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A Scene of Industry
In 1932, the Ford Motor Company possessed some of the most sophisticated industrial operations in the world. Its River Rouge plant, the central inspiration for Rivera’s series, was a massive complex, one of the largest industrial manufacturing sites in the world. The River Rouge plant housed the productive operations for Ford’s new V8 engine. Rivera set out to depict the evolution of this technological marvel from its origin as earthly raw materials to the finished form. The scene abounds with images of industrial might—blast furnaces, conveyer belts, assembly lines, large-scale stamping presses, milling machines, and much more. Added to orchestra of industrial instruments is the magic of the factory—the ability to synchronize the operations of production such that this great industrial choreography can continue uninterrupted from dawn to dusk. Rivera’s industrial optimism creates something of a tension for the viewer of the murals, who can’t help but recognize this as an idealized, sanitized portrait of technology (despite the gesture toward technology’s dark side on the west wall). No machines are malfunctioning here, no workers put in danger from high heat, fatigue, and repetitive motion. Detroit Industry seems the inverse or mirror-image of great cultural critiques of mass production—those coming from political philosophers like the American Transcendentalists to films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In an age of the invention of the genre of industrialized dystopia, Rivera presents the opposite—the utopian possibilities of industrial society. For Lang's famous "Moloch-Machine" scene, click on the link below and begin at 13:20 of Metropolis:
Together with the triumphalism of technological progress from the 17th century Scientific Revolution to the 19th century positivists and beyond existed a darker view of increasingly mechanistic production, which polluted the environment, radically destabilized the global economy, and fundamentally changed the nature of work. In addition, in the 1930s another legacy of industrial mass production loomed large—the potential for it to be bent in the service of modern war. The First World War was still fresh in people’s minds. It had resulted in tens of millions of casualties, over 200,000 Americans. Rivera gestures toward this on the west wall, depicting technology as a potentially destructive force (military aircraft). The most negative portrayal of technology comes in a small panel outside of the main scene on the North Wall. Here, Rivera depicts a laboratory preparing bombs with poisonous gas.
Despite this link between technology and war, Rivera’s murals are a celebration of the capacity of human beings to develop and harness machines—and to fit themselves seemingly into the rhythms of their movements. Such a portrait of technology and industry crossed political divides. Industrial capitalism embraced technology—as did state-planned communism—as did fascism. Hybrid regimes like Japan’s new constitutional monarchy and Turkey’s authoritarian republic set out to promote domestic production. In Japan, a few hybrid industrial-financial behemoths (zaibatsu) came to dominate the country’s economy from their beginnings during the Meiji Restoration until the end of WWII. This sanguine view of industrialism grew to become a forceful economy principle, so much so that a main thrust of the international economic system constructed after WWII was to promote large-scale industrialization among non-industrial countries. Rarely did these projects achieve lasting success. For an illuminating analysis of Rivera's mixed view of technological progress and its connection to politics and society, check out this detailed look at Rivera's Man, Controller of the Universe by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker: