Rousseau’s Teeter-Tawter: Inmate Reflections on a Prison Mural
“A mural can, aside from its artistic value, act as a healthy tonic on the lives of all of us.” (77) This was the conclusion Lucienne Bloch came to in an essay, “Murals for Use,” that described her mid-1930s experience painting a mural in New York Women’s House of Detention. The mural was an initiative of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which provided public-works employment for people impacted by the Great Depression. The essay was included in the 1973 collection, Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by artists and administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project.
Attached to the original manuscript were two letters written by inmates. The collection mentioned their presence but did not include them. When I wrote about the mural a couple years ago, I figured their value did not justify the effort to hunt them down. Two was too small a sample for a general impression of inmates’ reactions to the mural. As they were chosen by Bloch, who had an interest in showing her work’s success, they were also likely biased in favour of it.
Not knowing for sure nonetheless bugged me, particularly as, unlike the mural itself, the letters still existed. All the papers associated with the collection ended up at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. Succumbing to my curiosity was really just a matter of time, and it recently happened. So it does not bother you, dear reader, the letters’ text is included as an appendix to this essay.
My assumptions as to their value were largely right. Yet they hinted at a sort of utility beyond what Bloch suggested, something along the lines of the “real utility” to which Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred in the third maxim from the first book of his treatise on education, Émile:
“It is necessary in the support one gives [pupils] to limit it to only what is of real utility, according nothing to fantasy or to desire without reason, as fantasy will not torment them when one has not planted the seed, understanding that it is not a part of nature.” (290)
Rousseau was inclined to put art squarely in the category of tormenting fantasies. How did a prison mural depicting, as it turned out, a playful urban scene inaccessible to the inmates serve any purpose other than that of afflicting them? It may have, for some. Two letters to the contrary are certainly insufficient to rule out the possibility. They are however enough to show how the scene, and the work behind making it a reality, stirred feelings of nature, not as some idyllic paradise but as belonging to the inmates’ human experience.
The philosopher in the room during the Federal Arts Project’s run was American Pragmatist John Dewey. Holger Cahill, the National Director of the Project, made it clear in the speech he gave at Dewey’s eightieth birthday celebration. The speech was included as a foreword to the collection since “it is a clear and eloquent statement of Cahill’s personal philosophy.” (O’Connor 15) While Dewey was wide-ranging in his philosophical interests, he was particularly notable for his philosophy of education and, starting with the 1896 Laboratory School—the “Dewey School”—at the University of Chicago, for his efforts to put that philosophy into practice. (Westbrook 97)
Dewey critically appreciated Rousseau’s contributions to the field in the following way:
“The point may be summarized by saying that Rousseau was right, introducing a much-needed reform into education, in holding that the structure and activities of the organs furnish the conditions of all teaching of the use of the organs; but profoundly wrong in intimating that they supply not only the conditions but also the ends of their development.” (114)
Here is a philosopher contemporary to Bloch’s mural, whose take on arts underpinned the Federal Arts Program, who was active in educational pursuits in the urban environment, and who had absorbed and arguably improved on Rousseau’s thoughts on the subject. Beyond that, Rousseau is not the first thinker who comes to mind when contemplating use and utility. Why then should we bother going back two centuries and hop across the pond? Even if we insisted on such a move, why not focus on Rousseau’s briefly incarcerated and less sexist frenemy Diderot? And were we not pondering art in a women’s prison; how did we end up on the topic of education anyway?
Responses to these questions will become clear in due time. Dewey will not be lost though. After exploring what the letters can tell us about the mural’s reception, the discussion will be split into the mural’s utility as a condition, or means, in the broader process of human development and its more immediate usefulness. Diderot will also make an appearance, though only to cool Rousseau’s overheated rhetoric.
