Men in motion;The big picture

1st May 1998 at 01:00
In 1889 the Second International of the Communist Party declared May 1 Labour Day. While Lenin and his comrades celebrated the world's workers, a different revolution was taking shape in Detroit.

"Time-and-motion" studies in the 1880s and 1890s had minutely analysed the individual tasks needed in mass production. Henry Ford translated these findings into a ruthless re-organisation of men and machines. In 1913, the Ford Motor Company introduced a moving conveyor belt assembly-line. The time taken to produce a fly-wheel magneto was cut from 18 minutes to five.

As worker-efficiency rose, so did output. At $500, his famous Model T motor car was relatively cheap, but the huge volumes produced created huge profits. Detroit became "Motor City". Meanwhile, workers received a minimum day rate of $5. Their conditions were oppressive. There were no union agreements in the American automotive industry until 1941.

By the 1930s, Ford's methods had become standard - even in the Soviet Union. Their huge wealth overflowing, the automotive magnates moved into patronage of the arts. Henry's son, Edsel, in his capacity as chairman of the Detroit City Arts Commission, asked the Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint a series of murals in the city's new Institute of Arts.

Inspired depictor of the struggles of the Mexican poor, Rivera (1886-1957) was an odd choice for Motor City. The artist was a lifelong Communist, whose monumental style illuminates his outrage at social injustice. "Detroit Industry", the four frescos he painted (for the price of two), were no exception: in these compressed representations of humanity and technology, Rivera's concern for the toiling workers dominates his exaltation of achievement. Not long after completing this mural, Rivera was publicly reviled for incorporating a portrait of Lenin into a mural in New York's Rockefeller Center, and left the United States.

Twenty years ago, on the eve of our current post-industrial revolution, a Labour government in Britain declared the first Monday in May a public holiday.

Victoria Neumark


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