For Labor Day 2022, I’m thinking about health, vaccines, work (especially returning-to-work), and art.
Let’s start with the vaccine news. Called the “first updated COVID-19 booster,” on September 1st the CDC announced the availability and approval for health citizens to get new vaccines which have added Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 spike protein components to the original vaccine formulation.
The booster shots will be administered using vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech for people ages 12 years and older, and from Moderna for people ages 18 years and older. Walgreens announced appointment scheduling for the boosters, and CVS Health discussed the plans for the updated vaccine administration on their website as well.
As Science magazine’s coverage of this public health event noted, “Omicron booster shots are coming — with lots of questions.” Among those questions, Science asks and tries to answer,
- What do the new boosters contain?
- What sort of data have the companies collected?
- How can authorities consider authorizing vaccines without data from human trials?
among others on peoples’ minds.
With the emergence of an updated vaccine to prevent the worst effects of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 virus, coupled with this Labor Day week and political season, it’s a good time to summon the spirit and work of the artist Diego Rivera through his Detroit Industry murals.
This history of art lesson has a specific reason as the inspiration for today’s Labor Day 2022 Health Populi post: because one of the 27 frescoes illustrates vaccination in the context of innovation, economics and politics.
The tweet-length history of this magnificent artwork/installation goes like this: in the early 1930s, Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist, was invited to design and create a series of murals for the DIA with the patronage of Edsel B. Ford, the son of Henry Ford, the automotive pioneer.
Additional context about the timing and political-economic environment can also help us understand the impact of and inspiration for Rivera’s work. When he arrived in Detroit in 1932 to begin painting, the city was hard-hit by the Great Depression following the 1929 Crash. Detroit’s economy was devastated, with industry employing jus tone-third of the pre-Crash labor force.
Rivera engaged many of the unemployed workers to team up in constructing the museum murals.
The first picture shown here is one of the two largest compositions in Diego Court, the North Wall of the courtyard. The large central portion of the wall features workers in the Ford River Rouge Complex which Rivera had visited and observed. [FYI, the River Rouge plant, completed in 1928, was once in its time the world’s largest integrated factory in the world, hugely important to the U.S. economy and industrial development. The property measured 1 mile by 1.5 miles in its physical footprint.
Once complete, Rivera’s murals were controversial in the eyes of many people, especially among leaders in business and religion.
The most controversial panel appears in the upper right of the North Wall, shown in detail here. We see a child receiving a vaccination from a doctor, held by a woman in a white gown (presumably, a nurse).
According to various art historians’ analyses of the image, the occasion takes place in a medical laboratory with the child surrounded by animals providing the vaccine’s serum.
The overall composition echoes Christian nativity scenes, with the baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary visited by the Three Wise Men — here, three scientists in the back. In a religious context, the animals were also those in the manger story.
“To Rivera, medical technology would be the new savior of mankind,” the History of Vaccines website of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia explains.
In light of the controversies the artwork spawned, the Detroit City Council considered a vote to whitewash them.
On the Sunday following the Detroit Industry unveiling, we learn that 10,000 Detroiters came to the DIA to view the murals, “jamming” the museum according to an article published in The Detroit News. We also learn from a biography of Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, that factory workers offered to stand guard to protect the courtyard.
The work survived the critiques and to this day is considered a masterpiece on many levels.
Health Populi’s Hot Points: The Edsel Ford and Diego Rivera relationship was an unlikely match of artist and patron: Rivera was a celebrated and controversial Mexican painter, and an avowed communist.
Ford was the young president of one of the largest automotive companies in the world, with a design spirit. He conceived one of the most successful early designs for the Lincoln Continental, celebrating 100 years in February 2022.
Even as the son of the quintessential capitalist Henry, Edsel said in the wake of the controversial Detroit Industry murals, “I admire Rivera’s spirit. I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.”
As for the vaccine panel’s controversy, I came across this inspiring homily from Father Sean Mullen of St. Mark’s Church of Philadelphia, delivered on February 2, 2021.
Father Sean simply titled his message that Sunday morning, “vaccination.”
Father Sean began by saying that, “Although today is the Feast of the Presentation, it’s vaccination that’s on everyone’s minds. Have you gotten yours yet? Both shots? Or just the first? Are you in a prioritized category? Have you signed up yet online, and will that make any difference? Have you started making plans for life after vaccination?”
He continued by sharing a story of a friend who introduced him to Diego Rivera’s murals, and to the vaccination panel controversy.
“Rivera’s atheism is said to have stemmed from his objection to the vicious effect of the Roman Catholic Church on the indigenous peoples and cultures of Mexico, when the church came, arm in arm with the conquistadors…I suppose that Rivera could not have foreseen a progressive church for which the image of the vaccination of the baby Jesus could represent a beautiful confluence of the lifesaving work of Science and Savior, without any need to insist that their spheres of interest, inquiry, and influence are separate from one another.”
Father Sean continues later in the message:
“You can almost imagine an elderly couple, down on their luck in 1933, both unemployed and hungry, and maybe out of hope, going to the Detroit Institute or the Arts on a Sunday morning in March…I can see them standing in the Garden Court and taking in the color and the rhythm, and the action, and the figures of Rivera’s immense and detailed murals, with their heads bent back, and their necks craning, as they take in the murals of Detroit Industry. The couple is old and tired and poor. If ever they had imagined that God had made any promises to them, they’d long ago concluded that God had reneged on those promises.
“And standing before the north wall, they look up to the right, in the corner, where this panel of smaller scale shows a scene at once so modern and so ancient, so weird and deeply familiar at the same time. It’s a child being given a vaccine. Are those his parents? Or a doctor and a nurse? And who are those three men behind them?
“But doesn’t the whole thing just look like hope? Doesn’t it look like life?”
I’m looking forward to getting my fourth shot, soon, so I can resume more normal work travel and in-person meetings that look like, well, life, well-lived.
To all workers, today and ongoing….stay well, stay resilient, stay in conversation like Diego and Edsel.