The mural’s theme was chosen at least in part as a reaction to the “sarcasm and suspicion” with which the inmates treated the notion of art:
“To combat this antagonism it seemed essential to bring art to the inmates by relating it closely to their own lives. Since they were women and for the most part products of poverty and slums, I chose the only subject which would not be foreign to them—children—framed in a New York landscape of the most ordinary kind. It could be Uptown, Downtown, East Side of West Side—any place they chose. The tenements, the trees, the common dandelions were theirs.” (Bloch 76)
At first blush, the reason children would not be foreign to the inmates was because they were all actual or potential mothers. This idea was further suggested by the observation, “In fact, in the inmates’ make-believe moments, the children in the mural were adopted and named.” (77) The mural’s title, “Cycle of a Woman’s Life,” was more ambiguous though could give a similar impression.
The two letters offered different perspectives. From the first:
“I rather imagine that the playground idea had very much to do with the fact that it was used to decorate our wall of the colored girls’ recreation room, it seems a reasonably good subject.
I like so very much the finished result. The figures are employed in the usual games of small children on a city playground. There is a spontaneous feeling of action and naturelness about the grouped figures which leaves me possessed of a strong sensation of pleasure each time I look at the mural.”
The painting added a sense of playfulness to the room. The “girls” were not portrayed as motherly and observing, but rather as participating in the recreation for which the room was intended. The “spontaneous feeling of action and naturelness” hinted at the tension between the regimented institution and play. The room may have been named and intended for recreation; the painting gave licence to the sort of feeling without which play was not really possible.
From the second:
“We have the most interesting painting on the roof wall in the Recreation Room. The subject is a Playground Painting and it’s all done by hand. The Picture Fascinates me because it reminds me of Childhood days, the swings, teeter-tawters and all the rest of it. It is done very Beautifully, so much life and color to it. It seems as if any minute one of the characters will step out of the picture. I wonder if it reacted on everyone as it did on me.”
The attitude was one of nostalgia. While the feeling expressed in the first letter was not explicit here, the direct connection between play and the writer was. There was no reference to the children as her, or any of the other inmate’s, children.
The letters gave no reason why the mural could not have been entitled “Cycle of (a) Life” or why reactions of nostalgia and playfulness would not have been elicited by a similar mural in a men’s prison. At the same time, Bloch talked to the resident psychiatrist and far more than two inmates before landing on a theme. It is easy to imagine children being brought up more frequently in a women’s prison and, as noted in the preamble, difficult to come to any strong conclusions with the evidence we have at hand. What is established is that the mural did at least sometimes evoke memories of the inmates’ own childhood and feelings of freedom—the liberty to act in an unconstrained, natural manner—associated with that time of their lives.
The realism Bloch was aiming for was central to this. Without the “swings, teeter-tawters and all the rest of it,” the scene would not have connected personally. The first letter went further:
“I more than appreciate the life and colors employed by the artist. Perhaps too, because I am very familiar with New York’s East Side, is the realest reason I have for liking the mural. It is quite true in every aspect of its construction, and easily recognizable as a picturization of a daily scene, many of us have seen so often, that it makes a definite impression.”
Using Rousseau’s framing of “fantasy or desire without reason,” we can already say that the painting was not pure fantasy. It was anchored in the experiences of its audience. Whether it provoked unrealizable or unreasonable desires is what is yet to be determined.
Rousseau was right…
Let us work through the relevance of an educational lens. At least some of the women were nostalgic for the halcyon days of their childhood. They appreciated the playfulness an accurate depiction of those days brought to the room where they were supposed to recreate. The fact remains that they were adults and not children.
Émile was explicitly concerned with forms of education adapted to child development, with chapters addressing what Rousseau called more (first version) or less (final version) explicitly “the age of nature,” “the age of intelligence,” “the age of force” and “the age of wisdom.” (61, 165, 216, 232) For all the differences between the ages, from infancy to adolescence, they were all based on the observation that children were not small adults and should not be educated as such.
