The Arts as an Area of Knowledge: Interrogating Lunch atop a Skyscraper

By Louis Cheng

(Test Preparation (ACT/SAT/SSAT/ISEE/IELTS/TOEFL) , IB ToK (Theory of Knowledge), Economics tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Every IB student needs to take Theory of Knowledge, a course that aims to provoke critical examination into the ways through which we know what we claim to know. The arts, in particular, are designated as one of the Areas of Knowledge in ToK, and they are said to offer us knowledge. Nevertheless, it appears to be a common assumption in our scientistic society that proper knowledge as such and the arts are incompatible, or orthogonal at best; the arts, it is said, are about appealing to the “emotions” while the sciences and mathematics appeal to “reason” (this very dichotomy remains to be questioned). Therefore, I think it would be fitting to see how truth and knowledge are in fact intimately connected to the arts by interrogating a photograph from 1932, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, while dissolving our modern conceptions about the arts in the process.


(Image Source)

Read more on Louis’ previous blog “Language as a Way of Knowing: Three Logic Puzzles”

Eleven immigrant workers, seated on a construction beam 850 feet above Midtown Manhattan, casually having lunch, sharing banter, and lighting cigarettes, their legs dangling over the bustling metropolis, with its labyrinth of architectural objects that aspire towards the sky, are the subject of this famous photograph. Upon encountering this photograph — a crystallized moment from September 20th, 1932, during the construction of the Rockefeller Center — one is taken aback by the men’s casual demeanor despite being suspended at such a great height without any safety gears. Death appears to be a single misstep away for these men. One wonders just what sort of world they must live in for them to exercise such a fearless attitude towards height, surviving atop a skyscraper.

Against these eleven brave men lies the sprawl of New York City, shrouded in a hazy mist whose origin is unclear: Was it a misty day? Or were the men in such a great height that they were surrounded by the clouds? Or is it just an artifact from an aging photograph? Or was it the specter of the Great Depression? Indeed, the photo was taken while the city was in the depths of the Depression, when one in four New Yorkers was unemployed. In this time, large-scale construction projects which had begun during the boom years of the 1920s were nearing completion, and people were desperate for any jobs regardless of safety concerns. These were the nameless men, mostly immigrants, who, with their own hands, built the city, with its urban ambitions, invisibly accompanying and ushering the modern man’s reach for ever greater heights. They are the specters with which we live. In this photograph, they are brought to light.

Photographs are a moment of spectral interruption, according to French philosopher Jacques Derrida. They capture and eternalize a moment that is no longer, and never was as such — in them, “the time is out of joint” (Hamlet). In this sense, photography is not a re-presentation of what is absent, but a creation of what was never present. In fact, as soon as one dislodges the rigid conception of time as a series of atomic instants — the time of the clock — of the Western metaphysical tradition, reference and re-presentation become untenable if not impossible; in the tradition, there is a great inflation of the present moment, with its metaphysics of presence and of total visibility, as if we are not in an originary way engaged in life but can become detached spectators, as if life is completely in our hands and not constantly exposed to and shaped by the invisible risk of dying. “It is originary: life is living on, life is survival”. What cannot be understood by the metaphysicians and physicists must have been so obvious to the men in Lunch atop a Skyscraper. Fled from their home countries, betrayed by the promise of the American dream, encountered by the pains of everyday life during the Depression, and indeed suspended in great heights above the city of promise, life to these men is from the start a suspended threat. They witnessed the death of their friends and fellow workers every day, and every moment on the beam was a moment of survival; on the little money they got they lived on from one day to another. “Thank god I am still here,” one of them must have exclaimed. They are thus specters that interrupt the privileged metaphysical frame through which we see, which is also the frame of science, progress, and modernity. In this way, the photograph as the crystallization of a moment that never was opens up a new gaze that is within and without time.

Lunch atop a Skyscraper is a gaze that looks at us. It reveals to us that we are ourselves always already surviving, always already mourning. This revelation coincides with the insight that art discloses truth. “The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings. This opening up, i.e., this deconcealing, i.e., the truth of beings, happens in the work. In the art work, the truth of what is has set itself to work. Art is truth setting itself to work,” writes Martin Heidegger , a famous German philosopher. For Heidegger, truth is not an object to be sought out, but rather a happening that one encounters without planning to be met, almost a passivity of activity. It is a dispossession of our privileged way of seeing, which views the world as an object and ourselves as the subject, and delegitimizes our engagement with the world as mere “appearance” while displacing responsibility and urgency with explanations about “intrinsic” causes. Heidegger holds that this metaphysical way of thinking has colonized most areas of life in the modern man, and art uniquely remains access to truth as an encounter with the other. In particular, art brings out the clash between what he calls “earth” and “world.” Earth is the material underpinning of the world, which is a totality of significance that is constantly formed. While earth dynamically informs and sustains our world of meaning, it resists being interpretively exhausted by it: “The world grounds itself on the earth, and earth juts through world… The world, in resting upon the earth, strives to surmount it. As self-opening it cannot endure anything closed. The earth, however, as sheltering and concealing, tends always to draw the world into itself and keep it there” (The Origin of the Work of Art). Imagine we have in front of us a glass of water, conceived as earth here. One can analyze all he wants and say that its molecular formula is H2O, its surface tension is X, its density is Y, and so on, but these facts represent a radical departure from our experience of it in everyday life, the world. For example, what does its molecular formula have to do with the sense of fulfilment of drinking a cold glass of water on a hot summer day? Once analyzed, the essence of earth is lost; it is a concealment full of unanalyzable secrets that the world continuously and inexhaustibly interrogates and opens up. Along the same lines, the work of art is an intricate interplay between concealment and un-conealment, secrets and exposure, and invisibility and visibility.

