Why work? For all that the Marxist-Leninist vision got badly wrong, they got this right: work matters.
And work matters because it has social meaning, even political meaning, especially economic meaning, and most importantly, transcendent meaning. Even if they got its meaning wrong, tragically wrong, they saw something that was true. Captured in their iconic symbol of the sickle and hammer, always and everywhere it is an argument that the ordinary work of ordinary human beings is at the heart of history.
Several years ago I saw this on the streets of Kerala in the southwest corner of India. Still the only honestly elected communist government in the world, the banners over every avenue are an ongoing debate between Marx and Mao: who is right? who is more right? What is not in question is their belief that if the workers of the world unite, the world will be a better place. What is not in question is their conviction that work matters.
I have often wondered why we in the West have so often missed that. “Take this job and shove it? I ain’t working here no more!” was one particularly painful window into that reality, just as The Man in the Grey-Flannelled Suit was another from a very different place in the socio-economic spectrum. But you can pick your moment, and pick your artistic expression of the human longing for work to be more, to mean more, than just a job. We all long for something more.
With industrial capitalism has come glories and shames. Flourishing of all sorts, yes, but heartache for so many too. On the one hand, who among us looks the gift-horse in the mouth? Dental care, abundant food, heart surgery, planes, trains and automobiles, and so much more– and yet, and yet, on the other, not everyone has the same access. Some in fact are actually alienated; remember Pittsburgh’s steelworkers or Detroit’s carmakers. Marx got that part right.
Charles Dickens saw this 150 years ago. Think about and Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim. Isn’t our very favorite tale of Christmas about the cracks in capitalism, circa 1850? Of those who had, and those had not? Of those who had figured out how to use the system, and of those who suffered because of the system? Sometimes it seems strange that we love Dickens, and despise Marx, as both men were writing about the very same things in the very same city in the very same years. One told stories we still love, and the other protested so passionately that radical revolutions the world over changed the next century.
In the end Marx and his followers, the Lenins, the Trotskys, the Stalins, the Maos, the Castros, brought untold sorrow to human beings wherever his protest was heard– socially, politically, and economically. The root of his flawed vision was his misreading the meaning of work: it could never save, and it was never going to have the transcendent meaning Marx gave to it.
But work is bursting with meaning, if we have eyes to see what it is and what it isn’t. And labor is written into the meaning of life, if we have eyes to see it as integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei.
I think about these things. And I thought of all this again on Wednesday as I visited the Grohmann Museum in Milwaukee. In a word, it was amazing. Imagined and funded by a local industrialist, Eckhart Grohmann, the museum is completely focused on “Man at Work,” and is a celebration of human labor. Work of all kinds is honored and remembered in beautiful paintings and sculpture: the earliest stories we know about human life and labor under the sun, as well as the most modern forms of industrial capitalism that we have imagined; and medieval merchants and physicians as well, with men and women at work in the fields of the world, and a bronze cowboy by Remington too. And on and on and on.
Why work? The Grohmann answers the question very artfully. With its commitment to the meaning of good work, even of heart-breaking work, sometimes even of back-breaking work, the stories its art tells allow everyone of us to reflect on who we are and what we do, standing on the shoulders as we are of our fathers and mothers over the centuries who have spent the days of their lives at work in the world. The best art always allows us to come in, to see something of ourselves, to know something about ourselves that we would not be able to see or know otherwise.
One more time, Walker Percy was right: bad books always lie; they lie most of all about the human condition. And bad art of every kind always lies, missing the meaning of who we are– just as good art tells the truth about the human condition. The Grohmann honors us as the glorious ruins we are. Created to work, we are to find meaning in our work, but also we are able to distort the meaning of our work, imagining that our work means more or less than it ought. Getting it right matters, because work matters.