Essential Art for Essential Workers
When the pandemic put the brakes on life as we knew it in New York City, I immediately thought about the essential workers who selflessly provide invaluable labor to keep us afloat. Doctors, nurses, and first responders were getting a lot of well-deserved praise, but other just as necessary workers were still marginalized. It was heartbreaking to read the account of Luis Padilla, a hospital janitor, being denied his free essential worker meal at McDonald’s because the cashier didn’t consider his job to be of merit for the offer.
I thought about art’s role in strengthening communities and fostering an understanding of experiences and viewpoints that may be initially unfamiliar to us. The first work of art that came to mind was Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Touch Sanitation. Ukeles was the official artist-in-residence of the New York City Department of Sanitation when she carried out the performance in 1979-1980, which involved her meeting more than 8,500 sanitation workers, shaking their hands, and saying, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” This work still resonates, speaking to the importance of acknowledging all essential workers, especially those who aren’t typically celebrated heroically. Furthermore, it is a touching display of physical acknowledgment in a time when we are all longing to return to some semblance of that kind of expression. Artworks like this have cultural relevance as an aesthetic movement, a social revolution, and an experiential learning process.
Artistic engagement is important for maintaining hope and promoting compassion. Art lifts our spirits and gives us a vibrant voice to communicate with the culture at large. It is a discipline that affords us agency to express ourselves humanely, consider multiple perspectives, and exhibit empathy for other people’s experiences. These are essential takeaways that we must embrace in order to confront uncertainty and fear, and work towards fostering a more reflective, equitable, and justice-driven society. I am grateful for art’s power to touch us wherever we may be and open our minds and hearts to experiences that would otherwise be obscured.
Adam Zucker is an artist, curator, and educator from Queens, New York. He writes a blog called Artfully Learning, which critically examines the benefits of integrating contemporary art practices within pedagogical frameworks.
Touch Sanitation is a two-part art exhibit by Mierle Landerman Ukeles (1939-), a feminist artist who has served as the Artist-in-Residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. In 1969 Ukeles declared herself a “maintenance artist.” Touch Sanitation took 5 years to complete.