Nov 02 2010

Labor for the Lower Classes- In Every Century

Published by at 9:30 pm under Uncategorized

File:Chicago stockyards cattle pens men 1909.jpg

In William Turner’s 19th century landscape, Ploughing up Turnips near Slough, a combination of male and female workers toil to gather turnips at harvest time. These simple laborers work in tandem with their horses and cows. Their sole aim, with which they somehow seem at peace, is to utilize and procure the fruits that nature, portrayed beautifully though Turner’s use of light, colors and detailed trees, has so lovingly bestowed upon them.

At first glance, the picture of the Chicago stockyards in 1909 could not be more disparate from Turner’s painting if it tried. One’s lighting scheme tells of potential, openness, and possibility, the other’s of confinement, pain, and utter powerlessness. One painting includes natural beauty while the other shuns it. One tells of humans’ trust in animals and the other of total dominion of one over the other. And one acknowledges the role of women in providing for the family while the other does not. Clearly, the advent of big business and the systems of production introduced into the cities of the 20th century had quite a negative effect on people’s sense of harmony, family, and security.

Upon closer inspection of these two representational images, though, there are some subliminal similarities that speak to what appear to be universal truths about labor in general. Firstly, the stooped posture of the characters in the Turner landscape indicate an attitude towards labor that is strikingly reminiscent of the one depicted in the packinghouse picture and in The Jungle. It is something to be borne and endured despite the pain and suffering it brings. They will grin and bear it, as much as it hurts.

The second similarity between the two canvasses above requires a bit more interpretation. In Turner’s piece, Windsor Castle is visible in the barely discernible background, signifying that the workers are toiling for the benefit of the higher-ups who are probably playing bridge and sipping lemonade while their field hands sweat away. The picture is no longer so rosy when you see that the open expanse (which initially screamed freedom) actually belongs to the boss, who will reap the rewards for all or most of the effort the figures are expending.

Armed with this piece of information, then, it is not difficult to compare the first visual with the second. Like the peasantry of the early 19th century, Jurgis and his fellow victims of the Chicago slaughterhouses are at the mercy of a wealthier higher power who had the good luck of being born into a (much) higher class. So although I think I’d prefer to spend a day in the first picture than in the second (especially because the risk of being trampled seems significantly higher in the latter), I’m not sure which promises the better life overall.

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