Smith & Marx

Just found this as a draft. Don’t know why I didn’t post it. Its from Semester one so way earlier in the year.


It’s been a long while since I blogged and there has been so much to take in! I have nearly adjusted to a new schedule and have found that that waste ground of time between classes is a good time for furious scribbling in a notebook. However, working in little patches of time does run the risk of writing which rambles and loses direction which is what I fear this one did but the things I was thinking about are a fledgling mix of art and areas of new study, which I thought I should include in spite of its entry level Sociology ramblings.

Philosopher Adam Smith believed that under a Capitalist system a product would always be in continuous upgrade. Karl Marx believed that under a Capitalist system the masses lose their creativity. How does the modern Capitalist ethos affect the creative arts? Specifically Visual Art although these ideas could easily be felt rippling across multiple disciplines in the creative sector.

Firstly to examine the idea put forward by Adam Smith. He believed that the division of labour into separate segments meant that each segment of production is subject to continuous improvement, allowing more of the product to be made at a faster rate of a higher quality, the worth of said object would be determined by an unfettered free market. The analogy used to describe this idea is that of the humble (drawing) pin. Previously all components of a pin were made by one creator but with division of labour the metal spike is crafted by metal workers, the head carved (later plastic moulded) by carpenters and each pin assembled then decorated by more people in the production line. The theory is that each person in the process would use their initiative, industry training and skill to improve their step, the combined effort of which would create a better drawing pin all round.

How does this correspond to art-making in today’s society? Since the days of the Impressionists paint has been available in tubes, previously the artist had to mix their own as and when they needed it. In today’s (art) material rich environment I can just wander down to my local art shop and choose from a myriad of paint, canvas, paper stocks and mark making instruments (amidst a wealth of other media of course).

What does this mean for an artist? The key is choice and speed. The wide range of media available means an artist has multiple avenues of expression and the affordability and availability of such items means that an artist can create many ideas simultaneously, create multiples, paint straight from imagination to canvas unfolding multiple possibilities in a no holds barred outpouring of creative potential. However, this also means there can be a lack of reflection. The tedious and time consuming nature of preparation meant multiple hours of planning, time of quiet reflection when the work was created first in the mind before ever a brush was put to surface. The cost and time value of materials also meant that only the works of art an artist thought had substance would get made, earlier ‘workings out’ were painted over. This perhaps gave a more refined edited selection of an artists output into the world but also meant there was little chance of unplanned masterpieces and happy accidents.

Artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst epitomise the Capitalist idea. These artists are idea men and conceive an idea which is then passed on to a manufacturing team of specialists who work on small sections of the work. This means that each work is crafted to perfection by artists who specialise and have reached the zenith of their respective games. Does this create a better art product? As long as the conceptual ideas are solid that what does it matter that the artist did not make it himself? How far removed is this from the Renaissance schools where a Master did very little of the bulk of the work and left most of it to his apprentices. If the product is better and more desirable than isn’t that method of production successful?

One question I have of this kind of trajectory is the idea of Market Domination where a company, or artist as a functioning company, gains a chokehold on a market and is able to successfully drive out smaller companies or sole operators. In a nice example of “the big fish eat the little ones” in our supermarkets at the moment there is such a strong domination of the grocery market and the product lines that only the Larger companies and the Store-Own brands are able to succesfully gain shelf space. The canned fish section used to have multiple brands available but they are rapidly dwindling and what is left is the “Home” brand and the ethically questionable Sealord brand.

If this an indication of Capitalism at it’s best; the brand that makes the most profit (despite it’s shady exploitations) therefore corners the market and therefore succeeds where others fail or are pushed out of the water, what happens if this analogy is carried into the art market?

What happens if the Big Brands, the Hirsts and Koons share shelf space with the ‘Home’ brands, which for the purposes of this analogy would be  designer wall decorations created cheaply and in huge numbers. Where then is the room for the myriads of practitioners in between? Are or would they be shunted right out of the market? Is that a bad thing? The art market is a competitive old boys (old bourgeoisie?) place, would it necessarily be a bad thing if art was forced back (or further) into the underground? Is it an issue of so many voices you can’t make head nor tail of the conversation? If the world wasn’t quite so liberal arts sympathetic would less but better quality art get through the miasma of the market to be appreciated?

Is this what the Capitalist art market will or is changing to, separate divisions of Big Brand Art, Decorative Wall Filler and the third category; The Great Unknown? This third massive group, (hopefully) not driven by market forces or profit, not for sale but driven by Authorship and Discourse?

Or will there be a levelling, where you can buy a Balloon Dog on your supermarket shelves and an ‘Unknowns’ work sells for millions on Ebay?

And what would Marx say if he could see us know?

I found this picture when reading an angry and funny little article you can find by going here:

I found this picture when reading a really angry and funny little article you can find by going here:


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