s Centennial is of particular interest in terms of art historical methodology because of its profound association with both American history as well as Marxist theory. Rauschenberg created the print to publicize the 1981 centennial of the organized American labor movement. Obviously, the overt socio-political appearance of the work lends itself to Rauschenberg’s own political activation and social awareness, themes he heavily alluded to in other prints such as Retroactive and Earth Day. In Labor’s Centennial, Rauschenberg incorporated both explicit and implicit representations of the AFL-CIO, as well as collaborative and relevant allusions to modernization and reform.

Art historian Robert Mattison once said, “The best approach to interpreting Rauschenberg’s art is to study a theme rather than an isolated work.”(1) Following Mattison’s argument, it is absolutely integral to fully grasp the extent of Rauschenberg’s political fervor in order to understand Labor’s Centennial. Because Rauschenberg stringently adhered to his political beliefs and because politics and social conditions were so infused in nearly every aspect of his life, Labor’s Centennial transcends the employment of strictly Marxist or even historical methodologies. This print necessitates the consideration of autobiographical analysis as well.

Labor's Centennial, 1881‑1981
1981
Color Offset Lithograph, 36 x 24 in.

Rauschenberg created the poster Labor’s Centennial to generate awareness of both the one-hundred-year anniversary of the American labor movement, and the social amenities and personal luxuries it has furnished America’s workers at the expense of its early members. Being politically aware and socially minded, Rauschenberg must have particularly valued this particular work, as throughout his career he always took a very vocal and conspicuous stance on contentious aspects of society and government.

Rauschenberg was drafted by the Navy at age eighteen, but his vehement and unrelentingly vocal disdain for killing in general caused him to be assigned to a hospital for injured soldiers. It was there that the artist first began to understand the negative affects the government and its institutions had on individuals. Rauschenberg was so appalled by what he saw that he became an everyman’s advocate for individuals’ rights within a greater system. He stated years later, “No, I was not forced to fight; what I witnessed was much worse.” Experiencing tragedy by extension, he became determined to eradicate whatever injustice he could, in whatever way that he could. With Labor’s Centennial, Rauschenberg artistically manifested that fervor by translating it into images of the labor union. Therefore, applying an autobiographical methodology to Labor’s Centennial is appropriate in terms of discerning Rauschenberg’s possible motivation to execute the print. Historical, Marxist and iconographic methodological approaches all respond to and interpret the actual body of work.

As the industrial revolution’s hum escalated to a roar in America during the late nineteenth century, the desire for inexpensive and physically demanding labor increased exponentially. Paradoxically, as the aggregate demand for labor increased, the quality of working conditions deteriorated; or at very best, remained constant in light of technological advancements that could have ushered in radical improvements in the workplace. Although technically the first unionization of trades was accomplished in 1867, it disbanded shortly thereafter as a result of poor organization. It was not until 1869 that the first successful labor organization, the Knights of Labor, was formed. The primary purpose of the Knights was to achieve better working conditions through public education and political demonstration, and it did experience a certain degree of success, heightening awareness as well as seizing the attention of politicians.

The Knights of Labor was elaborated and expanded in 1881 by Samuel Gompers, who officially founded the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions as a result of the apparently lethargic execution of ideas by the Knights. In 1886, this organization merged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), creating the organization still active today. That same year, however, the Haymarket Tragedy weakened the already waning Knights of Labor to the point of dissolution.

During one of the various labor strikes organized by the Knights, a bomb was thrown into a crowd of police officers, killing several. Although the perpetrator was never identified, it was assumed that he was a member of the labor party. Judge Joseph Gary ruled that at the very least the bomber was influenced by the Knight’s speeches. In 1890, the AFL launched one of the most integral and consequently devastating strikes in labor history. The Pullman Strike was the first national union-organized strike that attempted to combat against significant and unjustified wage cuts inflicted upon workers employed by railroad companies across the United States. In the span of less than one decade, three major demonstrations were executed, but each failed.

