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Discussion analyzes labor

| Monday, February 22, 2016

Last Friday, members of the Labor Café, a biweekly event hosted by the Higgins Labor Studies Program to foster discussion on work, inequality and social justice issues, met at the Snite Museum of Art to discuss Henry Mosler’s “Forging the Cross.” Bridget Hoyt, curator of education at the Snite, led the discussion.

“We do these single-work exhibitions once in a while in order to show that the meaning of a work of art is fixed, and in fact, it’s in dialogue by all of us,” Hoyt said.

“Forging the Cross,” the focus of the discussion, is a painting of craftsmen laboring over an iron cross with a priest nearby and community members in the background. Much of the discussion was centered on the labor component of the piece.

“Although this is work, it is not private work. It is work that has a public dimension … it’s not just that the workers are exerting themselves, but that they’re doing so for these people who are waiting for their product,” Kevin Christiano, professor of sociology, said.

Hoyt then focused the discussion onto the possible class divisions portrayed in this painting, especially regarding the role of the priest.

“I feel that the priest’s presence shows that they’re making it [the cross] as part of their business; they’re not necessarily thinking about the religious implications … He is sort of the patron paying for this, and they are providing the priest and upper class this service,” freshman Julie Mardini said.

Daniel Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program, offered a different interpretation of the significance of the various roles in the painting.

“You can read this completely positively, that forging a cross, forging a church or forging a religious community, [this painting] shows the work involved in that. Even though it’s showing men at work and women watching, they’re still in the frame,” Graff said.

Hoyt and Cheryl Snay, curator of European Art, furthered the discussion by speaking on the time period and context of the piece and the artist Henry Mosler.

“Mosler, as an artist, has a career that’s really emblematic of American artists of the later nineteenth century,” Hoyt said.

Hoyt explained that Henry Mosler immigrated to the United States after spending much time in Europe, and he painted “Forging the Cross” in 1904 in New York City.

“By the time this painting was painted, he had moved back to the United States, set up his studio in New York and had embarked on a series of historical paintings,” Snay said.

Snay explained that Mosler described the community members in the painting as being dressed in Puritan clothing when he applied to copyright his work, but the priest in the painting is not illustrative of a Puritan minister. This has led to ambiguity surrounding the priest and the meaning of the work.

Graff also commented on the historical context of the piece.

“He’s painting this in 1904 … this in the midst of class conflict of urban America. … [Mosler] may be somehow commenting on something to do with religion and the workplace and community,” Graff said.

Similarly, the discussion then concluded on the meaning of the work and the significance of this painting in relation to present day America.

“I’m wondering what the effect of this painting is today, … and I don’t really know what it is besides thinking about … [how] everyone in their lifetime will experience some type of work, whether they’re viewing it … [or] doing it,” senior Hannah Petersen said.

“Forging the Cross” will remain in exhibition at the Snite Museum of Art until March 13, and the next Labor Café will be hosted by the Higgins Labor Studies Program on April 1 in the Geddes Coffeehouse.

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