The earth in Lunch atop a Skyscraper continuously looks at us and calls to us. One of the secrets in the photograph concerns the identities of the men in the photograph. There has been an enduring interest in pinning down whom the men were, their names. Interestingly, many people have tried to claim that the men were their fathers or grandfathers, but few have presented evidence that is convincing to the experts. From this, it appears that many people wish to trace their heritage through this photograph, which has become a trace of a collective memory that speaks to the American immigrant experience in the 20th Century. Whether these claims of familial associations were true or false, though, are irrelevant, because truth becomes an inadequate and even impossible parameter for the photograph, which is always a testimony of a moment that never was. As reference and re-presentation become impossible, the identities of the men remain undecided and radically undecidable. After all, earth continuously shelters itself from a total visibility; any frame that claims to be a total visibility is in the end regulated by a hegemonic invisible. Even if the names were pinned down for all the men in the photograph, its aura and the sense of wonder it evokes remain something other that evades the constraints of the proper nouns, which are themselves idioms that are untranslatable — earth. “It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth thus shatters every attempt to penetrate into it” (Origin). Our modern monotheistic obsession with origins and essences is thus resisted and put into question by the photograph, a work of art that de-stabilizes our metaphysics that objectifies the world.

Related, it has been recently revealed that Lunch was staged and not a spontaneous moment from the lunch break of the workers as was conventionally presumed. “The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center. It seems pretty clear they were real workers, but the event was organized with a number of photographers,” claims historian Ken Johnston. In the way mainstream media present it, this piece of information, its origin as a staged photograph, is supposed to render the photograph less legitimate and less authentic. However, as discussed, the photograph is from the beginning a creation of a moment that never was. In this sense, the issue of authenticity is radically irrelevant because there is no referent to which it is supposed to point to. It may also be noted that every photograph is always already staged: it is always framed by happenings beyond the frame. In Lunch, they include the photographer, the “click” of the camera, the economic situation of the time, the global order that brought these men to New York, the human aspiration to ascend skywards inherited from the Enlightenment, and so on. However, because of this, every photograph is at the same time always already unstaged: it is always punctured by the unpredictable, the punctum, the unseen that regulates what is seen, and the secrets of earth that have yet to be fully interpreted. In Lunch, the men, together with the vertical grasp of 1930s Manhattan, unendingly constitute a world of meaning — a dynamic interrogation that thematize human displacement, human aspiration, and human determination.

The specter of the human looms large in Lunch atop a Skyscraper. The humans who are displaced from their hometown are also the humans who are displaced from the ground, suspended in the name of Progress; the human aspiration towards the heights is also an aspiration towards God (and thus Truth); the human determination to live and thrive is a relentless will to peace and stability. The figure of the human is revealed to be irreducibly complex, but it is at the same time deconstructed through the splintered temporality which the photographic intervention opens up, a moment of survival. It asks: what makes up the recognizably human, who is and is not publicly grievable, and which lives are worth remembering in collective memory? Are the workers, all coming from elsewhere, contingently united on a beam of construction, who are on the verge of death every day, simply pawns and necessary sacrifices for historical progression and the human ambition for greater heights, despite their very deep and delicate humanity that is exhibited in the photograph? Provoking such questions, the photograph ruptures the frame which previously exists unnoticed while establishing the differential allocations of visibility — the humanity of the human that is a construction from the 18th-Century Enlightenment ideals, who is supposedly rational and autonomous, yet social, political, civil, and civilized. It turns out that this frame has always been haunted by an invisible Other, who silently awaits hospitality.

Lunch atop a Skyscraper spectralizes our everyday world. Instead of living in communities of those we see and can count, it is brought to light that we always already live in communities of specters, who are torn by the violence of the past, coming from elsewhere, pointing to elsewhere, who are not yet present and no longer present. The specters in the photograph continue to look at us and call for a witness. The knowledge obtained from this piece of artwork is indeed deeper than any mathematical formulas or scientific discoveries, and it certainly speaks more truth-fully to our hearts.

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