“It is important that a man knows a great many things of which a child would not understand the utility; but must one and can one teach a child all that which is important for a man to know? Try to teach a child all that is useful for his age and you will see that all his time will be more than filled. Why do you want, at the expense of studies appropriate for him today, subject him to those of an age he is so unlikely to grasp? But, you will say, will there be time to teach what one must know when the moment has come to make use of it? I do not know; but what I do know is that it is impossible to teach it earlier; because our true masters are experience and sentiment, and a man only really feels what is appropriate in relation to where he finds himself. A child knows that he is made to become man; all the ideas he can have of the state of being a man are occasions of learning for him; but as to the ideas of the state out of his reach, he must stay totally ignorant. My entire book is but a continuous proof of this principle of education.” (445)
Beyond the basic children-are-children principle, two points are worth emphasizing. Rousseau argued that utility had to be viewed differently throughout development. What was useful for an adult may very well be harmful for an infant or a teenager. Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, “our true masters are experience and sentiment.” One of the more unhelpful generalizations about Enlightenment thinkers is that they were all champions of reason. Rousseau recognized how popular the trend was in his day and railed against it.
“To reason with children was a great maxim of Locke; it is the most in vogue today; its success does not seem to me however a very good rationale for giving it credit, and for me I see nothing stupider than those children with whom one has so reasoned. Of all the faculties of man, reason, which is only really a composite of all the others, is that which is developed with the most difficulty and the latest, and that is what one wants to make use of for developing the first ones! The chef d’œuvre of a good education is to make a reasonable man, and one has the pretension of raising a child by reason! It is to begin by the end, it is to want to make an instrument of the work. If children understood reason they would have no need to be raised; but in talking to them from their youngest age in a language they do not understand at all one accustoms them to empty words, to check everything one tells them, to believe themselves as wise as their masters, to become argumentative and rebellious, and all one believes to obtain from them by reasonable means, one never obtains it but by means of the covetousness or of the fear or of the vanity that one is always forced to add to it.” (317)
There was an incoherence between considering the goal of education the development of “a reasonable man” and dogmatically using reason at every turn—a profoundly unreasonable practice. Without the bedrock of experience, both in the world and in regards to one’s own emotions, reasoning was mere words, disconnected from concrete understanding and lacking motivational power. This was true enough when it came to adults and was doubly so for children, who were still figuring out themselves and their environment on more basic levels.
At its heart, education came in three forms:
“This education comes to us from nature, or from men, or from things. The internal development of our faculties and of our organs is the education of nature; the usage that we learn to make of this development is the education of men; and the acquisition of our own experience of the objects that affect us is the education of things.” (247)
The theory was that, with sufficient guidance to keep children from outright danger, they should be free to explore their abilities, their nature, and their environment, the things around them. In this way, their own strengths and weaknesses would determine possibilities and constraints.
The education of men should be held at bay as long as possible, both because, as noted above, it was too abstract and because it set up opinion-based comparisons between people that obscured and corrupted natural inclinations. Motivations “of covetousness, or of fear [of punishment] or of vanity” did not occur naturally. For Rousseau, the mistake Hobbes made in describing life outside society as “nasty, brutish and short” was that the latter took as natural characteristics that only existed in the society around him. (288)
Both Émile and the student following the trends of the day ended up under a “yoke,” only not all yokes were equal. Lacking society-induced covetousness and vanity, Émile’s desires were more modest and his constraints subsequently lighter. Further, since such constraints arose primarily from his own limitations relative to the things around him, his yoke was largely internalized and his struggle focused on making himself stronger. Rousseau saw collective human strength as a potential problem, as it had the power to significantly alter the environment. As an individual, much of Émile’s strength came from adapting to that environment.
