The Ancient Art of Organized Labor

The history of art is intricately linked with that of labor, dating back to ancient Egypt. In tomb paintings from the 14th century BCE, artisans work in close quarters, crafting the decorative pottery, sculptures, hieroglyphics, and jewelry that would adorn mausoleums for pharaohs and high-ranking officials. The communal act of art making is preserved in the space containing their life’s work, even while their upper-class patrons viewed artisans as little more than commoners.

These women and men seem to make eye contact with the viewer, as if signaling unspoken solidarity. Ancient Egyptian artisans were the first workers ever to go on strike in recorded history, at a royal necropolis near their village of Deir el-Medina. While no imagery of the strike apparently remains, a record does exist on a piece of papyrus, likely written by the scribe Amennakht, in which the craftsmen claim, “The prospect of hunger and thirst has driven us to this.” 

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Weavers, tomb of Khnumhotep (c. 1897-1878 BCE)

During the reign of Ramesses III, a series of military conflicts, along with corrupt officials and bad harvests, resulted in delayed payments for sculptors, builders, painters, metal workers, and weavers, many of whom were brought in as paid supplements to slave labor. While the young pharaoh planned an exorbitant festival in his name, the unpaid artisans laid down their tools and marched into the city’s mortuary temples, refusing to leave without their rations. Officials attempted to quell their unrest with pastries and one-time payments, but the workers occupied the storehouse of grain, blocked access to the Valley of Kings, and threatened to destroy art in the temples over the course of three years. 

Although priest-officials eventually relented, the struggle permanently altered the relationship between Egyptian governors and workers. The labor strike as an organizing strategy thus dates back millennia, to a time when artists directly shaped the layout of society. To ensure social uplift as a class, artists have long formed guilds, associations, and unions to negotiate shared interests and combat administrative corruption. 

Dura-Europos synagogue wall painting showing Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt (c. 244–255 CE)

Even before Deir el-Medina, worker unrest forms the basis of Mesopotamian mythology. The Atra-Hasis, a precursor to the Epic of Gilgamesh, details the creation of humankind as a strike of the Igigi, or lower gods, against the higher Anunna gods during an immense flood in Babylon. In the Book of Exodus, Moses similarly organizes the Hebrew slaves against abusive labor conditions imposed by Ramesses II. Their flight from Egypt appears in vibrant shades of yellow, red, and indigo on a wall painting from the Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria. Moses stands larger than life over the fleeing masses, signifying its “biblical” scale.

In ancient Greece and Rome, freedom from work was considered a right of rank and privilege, as slaves supported the upper and lower classes. Aristotle wrote in his Politics that “all paid employments … absorb and degrade the mind” and that legal citizens “must not live a mechanic or a mercantile life … nor yet must those who are to be citizens in the best state be tillers of the soil,” referring to the leisure time necessary for participating in political discourse. Roman plebeians, many of them artisans serving the upper-class patricians, challenged the status quo through the secessio plebis (secession of the people), a form of general strike organized by craftsmen, farmers, and soldiers. 

The plebeian strikes led to a series of concessions that withered away the social and economic divisions among patricians and plebeians. Marxist archeologist Rannucio Bianchi Bandinelli argues that, while patrician art expanded on Greek naturalism, arte plebea (plebeian art) glorified non-elite patrons and workers who were part of a rising middle class. Over time, this populist sculptural style became the standard for Rome’s official friezes at a time when former slaves gained citizenship and the right to funerary monuments, as evidenced by the tomb of a baker and former slave named Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces.

Brunswick Monogrammist, “A Brothel Scene” (1537), oil on panel

For women of the medieval and early modern eras, withholding sexual and maternal labor led to greater say over state and administrative functions, such as Iroquois women gaining power to veto tribal wars in the 1600s. In the 15th century, brothel workers in the German state of Bavaria organized trade guilds and general strikes to get politicians to recognize their work as labor rather than sin. An anonymous painting by the Brunswick Monogrammist shows a crowded Berlin brothel from this time, in which a woman punches out a client in the entryway. Textile guilds in Rouen, France, similarly brought together single women and wives who organized work stoppages to ensure fair treatment and compensation in the aftermath of the Black Plague. Depictions of weavers and spinners likewise reveal their autonomy at work, not unlike 20th-century photography of women textile workers.

Liberal historians tend to describe periods of worker empowerment as catalysts of “decadence” in ancient and medieval art. Given the way socialist realism has uplifted the image of working people more directly, it’s easy to see why: A united front against monopoly, corruption, and wage slavery still poses a direct threat to ruling-class ideology. While labor relations remain tense for workers in the imperial core today, popular art is awakening to the struggle, once again revealing the decadence wrought by bourgeois culture.


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