In an iconographic terms, Rauschenberg utilized nondescript photographs of various staged protests and marches repeatedly, thus communicating the overriding theme of social struggle. Superficially and primarily, these elements can be read as just that: a simple expression of the general idea of the turbulent preliminary stages of a burgeoning organization. However, taking into consideration the extent of the struggle endured by early members of labor organizations in conjunction with the contemporary immediacy for the ideals advocated by these organizations, the print’s iconography takes on much more depth.

This practice of repeating imagery is also used at the bottom of the print, where numerous badges and seals from various labor organizations, both national and regional, are represented. Unlike in the rest of the print, these images are shown laterally and are not overlapping, which indicates a sense of order and harmony. This reveals Rauschenberg’s idea that the advocation and achievement of workers’ rights brought unity and organization to the nation as a whole, just as the horizontally arranged badges bring unity and organization to an otherwise chaotically and haphazardly arranged print. Additionally, the badges are those worn and displayed throughout various times during the labor party’s existence, which implies the passage of time and the various changes and stages experienced by both the organizations and their members.

Almost inevitably, this abstract conception of middle-class solidarity and affectivity is represented more overtly with the inclusion of the AFL-CIO emblem, which is in the relative center of the work. The emblem, which takes the form of a handshake, represents goodwill, brotherhood, and the reciprocation of ideas and support among workers. It was developed at the advent of the preliminary labor unions by Jewish immigrants. Upon their arrival to the United States, these immigrants were forced to rely only on one another for professional support, thus creating a unique and necessary brand of brotherhood that influenced and shaped subsequent, larger movements.

The origins of the emblem being what they are, it would be appropriate to assume that to a certain extent the elitists, or the economically powerful, are certainly being precluded. The original brotherhood of Jewish workers was built because it was unable to rely on anyone else, especially the American elite, for help. Therefore the handshake takes place among working, middle class “brothers,” and not among the working class and the upper class. Rauschenberg chooses to place the handshake image in the center of the print, from which all other images seem to project, just as the brotherhood of the immigrant workers caused projections of larger labor organizations, and just as the working class is a base from which the rest of society can grow.

The image of Lane Kirkland is also integral to the interpretation of the print in terms of the idealization of the working class. Kirkland was the president of AFL-CIO between 1979 and 1995, a sixteen-year span in which the unions suffered both their lowest membership and some of their most devastating losses. Therefore, in this respect, Kirkland’s image in Rauschenberg’s print represents the successful emergence of the labor party from difficult, unstable times, as does the demonstration imagery. However, Kirkland was a highly successful individual both professionally and financially, which set him apart from the workers he represented in terms of economic status. While Rauschenberg repeatedly uses imagery of masses or groups of workers, Kirkland is the only individual represented in the entire work, and his image is used only once. This would imply that Rauschenberg felt the middle working class was of greater importance and deserved more profound recognition than the isolated, individual elite.

It is very easy to derive a sense of Marxist theory and belief from Labor’s Centennial. There is a very obvious emphasis not only on the plight, but also on the achievements of the workers as a collective whole, as well as a visual disregard for individualism and elitism. The worker is the Proletariat in a decidedly Bourgoise society, and through the AFL-CIO has made a stand against the unbalanced socio-economic atmosphere in which they both live.

The idea of Robert Rauschenberg as the creator of such proactive work of art is not difficult to conceive. Rauschenberg, the founder of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), the creator of Currents (a collage and print series on current events), and the advocate for artists’ rights, seems to be just the artist to develop a print that bursts with such political and social intensity. As he said, “I want to shake people awake. . . . I want to make them aware of individual responsibility both for themselves and the rest of the human race”. Labor’s Centennial more than adequately showcases the importance of the labor unions to American society, as Rauschenberg has similarly exhibited his own parallel convictions and beliefs.

(1) Robert S. Mattison, Robert Rauschenberg’s Autobiography: Context and Meaning. Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 59 (1998).

 

Back to essays