The yoke under which other students laboured was that of man, which is to say it was externalized. They fought against their teachers and the largely arbitrary rules of the educational institution. Freedom meant pursuing immodest desires unfettered; strength meant realizing them. Only, the same social structure that combined human strength multiplied their desires. Neither freedom nor strength was possible, leading Rousseau to observe, “The civic man is born, lives and dies in slavery.” (253)
The imagery more in line with our subject is that of other students as prisoners:
“As [Émile] passed his childhood in all the liberty that [other students] take in their youth, he begins to take during his youth to the rule to which one had submitted the others as children; this rule becomes their curse, they hold it in horror, they only see in it the long tyranny of their masters, they believe that the only way to get out of childhood is in shaking off every sort of yoke; they compensate at that point for the long constraint in which they were held, like a prisoner delivered from his irons, stretches, shakes and flexes his limbs.” (637)
Lest we get carried away by Rousseau’s colourful language and too strongly identify schoolchildren with prisoners and ordinary citizens—those who endeavour to be both man and citizen rather than going all in on the social contract—with slaves, a splash of cold Diderot is appropriate:
“Jean-Jacques is so entirely born for sophism that the defense of the truth disappears in his hands; one would say his conviction smothers his talent. Propose to him two ways, of which one is decisive, but didactic, sententious and dry; the other precarious, but suited to incite his imagination and ours, to furnish interesting and strong images, violent movements, touching scenes, figurative expressions, to surprise the mind, to stir the heart, to raise a flood of passions; it is the latter he will land on. I know it by experience. He is far more concerned with being eloquent than with being right, smooth-talker than demonstrative, brilliant than logician; to dazzle you than to enlighten you.” (472)
Stripping away the imagery, we are left with Dewey’s point that Rousseau “introduc[ed] a much-needed reform into education, in holding that the structure and activities of the organs furnish the conditions of all teaching of the use of the organs.” (114) Education needs to be in harmony with the stages of (organ) development and pedagogical activities limited to those appropriate for that stage, even if the progression is not as cut and dry as Rousseau presented it. Beyond that, as “development” implies, the stages are cumulative. Without a foundation of contextual understanding of our bodies, our emotions, our senses and so forth, the idea of becoming a “reasonable man” at the end of the day is absurd. Stefan Zweig’s school-day reminiscences offer a textbook example, albeit one from Nineteenth Century’s dying days, of the sort of education in need of reform:
“whereas all of us, as soon as we stepped into the hated building, were forced to cringe lest we strike our foreheads against an invisible yoke. For us school was compulsion, ennui, dreariness, a place where we had to assimilate the “science of the not-worth-knowing” in exactly measured portions—scholastic or scholastically manufactured material which we felt could have no relation to reality or to our personal interests. It was a dull, pointless learning that the old pedagogy forced upon us, not for the sake of life, but for the sake of learning. And the only truly joyful moment of happiness for which I have to thank my school was the day that I was able to shut the door behind me forever.” (28)
The relevance of the educational lens is that, while what is useful for adults is frequently inappropriate for children, the opposite is not true. The mural’s relevance was only in part a result of “relating [the subject] closely to [the inmates’] own lives.” It was just as much a consequence of shifting the conditions of art from abstracted social construct to concrete, observable thing. As Bloch noted, “the inmates had a more natural point of view; they wholeheartedly enjoyed watching me paint. The mural was not a foreign thing to them.” (77) The first letter supported the point:
“I must confess that I have been quite interested in the so-called “manufacturing” of the painting. The wall is of brickwork, which naturally would not take any medium of color whatever. So that Miss Bloch was forced to apply about two inches of plaster over the entire surface of the area. She wished to decorate. This made it necessary to work in so-called sections. Each figure, every detail of foreground and background, was carefully sketched in, and then the long process of “laying-on” of colour followed. Due to the fact that the plaster had to be applied first, the work necessarily took much longer than had been planned.”
