In the Basements of Buildings, the Beast Stirs
Eleven workers, mostly immigrants, eating sandwiches and smoking cigarettes as they casually sit, balancing nonchalantly on the tiny width of a crossbeam hundreds of feet in the air. The men are both ethereal and heavy, wingless Icaruses weighted to earth by the sweat on their coveralls and the dirt on their boots. They are taking a break from building the RCA building (a.k.a. 30 Rock), the towering centerpiece of Rockefeller Center. The photograph was taken in 1932, at the height of the skyscraper boom in New York City; the year before, the Empire State Building was completed, and the year before that, the Chrysler Building became the first man made structure to top one thousand feet.
Charles C. Ebbets' famous photograph is an icon of American optimism and ingenuity, reproduced ad nauseum on posters, postcards, T-shirts, and coffee mugs. The image is the positive sheen of American style capitalism, honoring the great heights and achievements made possible by innovation, individuality, and profit. The skyscraper: that great symbol of human civilization, the concrete, rational, and beautiful triumph over the indifferent, chaotic, powerful, natural forces of wind, rain, and gravity. The workers seem to sit triumphantly, happy, and satiated, almost angelic as they enjoy the small pleasures of a sandwich, nicotine, conversation, and a moment of rest (not to mention the view).
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper by Charles C. Ebbets (1932)
But as with all photos, there is just as much concealed as is revealed. As these workers eat their lunch in the heavens, the earth that makes this temple possible remains obscured, repressed, covered, forgotten. In the picture, Manhattan fades into the background, a combination of both obscuring clouds and the limits of the photographic exposure. Central Park, barely discernible, recedes into Harlem and further uptown, completely obscured, lie the neighborhoods not only of black Americans, but Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other immigrants. The workers that made possible the Rockefellers' Parthenon lived somewhere in this blurry background, somewhere in the translucent world below, immortalized faces rising from the anonymous mass.
In 1932, the year the photo was taken, the Great Depression was at its peak. Unemployment stood at 25% in the United States, reaching as high as 80% in Toledo, Ohio. Millions of jobless and homeless Americans migrated across the country alongside John Steinbeck’s hero Tom Joad, searching for the promised land of peach and orange orchards. One of the reasons behind the "skyscraper boom" of the early 1930s was the availability of cheap labor, what Marx calls the "surplus army of labor." Whether it is the slave of the 1860s, the immigrant Irish and Mexicans of the 1930s and 1990s, respectively, or the Chinese worker of the 21st Century, capital always has a bargaining chip that keeps wages tending towards subsistence and makes profit possible: "You don't like this job? You don't think I'm treating you fairly? Well, there's millions of people just outside who would love to have this job. Take it or leave it.” Such is the “free choice” of the worker.
Rockefeller and Rivera
To add another layer to Ebbet's photo: below the workers well-worn, dangling boots, in the lobby of the new building, a painting was coming into being. A young Nelson A. Rockefeller, future New York governor, grandson of the tycoon John D., was charged with commissioning a painting that would match the grandiosity of the architectural achievement, something that would make viewers “pause and think and to turn their minds inward and upward.”1 Originally, Nelson Rockefeller wanted no less than Picasso or Matisse to paint the mural, but both artists being unavailable, he tapped the muralist Diego Rivera to paint a scene with the theme: "Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future."2
Located in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, Man, Controller of the Universe (1934) by Diego Rivera is a substitute for Man at the Crossroads
Rivera began painting his infamous “Man at the Crossroads,” a grandiose mural in which he aimed to showcase the “more complete balance between technical and ethical development of mankind [necessary for] a new, more humane, and logical order.” One side of the painting depicted the “technical” aspects of human development represented by science and capitalism, all those productive forces now unleashed that make possible the most amazing human achievements, allowing leisure and luxury, but also enabling alienation, violence, and war. On the other side, the mass of people that make possible such achievements and leisure are shown in revolt, potentially colliding with the great machine of profit, exploitation, and war. In the middle, a man under a machine and at the center of an atom, bleary-eyed, weary-limbed, wearing an anxious expression as he handles some controls. Below him, a hand grips a sphere that evokes a crystal ball, inside of which is a vision of gauges, perhaps a warning against the possibility that various technological “controls” quickly “control” their makers, a haunting foreshadowing of the dangers of a technical world that forgets the ethical—Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Cold War were but a decade in the future.
Though Rivera was vocal about his leftist politics, it is not clear that the piece was simply a work of communist propaganda. There is no outright condemnation of the “technical” aspects of the world, only an attempt to make visible the “crossroads” at which humanity stands, the vigilance that is required to create a “more complete balance” between the worlds, and the potential dangers of a world that puts technology over ethics, profits over people, mind over body, the few over the many. It is a reminder of the real choice that we as humans must continually make—not a choice between hundreds of competing deodorants or shampoos, or the choice between thousands of satellite channels or smartphone apps, but the choice of creating a world that is moral, just, and truly human.
