Paul Schuster Taylor and Academic Freedom: continued

Migrant Mother and Dorothea Lange

Suborning Artists

Artists have their own economic compass. Ideally, they would like to have clients who will pay them for doing whatever they like. This is called ‘artistic freedom’.

Dorothea Lange was, above all, an artist. As a young girl she had been fascinated with photography and was inspired by the pictures of Jacob A. Riis, the New York journalist who wrote books about the slums of Manhattan illustrated with the new media of photography.

Riis was celebrated for his pictures of squalor. A poor immigrant, his photographs and writings led to friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, a position in the government, and even to an opportunity to speak at Groton, FDR’s prep school.

Although Dorothea was born in comfortable circumstances in Hoboken, New Jersey, her father, a lawyer, abandoned the family when she was twelve. To get by, Dorothea’s mother worked in a public library.

Dorothea attended school in New York’s Lower East Side. After high school, she studied photography for a year at Columbia University and got a job with the successful New York fashion photographer, Arnold Genthe.

However, taking pretty pictures of rich people and ballet dancers was not what she wanted to do. She craved to show the suffering of the ‘real people’, as had her hero, Jacob Riis. She packed her bags and headed for San Francisco where she married a prominent painter, Maynard Dixon, twenty years her senior.

Bohemian Club Days

Maynard Dixon was a member of the posh Bohemian Club – considered by some to be the most exclusive club in the world (11) . Every Republican president since Herbert Hoover has been a member.

With Dixon’s connections and financial resources, Dorothea was able to open her own studio. Her clients, of course, were rich, seeking flattering portraits. People like Florence Thompson could not afford to have their pictures taken by society photographers like Dorothea Lange.

Florence could not afford society photographers like Dorothea Lange

In Paul Taylor’s ‘oral history’, he recounts that in later years, when they were married and raising children, he and Dorothea never talked about her 'Bohemian days'. On first reading this, I thought this reticence might refer to wild and bawdy parities of what is generally thought of as the Bohemian lifestyle. However, this was not the problem.

The Bohemian Club was a staunch conservative, Republican stronghold, the lair of capitalists. From Professors Taylor’s point of view as a radical leftist labor economist, this 'shady' aspect of Dorothea’s previous life was best left unmentioned.

Dorothea tried to influence Maynard Dixon to illustrate the plight of ‘the real people’, prevailing upon him to 'subjugate his art to the demands of politics and social criticism', without much success.

He painted a picture entitled 'Forgotten Man', but the colors were too warm and cheery to convey the depths of desperation and hopelessness she sought. Perhaps he was too mindful of rich Republican patrons at the Bohemian Club to yield himself entirely unto social realism.

Dorothea would take time off from her prosperous clients and snap photos of the seamier side of life, entering these grim, gray pictures at various exhibitions in the San Francisco area. One of these shots – a union organizer agitating the masses – attracted the attention of Paul Schuster Taylor, a labor economist at Berkeley, who helped her sell her pictures of labor strife to a magazine.

Dorothea Dumps Dixon

When Professor Taylor further offered her a government job that would pay her to snap precisely the kind of pictures she wanted, no strings attached, she jumped at the chance. This was artistic freedom funded by the unlimited resources of the American public.

Dorothea promptly ditched Maynard Dixon and Taylor left his wife and the pair recombined as romantics of the new left – what liberal historians subsequently portrayed as one of the great love stories of the Roosevelt years.

Lange now had her funding to take thousands of pictures of breadlines, migrant pea pickers, women washing in drainage ditches, bedraggled refugees fleeing drought, labor organizers inciting the proletariat, stalled, rusting, and broken automobiles, dust storms and dark clouds, dirty clothes and smudged faces, squatter’s shacks with naked children, and whatever else might serve to portray the Real America – all taken in as unforgiving black, darkly moody, and grainy images as photographic science would permit. No more Ms. Nice Pictures!

Dorothea Lange’s connection with the New Deal led to personal triumph beyond anything she might have imagined as a child in New York’s Lower East Side.

With government financing, she traveled throughout the United States and, later, the world, often staying at luxury hotels, hanging out with the rich and powerful.

She has been honored countless times as one of America’s greatest photographic artists – indeed, as the founder of 'documentary photography'.

Her legend has been perpetuated with exhibitions at leading museums years long after her death. There is a fellowship in her name at the University of California at Berkeley, and uncounted books, films, and articles telling of her life and contribution to American culture.

From Migrant Mother to Piss Christ

Artists, like Dorothea Lange, loved the New Deal because, unlike patrons in earlier times – the church and wealthy merchants – this liberal government offered money for evidence of the degradation of society with virtually no censorship.

There was censorship, of course, for any subject matter that did not please the government. Dorothea Lange found this out when she photographed the concentration camps that Roosevelt set up for Japanese Americans in California.

Also, the New Deal would not waste time 'documenting' the happier, affluent side of American life during the 1930s, which was reality for the majority of the people. Nor did they try to show the plight of business people that faced the restrictions imposed by this leftist government.

The New Deal did not waste time documenting the happier side of American life

Throughout the rest of the century, America’s increasingly anti-religious, amoral government continued to allow artists unlimited latitude, with tasteless freedom from ethical restraint, culminating with the National Endowment for the Arts exhibition of Andre Serrano’s 'Piss Christ' in 1989, in which the 'artist' displays a crucifix immersed in urine; the Art Institute of Chicago’s showing of Dread Scott Taylor’s 'What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag', in which gallery goers are encouraged to walk over the American flag; and, finally, to the Washington Project for the Arts’ exhibition of another famous black and white master of photography, Robert Mapplethorpe, who became known for 'documenting' Manhattan’s homosexual and sadomasochist community, presenting visual evidence of in the form of chains, spikes, leather, instruments of bondage, and explicit close-ups of sexual organs.

Dorothea Lange’s subjugation of 'art to the demands of politics and social criticism', multiplied by the efforts of tens of thousands of other beneficiaries of public art programs that evolved from the New Deal, had developed as logic would dictate.

The Price of 'Academic Freedom'

Professor Paul Schuster Taylor, like Dorothea Lange, was a child of the times. He grew up in Wisconsin and Iowa under the sway of the populist Lafollettes, father and son. He went to the same high school as Harry Hopkins, where extra-curricular activities consisted of debates on the Sherman Antitrust Act and labor unions.

In these debates, he always wanted to argue what he termed 'the liberal side'. He served with 'Young Bob' Lafollette in the military and in later years, he and Dorothea were pleased to have this famous liberal to their home for dinner. Taylor entered the University of Wisconsin in the same year that the Department of Labor was formed.

He studied law and labor economics under John R. Commons, who had done work for the government at the U.S. Industrial Commission and at the Department of Labor, and for Governor Lafollette in Wisconsin. Commons was later instrumental in recruiting many academics for the New Deal.

When going for a doctoral degree at Berkeley, Taylor chose to specialize in labor economics rather than law, seeing a chance to become actively involved in government policy-making early in life. His thesis was on maritime unions.

Throughout his academic life he served as a consultant to the government and labor unions, but never for management. Taylor was not a mathematical or theoretical economist – instead he preferred to study particular labor problems and suggest solutions.

Strictly speaking, he was not a social scientist at all, but rather an activist who wanted to use his professorial stature to do good things for mankind.

Essay: continued >

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