…but profoundly wrong
Creating a “reasonable man” has been a not overly unreasonable placeholder for the purpose of education. Rousseau used it as much to emphasize the limits as the importance of reason, which has served us well thus far. We also threw up a big red flag right at the beginning with Dewey’s “but profoundly wrong in intimating that they supply not only the conditions but also the ends of their development.” The mural was a concrete thing that reminded inmates of their experiential and sentimental foundations, as the letters showed, and such foundations were helpful, particularly in a closed-off institutional context, for learning how to adapt to the vagaries of life. That helpfulness could still be undermined if, say, it overemphasized the natural and treated all human influence not aligned with the precept “observe nature, and follow the route it lays out for you” as ruinous. (259)
The overemphasis was omnipresent in Rousseau’s writing. If he was not going on about how much he “hates books” (452), how cities were “the pit of humanity […, where] races perish and degenerate” (277), how medicine was “the most pernicious art for men” (269), and the like, he was throwing out general barbs such as that “society submerges us once more into our infancy [read: into helplessness].” (310) Diderot and Helvétius, in reaction to this sort of extreme position, questioned whether accepting the downsides of social institutions justified dismissing them. Diderot, in particular, felt Rousseau did not bother to adequately demonstrate how such downsides were not more than offset by increases in virtue and happiness. (466-7) Neither argued that institutions were ideal, only that Rousseau was, so to speak, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Bloch had a comparable issue with the House of Detention’s superintendent:
“She did not, at the time, feel that New York and ragged children were suitable subjects to be painted in permanent form on the prison walls. She then believed that “nature scenes” of a fantastic kind “would be more inspiring” and would not remind the inmates of unpleasant associations.” (76)
Describing nature scenes as “fantastic” cuts to the heart of a major difficulty with Émile. Rousseau did not want to write a book filled with “systems [the author] is not obligated to put into practice, [and so] gives without effort lots of beautiful precepts that are impossible to follow.” So he decided “to give [him]self an imaginary pupil” and run through his ideas as a thought experiment. (264) His pupil ended up being a boy born to a rich family in a temperate climate (France) who was sufficiently privileged to spend his formative years in the countryside with a private tutor. (266-8) Not only would such an upbringing be pure fantasy for the inmates, it would have been unthinkable for the students of the Dewey School and an increasingly vast swath of the population of our ever-urbanizing world.
Although many of the reasons behind Rousseau’s choice follow the well-worn path that led to the average medical patient and crash-test dummy being based on white men, his argument for choosing a boy from an affluent family deserves more attention. “The poor man has no need for education; that of his condition is forced on him; he would not be able to have another. On the contrary, the education the rich man receives from his condition is that which is the least appropriate, both for him and for society.” (267)
Zweig was an outlier. His fate was especially tragic because his capacities, unlike those of his schoolmates, matched his immodest ambitions. The lifeless schooling to which he was subject was all the same that of the son of an affluent Austrian family. His European cosmopolitanism, while admirable, was selective. It focused on the continent’s so-called major peoples—though his interest in the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren deserves more attention than I can give here—while ignoring the little peoples of his native Empire, such as the Galicians, with their treasure trove of Jewish culture, and Moravians, the bastion of Hussite Protestantism.
The schooling may have been “dull, pointless,” but it was very effective at inculcating norms of the class. “So no longer be surprised if politicians speak of the people with so much disdain, nor if most philosophers affect to make man so cruel.” (509) Practically speaking, the education of the poor was more grounded and, per person, less prone to send society off a cliff than that of the rich. There are good arguments to focus on the people, particularly if, per Dewey, a central aim of education lies in fostering democratic capacity. If the aim is more individual and if the theory is effectively a reaction against the largest pedagogical blunders of the day, ones leading to education having “no relation to reality,” then a rich pupil can be a sensible choice.
Individual utility is also more in line with the mural, which may seem contradictory. The Federal Arts Program represented a turning point from the market-based “arts for arts’ sake” mentality of the 1920s to one that saw art as a public good. (O’Connor 18) Bloch was effectively a civil servant. Yet conflating how the art came to be, the intentions of the artist and how it resonated with its audience would be a misstep. Some art created as part of the Program, and a great deal of activity in the Program’s art centres, did have civic overtones. Nothing in the essay and letters indicates the mural was among them. It would also be a leap to consider it as lacking utility only because it did nothing to help make the inmates better citizens.
Individual utility does not mean anti- or asocial; Émile was self-interested to be sure, but selfishness was a passion to be grouped with covetousness and vanity. While reactions to the mural were personal, Bloch remarked, for instance, that, “the scene representing Negro and White children sharing an apple was keenly appreciated.” (77) Rousseau held that an education leading to a “reasonable man” was contrary to one leading to a good citizen: “Forced to combat nature or social institutions, it is necessary to opt between making a man or a citizen; because one cannot make at the same time the one and the other.” (248) Dewey, who espoused a very broad view of democratic life, would not have agreed.
