The general strike in modern art

When WEB Du Bois researched African-American underdevelopment in the South, he concluded that emancipation was due in large part to changing labor dynamics among slaves. Neither the Union armies nor the Confederate armies expressed any particular interest in the abolition of slavery at the start of the Civil War, but the enslaved men, women and children took it upon themselves to flee the plantations as the northern army moved south.

In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), DuBois describe this exodus as a collective withdrawal from work:[T]The slave began a general strike against slavery by the same methods he had used during the period of the fugitive slave. He fled to the first safe place and offered his services to the federal army. So in that way, it was really true…that this withdrawal and giving away of his work decided the war.

Du Bois uses the term “general strike” in a way that may seem unfamiliar, but this concept is reflected in the art of the time. Theodor Kaufmann’s 1867 painting “On to Liberty”, for example, details this less depicted aspect of the war, with barefoot women and children emerging from a dark forest towards a misty horizon. While archetypal Civil War images focus on soldiers in combat, Kaufmann’s painting is symbolic of modern art‘s relationship to labor. The general strike, one of the most important forms of protest of the modern era, materialized in myriad ways in painting, photography, illustration and graphic design.

Robert Koehler, “The Strike” (1886)

By the end of the 19th century, mainstream depictions of labor strikes showed white workers leading consolidated crowds in public spaces and clashing with capitalists, as in Robert Koehler’s painting “The Strike” (1886). Harper’s magazine published illustrations of the Great Railway Strike of 1887 and Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, showing strikers attacking the National Guard and Pinkerton militias. These representations are limited in scope, creating a false impression that strikes are mutual confrontations between workers and the state. In fact, art has played a vital role in exposing the state’s escalation of violence against work. Likewise, it preserved a diversity of artists’ organizing tactics, many of which continue to be relevant.

Rapid industrialization had reshaped modern cities at the turn of the 20th century. New divisions of labor, which segmented the production process, further separated workers from creative agency. The capitalists lowered wages to increase profits and replaced skilled workers with machines, which sparked a wave of strikes across the United States. Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) promoted general strikes using easily reproducible flyers and posters, such as Ralph Chaplin’s iconic “The Hand That Will Rule the World” (1917), in which the raised fists of workers merge into one. The “Pyramid of the Capitalist System” (1911) situates the proletariat which “works” and “feeds everything” under the police and the army which “shoot at you”. The IWW borrowed this concept from a Russian in 1901 prospectus published just two years before the formation of the Bolsheviks.

“Pyramid of the Capitalist System” (1911), first published in industrial worker
Grigory Myasoyedov, “Harvest time (mowers)” (1887)

For decades, Russian artists had withheld their work to express their contempt for the Empire. A group of realists painters known as the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) withdrew from the Imperial Academy of Arts and organized traveling exhibitions for underserved provinces. Artists such as Ilya Repin and Grigoriy Myasoyedov were among the first to recognize ordinary Russians as worthy subjects, raising class consciousness before the rise of socialist realism. “Arrest of a propagandist” by Repin (1880-1892) reviews the limits of freedom of expression under late Tsarism, while Myasoyedov’s “Harvest Time (mowers)” (1887) shows women and men working in a wheat field on a bright day, from an angle that makes them appear larger than life.

The invention of photography, widely used by the police for stereotypeCrime also helped popularize early forms of protest art. During the Victorian period, Britain’s Chartist movement staged one of the first general strikes in the UK for the right to vote, captured in an 1848 Photo of Kennington Common. Despite their success, women would not gain the right to vote until 1918. A bright green poster of the Women’s Social and Political Union opposes the Ill Health Temporary Release Act 1913 (known as the Cat and Mouse Act), in which Parliament released imprisoned suffragists on hunger strike and then locked them in again after their recovery.

A 1914 poster of the Women’s Social and Political Union first published in The Suffragette

As photographic technology advanced, nonviolent liberation movements reshaped the meaning of representation in the world. Early photographs from Palestine show democratic rallies of Arabs opposed to British policy in the 1920s, more than two decades before the Nakbah. Their bespoke suits stand in stark contrast to contemporary photos of Palestinians trapped in a open air prison and general public the stereotypes Arab violence. In Samoa, the Mau (or “testimony”) movement also visualized its peaceful struggle for independence through photography, with the women and men who organized the strike standing proud and stoic before the masses.

For Rosa Luxemburg, leader of the Spartacus League in Germany, the strikes that formed the basis of the Russian Revolution of 1905 were the result of “historical inevitability”. In The mass strike (1906), she depicts proletarian consciousness as a point where ‘objective investigation’ goes beyond ‘subjective criticism’. That Luxembourg was imprisoned and executed by the Weimar government shows how far even liberal imperial powers will go to deny it. Thus, a photo from 1961 of a Brussels strike against austerity measures – showing police on horseback chasing protesters past a banner for the film Spartacus (1960) – further embodies the continued denial of historical inevitability.

While theorists frequently predict the demise of capitalism, the prominence of labor in art more often indicates an impending shift in class relations. As artists become more politically active today, it should be remembered that John Reed clubs and New York union of artists organized strikes to negotiate federal arts programs during the Great Depression. The art made at each phase of proletarian advancement therefore serves to protect this history.

An Arab “protest rally” in session at the Rawdat el Maaref Hall in Palestine (1929)
Women leaders of the Mau movement in Samoa, c. 1930
A 1961 demonstration in Brussels against the Unitary Act, photographed by Harry Pot

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