Theater and visual art on campus problematize our perspective on the American laborer

Whitney E. Adair

Theater and visual art on campus problematize our perspective on the American laborer.

Crouching is the only way to look through the six- by four-inch peep-hole into the giant wooden box on display in the Sert Gallery at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. The box is 20 feet by 10 feet and four and a half feet high—but only those 24 inches of surface area are transparent. The rest is plywood.

Through the peep-hole is a bizarre scene. Lit with a black light, the space inside is scattered with white contraptions made of wicker-like threads. The twisted objects vary in shape, but are all roughly the size of large Christmas ornaments. There is no ostensible rhyme or reason to their placement, and they glow in the black light with an odd iridescence. The world inside the box looks like the bottom of the sea shot through an underwater camera.

The exhibition, “If Organizing is the Answer, What’s the Question?” was created by Chilean artist Cristóbal Lehyt after he spent two years in the office of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program exploring the history of labor and unionization in Massachusetts. The box, and a second piece—an abstract “calendar” of a year’s work that wraps around an entire wall of the gallery—both draw from that experience.

The run of Lehyt’s exhibition overlaps with a musical on campus also dedicated to labor. On April 2, first-time director Brandon J. Ortiz ’12 opened “Working”, a musical written by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso that celebrates workers ranging from a supermarket checker to a CEO.

Two more dissimilar pieces would be hard to come by. Lehyt’s sculpture is dark, heavy, exclusive, and his “calendar,”—with its 260 squares representing the 260 non-holiday and non-weekend days of the year—is not organized in a way comparable to any other calendar. Both of Lehyt’s pieces could be interpreted in various ways. In contrast, Ortiz’s show is blithe with song and dance and, at its core, inclusive—both of its audience and of the breadth of society the play encapsulates.


But through their different approaches, both works deal with the intersection of art and labor—“Working” by using art as a means for glorifying the worker and welcoming the viewer into the workers’ sphere, Lehyt’s sculpture by exploiting the ambiguity innate in abstract art as a means for proclaiming that labor is impossible to understand from the outside. And both “Working” and the sculpture throw into sharp relief the inability of art to embody labor, particularly on a campus where so few individuals are involved in the manual labor the pieces represent.


Ortiz decided to direct “Working” because, as a child, he never understood his father’s experiences as a Mexican migrant worker in the U.S. But performing as the migrant worker in a high school production of “Working” gave him new insight into his dad’s everyday life.

“We can philosophize all day about social issues but… it’s just hard to imagine what life is like for people who have to do that type of backbreaking manual labor all day to survive,” Ortiz said. “So that’s why I thought it would be perfect to do ‘Working’ again here. I wanted to get this point across to students.”

In Ortiz’s opinion, students walk around all day with little regard for the staff members who make Harvard tick. To counteract audiences’ ignorance, Ortiz aimed to tie “Working” directly to Harvard itself. He approached Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), and formed a partnership. The actors in “Working” now wear HUCTW uniforms, and HUCTW workers attended their final dress rehearsal.

“Working” makes its characters readily accessible. It thrusts them on stage for all to see and presents its agenda directly. There is little ambiguity; the intention of “Working” is to glorify the worker, and glorify it does.

The play’s grand finale perfectly exemplifies its tone; it closes with a song called “Something To Point To,” in which the characters describe their accomplishments that led to the creation of a functioning building—working as a guard, running “the crane that lifted the beams,” cutting the lumber, keeping the records, washing the windows, and so on. The take-away point, of course, is that each worker should revel in his or her success.

Moreover, the characters’ unified movement in their synchronized choreography has a leveling effect. It simultaneously equalizes the status of workers as different as CEOs and waitresses and emphasizes that each makes worthy contributions to society.

Whereas HUCTW is an active union and “Working” represents labor in a positive light, Lehyt presents a bleaker picture of the average union’s social weight. Lehyt’s research at the Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program made evident that unions in Massachusetts are not what they once were. “The heyday of unions was in [the] 1950s and 1960s in which you have basically hard-core industries—manufacturing,” explained José Luis Falconi, the curator of Lehyt’s exhibit and a graduate student in Romance Languages and Literatures. Thus, rather than glorifying unionizing “Organizing” actively emphasizes its demise.

Moreover, Leyht is suspicious of art’s ability to communicate real understanding of the hardship of labor. While a play may help instill a new respect for workers, it cannot teach the audience what it is like to perform backbreaking work. That cannot be understood from a seat in a theater—or at least, Lehyt would not think so. “Art cannot directly address these things in any way that his helpful,” he says. “There is action and there is art. Art is about thinking about things.”


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