Still, a crucial part of Émile’s education overlapped with that of the citizen. “If I hold him at a distance [from society] until the end, what will he have learned from me? Everything perhaps, except the art the most necessary for man and citizen, which is to know how to live with his fellow men.” (655) If civic education comprises only the weak idea of knowing how to live with others, rather than including Dewey’s stronger democratic principles, it could be said that the mural did contribute to it. This would make civic education practically meaningless however as social reality is part of reality. Any education not divorced from reality would be civic. For clarity, and in order to emphasize the mural’s place on the nature side of the nature-social institution balance, we will simply say that it was not anti-civic.
It was also not moral. Dewey had an explanation for Rousseau’s perpetuation of the myth of “spontaneous normal development,” the idea that the goal of education will be achieved if, under minimal guidance, children are left to develop naturally. “Rousseau’s contrary opinion is doubtless due to the fact that he identified God with Nature; to him the original powers are wholly good, coming directly from a wise and good creator” (114) The interpretation betrays a very approximate reading.
The section on religion was a step back from the rest of Émile, switching authorial voice from Rousseau to the Savoyard Vicar and the principles from maxims to articles of faith. The section concluded, Rousseau stated:
“I transcribed this writing, not as a rule of the sentiments one must follow in the domain of religion, but as an example of the way one can reason with one’s pupil in order to not stray from the method I have worked to establish. As long as one gives nothing to the authority of men nor of the prejudices of the country where one is born, the lights of reason cannot in the realm of nature lead us further than natural religion, and it is that to which I limit myself with my Émile. If he must have another, I no longer have in that the right to be his guide; it is up to him alone to choose.” (636)
In line with the overall argument, the approach was to learn primarily from our experience of ourselves and our environment. Everything mediated by people, as it was coloured by opinions and prejudice, should be avoided as much as possible. God, if he existed, “hides himself from [our] sense and [our] understanding,” so our intelligence was of little help for directly grasping such an entity. (581) The furthest we could go would be to extrapolate from our observations of the ordered existence of nature and, if we were so inclined, formulate speculative articles of faith consistent with our inductions.
Rousseau was well aware putting out religious ideas at odds with the institutions of the time under his own name invited persecution. The section’s framing could be seen as a simple, and as it turned out not very successful, device to avoid such consequences. Let us take as given that he did wholeheartedly identify “God with Nature,” that there was no difference between the Vicar’s voice and his own and that reason-compatible speculations were in fact fully reasoned positions backed by sufficient observation. The Vicar explicitly stated that “God is good,” so that part of Dewey’s critique was on point. The problem that remains is God was not human:
“God is good, nothing is more obvious; but the goodness of man is the love for his fellow man, and the goodness of God is the love of order; because it is by order that he maintains that which exists and links each part with the whole.” (593)
More significantly than being good in an entirely different way from people, God’s intelligence was incommensurate with that of humanity:
“Man is intelligent when he reasons, and the supreme intelligence has no need to reason; there are for it neither premises, nor consequences, there is not even the propositional; it is purely intuitive, it sees equally all that is and all that can be, all truths are for it a single idea like all places are a single point and all times a single moment.” (593)
Another unhelpful generalization about Enlightenment thinkers is that they all espoused a difference-blind humanism. Certainly, for Rousseau, “everyone is born naked and poor, everyone subject to the miseries of life, the chagrins, the ills, the necessities, all sorts of pains; finally everyone is condemned to die. That is what man truly is; that from which no mortal is exempt.” (504) Any abstract notion of humanity however had to pass through personal experience:
“It will only be after having cultivated his nature in a thousand ways, after a great amount of reflection on his own sentiments, and on those he will observe in others, that he will be able to arrive at generalizing his individual notions, under the abstract idea of humanity, and connect his particular affections with those that can identify him with his species.” (520)
These reflections took into account both “the common accidents of the species” and “[people’s] differences […,] the measure of natural and civic inequality, and the picture of the entire social order.” (524) As children developed, one observed an “almost infinite division of characters.” (510) This diversity, this “particular genius of the child […] must be well understood in order to know which moral regime is appropriate for him.” (324)
Human morality was conventional and intimately connected to society: “It is necessary to study society by men, and men by society: those who will want to consider separately the political and the moral, will never understand anything of either of them.” (524) Yet it was just as intimately connected to “that from which no mortal is exempt.” Just as Hobbes mistook the character of men shaped by a certain society as human nature, the God of organized religion had little to do with what God might be if unreasonable opinions and prejudices were put aside.
