Maybe there never will be any rest for them. Even in an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., titled “The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers,” laborers of every kind — slaves and free people, clockmakers and Subway sandwich workers, sharecroppers and machinists — are frozen in artworks depicting their lives, landscapes and interior worlds. These are not portraits of workers at leisure or with tasks completed; these are portraits of workers at work, with all of the intensity and stress of the labor that powers American industry exposed.
But the tension in the exhibit doesn’t issue strictly from the workers’ taxed muscles and worn hands. Americans are ambivalent when it comes to the role of labor and the working classes in society. “The Sweat of Their Face” emphasizes that this has been the case since the country’s founding.
The very point of hard work in the United States is often stipulated as escaping the working class, or providing a path to posterity. But one’s own departure doesn’t eliminate the gulf between the extreme classes — nor does it in every case put one entirely at ease with the predisposition of the upper classes toward the lower. And ascension from the lower echelons of the working class to the upper levels of society is hardly guaranteed — it is, in fact, mathematically unlikely. Given all this, Americans are in an odd sort of bind: directed simultaneously to view work as a virtue and the working class as something to transcend, and taught to view this deeply communal activity as radically individualistic.
Consider the tension between the exhibit’s valedictory text and its grand portrait of 19th-century Philadelphia blacksmith Pat Lyon, which greets visitors as they arrive. The text, a two-paragraph spread on the wall, says that, “Work serves as a foundation for the philosophy of self-improvement and social mobility that undergirds this country’s value system;” opposite that statement stands the portrait of Lyon at his forge. After smithing locks for the Bank of Pennsylvania, he was wrongly convicted of robbing the bank and sentenced to three months in prison. Lyon went on to achieve means of his own — to achieve the American Dream — but when he commissioned John B. Neagle to paint his portrait, he asked to be depicted not as a gentleman but as a worker: “The laborer, for him,” the placard beside his painting says, “represented honesty, integrity, and the values of the young country.” The gentleman — not so much.
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Meanwhile, the desperate aspiration of leaving the working class behind has a couple of eerie effects, which echo through the exhibition’s images. The first is a profound and aching loneliness. In one prominent photograph, a bearded oil field worker in denim overalls stares blankly ahead, with streaks of sweat and Oklahoma dust caking his skin and clothes. In another, a lathe operator is turned away from the photographer’s camera at an aircraft plant in Fort Worth, with her eyes fixed solemnly on her work. Children stand alone in factories of past centuries, a woman cleans a shower in an empty Beverly Hills apartment, a Subway sandwich worker is draped in shadow in a head-on portrait. These figures are, for the most part, alone in inhospitable territories; the work they’re doing is not done for its own sake or even, in most cases, for some near purpose — but to get by, to get along, to labor toward a future that doesn’t look like the scenes depicted. It doesn’t make sense to develop an attachment to a world or an identity you only want to escape.
The other effect is to make developing an American class consciousness somewhat difficult, though there are glimmers of it in the collection. In a J.C. Leyendecker illustration from a Labor Day 1946 issue of America Weekly, a worker sits astride a globe, certain and self-assured: This was, or could have been, a workers’ world — a world hospitable to working people as they are, not merely one that offers them the promise of a decent life should they ever exit the working class.
It’s a dream that’s still alive, if battered by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against public-sector labor unions in the Janus v. AFSCME case — alive in this year’s teacher strikes, and in every labor action that finds working people asking not for entry to another class but for dignity and respect in their lives as they are, in the roles they serve, making the complex machinery underneath the ordinary beauty of American life run. It isn’t too much to ask. But outside that gallery of weathered hands and sore shoulders is a country full of people for whom relief can’t come soon enough.
Elizabeth Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.
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