The fate of the painting is well known: in the original, there were images of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Rockefeller requested that Lenin’s likeness be removed, replaced by an anonymous face. Rivera refused, but did offer to add the face of Abraham Lincoln to another part of the mural. No agreement was reached, and the unfinished painting was immediately draped and then smashed and hauled away in wheelbarrows, perhaps by the same workers who were lunching in Ebbets’ photo. All that survives of the original are sketches and a few photographs. Rivera was paid in full and, in 1934, he repainted the mural in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, renaming it “Man, Controller of the Universe.” In this version, the artist added a picture of Nelson Rockefeller partying at a nightclub.
Frozen Assets by Diego Rivera (1931-32) (MoMA)
A year before the Rockefeller commission, Rivera painted murals for the Museum of Modern Art. His painting "Frozen Assets" (1931-32) makes explicit the connection between the rising skyline and the exploitation of labor that made its construction possible, exposing the contradiction and repression at the heart of the capitalism’s monuments. The top third of the painting shows a composite of the Manhattan skyline under construction (the centerpiece is Rockefeller Center). Across the middle of the work are rows of bodies being watched by a lone police officer, ostensibly sleeping, but implying a mass grave. The lower third of “Frozen Assets” shows the inside of a bank: an old clerk sits at a desk, a guard closes a gate to protect a woman examining her safe deposit assets, another old man (with more than a passing resemblance to John D. Rockefeller), and a pair of women wait on a bench to be called. These are the hidden foundations of our modern temples: greed, toil, profit, death.
The Beasts in the Basement
The next year, 1933, King Kong was a box office smash. The Midtown skyline was almost complete, Prohibition was at its peak, the bread lines continued to grow. King Kong the ape was a symbol of the collective unconscious, the return of all that had been repressed, the manifestation of the way in which human beings had been effectively turned into beasts in the name of progress and profit. Kong’s confusion and rage was the people’s confusion and rage at the servitude, violence, and objectification that had been inflicted upon them. We empathize with the gorilla—he is of us, a hero. Of course, he had to attack his opposite, that great symbol of capitalism—the skyscraper. Kong died from the bullets of the flying machines—he had to, lest he destroy the Empire State, lest he raze all that had been “achieved.”
The continued success of capitalism is its ability to cover over its contradictions. Whether it is through outright suppression, repression, or oppression, or through the various mechanisms of diffusement whereby any critique of the status quo is co-opted and commodified, thus diluting its potency as critique, or through the many piecemeal reforms and “bail outs” that keep the ship afloat without thinking about where it may be sailing, capitalism manages to survive and thrive despite its inherent volatility, irrationality, and the rampant inequality it creates. It is simplistic to simply divide the world into “capitalist” and “communist,” but whatever economic order is ultimately the most humane, it must be one that finds that “balance” between the technical and ethical, a balance that does not forget that our great achievements—skyscrapers, space shuttles, iPhones—are made by us, for us, and should always operate in an economy that cultivates opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rather than strangle these opportunities in the name of “progress” and “profit.”
The modern city is one of the most beautiful creations of humankind. When I fly into La Guardia airport, I always try to sit on the left side of the plane so that I may see New York City in all of its sublimity. But as I look out the window, I see not only the beauty that is revealed but also the ugliness that is concealed. I am filled with pride and sadness. I whisper to myself, “My beautiful city,” but in claiming the city as “mine,” I am necessarily taking responsibility for it, warts and all, taking responsibility for its achievements and its failures. I see the logic of the grid, the sparkling of the glass, the movement of the cars and trains. I smell the sweat of the worker, hear the cries of the poor, see the graves of the forgotten.
A view of Midtown Manhattan probably taken from the top of the Empire State Building, looking north
As I watch the so-called “Freedom Tower” rise in Lower Manhattan, I remind myself that “freedom is not free,” a phrase that should not only be reserved with reference to the sacrifices our soldiers have made in war, but also the sacrifices made every day by the workers of the world. Not just the American laborer, but the Guatemalan mother, the Congolese father, the Chinese daughter—the billions of unseen who make possible our ability to read this article on our smartphones and computers, who make possible the latte we hold in our hand, who make possible the buildings in which we live and the skyscrapers in which we work. For we cannot be truly free—as individuals, as a society—until those who toil are allowed to be just as free as we, until those who build our buildings are honored just as much as the buildings they build. Let us always remind ourselves to break bread with these workers at lunch, to keep them nourished—not only physically, but emotionally, and morally—stopping and joining them momentarily during their cigarette break, saying, “Hey. You are not invisible. I see you. Thank you.”
Rockefeller Center under construction in 1932, by Hamilton M. Wright
July 3, 2012
* Unless otherwise noted, all images from Wikicommons.
1. PBS. “The Rockefellers,” The American Experience, PBS.org (199-2000): http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rockefellers/index.html.