At the risk of adding more eloquence into the mix, Shylock’s famous speech from The Merchant of Venice nicely captures the sort of reasoning and normativity that can arise from societies and religions that have lost sight of “what man truly is”:
“To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgrac’d me and hind’red me half a million, laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies. And what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
Rousseau, as Diderot pointed out, was prone to exaggeration and colourful language. Sometimes what he considered natural, such as marriage and chastity, was inconsistent. (650) Even when he was right in general, as with stages of development and ideal educational contexts, reality tends to be far messier. Given this, Dewey’s check on how far and in what direction nature alone should lead us is understandable.
That said, Rousseau did not suggest that we live, should live or could live in a state of nature. He did not argue that a full and fruitful education was completely divorced from social institutions. On the contrary, “the art the most necessary for man and citizen […] is to know how to live with his fellow men.” Nature was not, in itself, morally good. It was ordered and humanity was, despite being outside the state of nature, part of that order. Observing and following nature is an easily abused maxim—does this mean, as Rousseau suggested, avoiding doctors and passively accepting death? Human intelligence is a facet of our character, so the maxim can be restated as: ensure, as a necessary but insufficient condition, that our judgment has a basis in and is consistent with the natural—which is to say non-institutional—order to which we belong.
Bloch described the “nature scenes” the superintendent favoured as “fantastic” because they were the sort of scenes Rousseau imagined for his pupil. Under the circumstances, they would have resulted in the far too common separation of nature and human nature. Lacking the sorts of experiences Émile enjoyed, the inmates would not have seen their own nature in the picture. In familiar surroundings, as noted in the first letter, the latter sort of naturalness emerged:
“I like so very much the finished result. The figures are employed in the usual games of small children on a city playground. There is a spontaneous feeling of action and naturelness about the grouped figures which leaves me possessed of a strong sensation of pleasure each time I look at the mural.”
Far from Rousseau’s ideal, this was nonetheless far closer to his ideas. Simple, free activity unburdened from much of society-induced desires and constraints. A demonstration of unreasoned happiness and of an inmate’s continued capacity to feel such positive emotions well after childhood and while hemmed in by prison walls. All the same, “The tenements, the trees, the common dandelions were theirs.” (76)
· · ·
Societies and people change. Human development is not the sort of phenomenon that lends itself to kicking the ladder away once one has reached the top. The basic foundations so important in childhood are just as significant in adulthood. The mural’s usefulness as a condition was to strengthen the inmates’ connection to that foundation, counterbalancing the overwhelming logic of the carceral and other social institutions.
Its weight was admittedly insignificant in the face of a society that incited so many desires so far beyond the reach of so many. The situation had, if anything, worsened in this respect since Rousseau’s day. Bloch argued that the mural was a “healthy tonic,” which comes across as a temporary reprieve from the burdens of life, particularly prison life. Society was still society, prison was still prison and the inmates were still inmates. As a stand-alone influence, independent of stages and foundations, it seems to have been no less negligible.
“Every man wants to be happy.” For Rousseau, happiness was central to human well-being. The goal was far simpler in the state of nature: “to not suffer; health, freedom, necessities.” (444) The mural did not cover even these bases, let alone the moral and political aspects society layered on. Yet the letters tell us such positive sentiments did emerge from its presence on the recreation room wall.
