Max Fraser has been awarded the Frost Prize for the best article in the journal American Art in 2013. The selection committee praised his article “Hands Off the Machine: Workers’ Hands and Revolutionary Symbolism in the Visual Culture of 1930s America” for its skillful exploration of “the contested visual terrain of the automobile industry during the Great Depression … At the center of this ‘labored’context of images, strikes, and industrial production, wherein themes of heroic working-class diversity competed with an emerging corporate-sponsored iconography of homogeneous consumerism, Fraser examines the hand of the worker as a particularly charged site of visual contestation. For example, whereas the 1936 Jam Handy film Master Hands (produced for GM) couched its celebration of labor in Taylorist corporate-technocratic logic by insistently representing workers as disembodied hands, other pictures—by Alice Neel, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Hugo Gellert, and Russell Lee—resisted that alienating logic by depicting their bodies more holistically. Through incisive visual analysis of the worker’s hand and its various incorporations, Fraser reveals how art helped construct and negotiate a complex politics of embodiment.
More than simply a study in iconography, Fraser’s article also deftly reads the works in question in relation to salient contemporary points of economic history and theory, notably John Maynard Keynes’s idea of ‘effective demand,’ which revised traditional perceptions of factory production, as Fraser says, by “reimagining the worker not only, or even primarily, as a supplier of labor but also as a potential consumer.”