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.”

That inability of art to inculcate in its audience understanding of something as physical as labor partly inspired the artistic abstraction of Lehyt’s work. Though he initially said he tended toward a more didactic account, he ultimately decided to produce works that gave viewers little or no direction in interpretation. “The more I thought about being direct,” Lehyt said, “the more I thought that was useless because there is a subjective aspect [or] connection to art that I thought was more useful than saying things directly.”


People are conspicuously absent from Lehyt’s pieces. The box clearly represents the product of Lehyt’s own man-hours, but it is not the human effort that is emphasized. The piece is not about the laborers; it is about the concept of labor itself. The people are buried in the conceptual framework of Lehyt’s box. They are far from the fore.

The “calendar” does not deal directly with laborers either. Instead, the large overlapping paper squares in a scrambled grid, painted in brown and blue tones, calls to mind the place where the ocean meets the sand.

The beach is just the image Lehyt intended to invoke. His “calendar” is meant to project daydreams of freedom on workdays. “I thought of it as being away from the office, factory—escape,” he said. So while workers’ visions are splashed onto the paper, it is not the workers themselves who are the subject of the piece.

“Working”, on the other hand, is based entirely on the people performing labor. The agents of the work sing and dance and carry the plot; the people matter. Indeed, real people are the foundation for “Working.” Schwartz and Faso based the musical on “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” a book of interviews published in 1974 by Louis “Studs” Terkel. The compilation aimed to highlight how real-life workers found meaning in the everyday.

There are 26 characters in “Working”, each identified by name and profession—political fundraiser, schoolteacher, UPS deliveryman, and so on. Thus characters, even those in professions typically undervalued in society, are listed in their professional capacity rather than in their relations to each other.

The musical is a product of its time, a remnant of the 1960s and the Marxist ideology in vogue then. “In the 1960s and 1970s there was a lot of progressive and radical thought that said that workers are too invisible,” said Jaeger. However, Ortiz is confident that its message still applies in contemporary society and updated its dialogue to avoid alienating a modern audience.

“In the same way that our union is steeped in traditions of the American labor movement but also trying to update and innovate, I have a sense from talking to these students that they are trying to do the same thing,” Jaeger continued. “[They are] taking some of the ideas about the dignity of work and of recognizing and humanizing working people and putting a fresh, modern, local flavor with that.”


For the students wearing the borrowed HUCTW uniforms, there seems to be an implicit assumption that their professional roles in the play will not actually be their professional post in real life. Arthur R. Bartolozzi ’12, who plays the CEO in the show, said that “most people are really shitty things they won’t be [when they get older].”

But the actors’ futures, of course, are yet to be determined.

At last weekend’s rehearsal, a general shout roused the cast: “We need Russell,” they said. Russell Y. Huang ‘12, the assistant musical director, put down his copy of “War and Peace” to play “Just a Housewife” on the piano. A group of six female Harvard students began to sing the uncharacteristically pessimistic song: “All I am is / Just a housewife / Just a housewife, nothing great / What I do is ‘out of fashion’/ What I feel is out of date.” The six actresses started twirling around the broomsticks they were holding, spinning as they sang the somber song. “I’m afraid it is unimpressive / All I am is someone’s mother.”

The scene seemed particularly poignant for six Harvard students. Despite common confidence in a Harvard degree and the modern expectation that women can have both a family and successful career, whether these six students will grow up to have both is still uncertain. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that they could become stay-at-home moms. Besides, if “Working” succeeds in its glorifying aims, the fate should not seem like a particularly “shitty” one: the play presents housewifely work as another valuable way to contribute to society. For Harvard students, the point would be well taken.


Though many students see it as extracurricular—an activity outside the realm of serious work—acting itself is labor of sorts. Memorizing the lines, building the set—which the cast did last Sunday as a group task—and performing are all activities that could develop into real-life professions.

The same holds for visual artists. “I’m obviously not a worker who has been subjected, I’m quite the opposite,” said Lehyt. “But everyone does something—I also do something. Art is labor.”

—Staff writer Elyssa A. L. Spitzer can be reached at



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