The work did not come out of an artistic or rationalistic nowhere, let alone a supreme everywhere, but grew from (human) observation, discussion and intelligence. Reactions—both of the inmates and the superintendent—were in kind, informed by childhood in the city, interactions with Bloch and observing her at work. According to Bloch, “craftsmanship won [the superintendent] over.” (77) In the end and given the nature of human nature, the mural could be fairly viewed not so much as a tonic but rather as an example of what makes life essentially worth living.
Appendix – Letters
City and State
Nov. 13, 1935.
Dear Miss Lentz:
During the five weeks I have been “out of circulation” the mural of which I told you in an earlier letter has been finished. I rather imagine that the playground idea had very much to do with the fact that it was used to decorate our wall of the colored girls’ recreation room, it seems a reasonably good subject.
I believe I told you that the artist who has been working on it is a former pupil of Rivera, the Mexican muralist. I am not sure if his influence caused Miss Bloch to appear to use greatly modified “Modern Expression” in the groups of children. All the figures are somewhat square looking, but it tends to strongly suggest a physical sturdiness, rather than anything “arty”.
I must confess that I have been quite interested in the so-called “manufacturing” of the painting. The wall is of brickwork, which naturally would not take any medium of color whatever. So that Miss Bloch was forced to apply about two inches of plaster over the entire surface of the area. She wished to decorate. This made it necessary to work in so-called sections. Each figure, every detail of foreground and background, was carefully sketched in, and then the long process of “laying-on” of colour followed. Due to the fact that the plaster had to be applied first, the work necessarily took much longer than had been planned.
I like so very much the finished result. The figures are employed in the usual games of small children on a city playground. There is a spontaneous feeling of action and naturelness about the grouped figures which leaves me possessed of a strong sensation of pleasure each time I look at the mural.
I more than appreciate the life and colors employed by the artist. Perhaps too, because I am very familiar with New York’s East Side, is the realest reason I have for liking the mural. It is quite true in every aspect of its construction, and easily recognizableas a picturization of a daily scene, many of us have seen so often, that it makes a definite impression.
I might go on to a more exact and minute description of the mural, but I haven’t time now. Should you want to know of these, I may continue along this line in my next letter to you.
However, I wish you could see it.
· · ·
10 Greenwich Ave.,
New York City
Nov. 13, 1935
My dear Friend:
We have the most interesting painting on the roof wall in the Recreation Room. The subject is a Playground Painting and it’s all done by hand. The Picture Fascinates me because it reminds me of Childhood days, the swings, teeter-tawters and all the rest of it. It is done very Beautifully, so much life and color to it. It seems as if any minute one of the characters will step out of the picture. I wonder if it reacted on everyone as it did on me.
· · ·
Note: Translations from French by the author.
Bloch, Lucienne. “Murals for Use.” Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. Edited by Francis V. O’Connor, New York Graphic Society, 1975, pp. 76-7.
Cahill, Holger. Foreword. Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. Edited by Francis V. O’Connor, New York Graphic Society, 1975, pp. 33-44.
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. The Free Press, 1997.
Diderot, Denis. Réfutation d’Helvétius. Œuvres Philosophiques, edited by Michel Delon, Éditions Gallimard, 2010.
Letters. Francis V O’Connor papers, Box 6, Folder 139, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
O’Connor, Francis V. Introduction. Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. Edited by Francis V. O’Connor, New York Graphic Society, 1975, pp. 13-31.
Portigal, Trent. “Initial Baptism of a Prison Mural: Depression-Era Art and Human Closeness.” Epoché Magazine, 40, 2021.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile ou De L’Éducation. Œuvres Complètes de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, vol. IV, edited by Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond, Éditions Gallimard, 1969.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Gutenberg Project, 1998, https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1515/pg1515-images.html, accessed May 1, 2023.
Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. Cornell University Press, 1991.
Zweig, Stefan. The World of Yesterday: An Autobiography. The Viking Press, 1943, https://www.fadedpage.com/books/20181225/html.php#Page_28, accessed May 1, 2023.