Posted: March 18th, 2023
Lewis Hyde, William Morris, and Sally Banes each offer a perspective of how capitalism affects creativity. For Morris (who writes closest in time to Karl Marx himself) the focus of inquiry is work itself: seemingly with an awareness of Marx’s concept of alienated labor, Morris emphasizes the need for dignity and meaning in work. For Hyde, the central answer lies in a social and anthropological understanding of gift-giving: what becomes important is not the work itself so much as the relationship between creator and recipient. For Banes, the issue is collective: her discussion of Fluxus raises the issue of Marxism as we see the communal and collective sense of operation. Ultimately, however, what each of these writers is focusing on is the notion of the self, and how it might resist commodification.
When William Morris delivered his lecture on “The Beauty of Life” in 1880, the Industrial Revolution — and the vast disruption it had caused to ordinary life in England — was a relatively recent memory. For example, the production of cloth, which had been done by individuals spinning at a spinning-jenny, had been taken over by vast mechanical looms, essentially robbing individuals of a livelihood and spawning the rise of “Luddites,” an underground movement of people who opposed and sabotaged technology. Yet it is important to note, when Morris alludes to this history, what he chooses to emphasize: he decries the replacement of art with “that pretence of artâ€¦which is done with machines, though sometimes the machines are called men, and doubtless are so out of working hoursâ€¦and in short the whole civilized world had forgotten that there had ever been an art made by the people for the people as a joy for the maker and the user.” (Morris 1880). The emphasis he places here clarifies that what makes industrially-produced material a “pretence of art” is the absence of “joy.” It is the emotional connection between artisan and product that Morris seeks to reinstate.
Hyde by contrast is not placing an emphasis on the emotional well-being of people. His anecdotes in this chapter tend to take for granted the desire of people for status and position within a group. His claim instead is that the group dynamic is lessened by an emphasis on property rights regarding what gets produced. His examples go far beyond the arts, as well. For example, he notes that in the scientific community “ideas do not circulate freely when they are treated as commodities. The magazine Science reported on a case in California in which one DNA research group sought to patent a technique that other local researchers had treated as common property, as ‘under discussion’. An academic scientist who felt his contribution had been exploited commended, ‘There used to be a good, healthy exchange of ideas and information among [local] researchersâ€¦Now we are locking our doors.’ In a free market the people are free, the ideas are locked up.” (Hyde 107). Again we can see the difficulty of the individual self within this environment: DNA research is not something that can be conducted by a lone heroic individual, it requires a community overall. But in some sense, what Morris had termed “joy” is here understood as “healthy exchange” and “freedom”: when the emphasis is placed on the financial reward of the end product, the creative process stalls altogether.
Banes is likewise interested in how the creative process operates socially and in a group. However, in her discussion of Fluxus, we can see that notions of community also apply and have an effect in the world of visual and conceptual art — a realm where we ordinarily do maintain a sense (mythical or not) of the heroic lone individual acting as creator.
According to Friedman, the rules for membership in Fluxus, as Maciunas defined them, were only three, and they were simple: 1. Fluxus is a co-operative. 2. Each member works for all members. 3. Whatever you present or publish you must include over 50% Fluxus members, and you must call it Fluxus. There was, indeed, a Leninist flavor in this notion of collectivity, and early Soviet experiments in collective living and in artists’ participation in co-operative ventures inspired Maciunas to organize Fluxus further. Beyond an art movement, it was moving toward a utopian model of cooperative work and life. (Banes 64).
Interestingly, Fluxus seems to have codified its denial of the myth of the heroic lone artistic creator. The third rule here stipulates that, on principle, any Fluxus artist must automatically confess of any work that he or she creates that his or her own contribution was less than half: in other words, the individual always owes more to the group than vice versa. It is no accident that Banes sees the influence of a more specific political response (i.e., Marxism-Leninism) in how this is organized.
Each of these theorists describes a way whereby art might be organized to protect itself, and the artist, from the depredations of a capitalist economy. For William Morris, the important element was the reintroduction of human values — dignity, meaning, joy — into the labor performed by the artist. Yet the arts Morris is describing were always largely domestic and decorative, the sort of craftsmanship that would be replaced by industrial production. For Lewis Hyde, it is the notion of keeping collaborative work as a space for freely-exchanged ideas — the resistance is to the immediate commodification of an idea. For Sally Banes, the example of Fluxus deliberately models artistic production along the lines of an extraordinarily regulated trade union or Fourierist phalanstery. In each of these examples, though, we can see a model for protecting not just art, but the individual. Gift exchange or collective membership provide a sense of communal bond and (to some extent) social insurance for the individual — a demand for meaning in labor and in what is produced makes sure that the individual will not be easily replaced by machine. The truth is that Capitalism sees an individual self as a commodity: each of these theorists describes a path to resisting that chilly reification.
Banes, S. (1993). Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-garde performance and the effervescent body. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hyde, L. (2007). The gift: Creativity and the artist in the modern world. New York: Vintage.
Morris, W. (1880). The beauty of life. Retrieved from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1882/hopes/chapters/chapter3.htm
The manipulation of gender in visual representation has been a constant, although the traditional weary story is one of male artists fashioning feminized objects for the male gaze. In the twenty-first century, however, we can see various ways in which artists male and female are incorporating an awareness of this traditional gender manipulation into their art. I propose examining gender assumptions in a small number of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century works — from advertising (Microsoft’s 2014 “Honestly: Wedding Planner” ad), music video (Lady Gaga’s 2010 “Telephone” and Prodigy’s 1997 “Smack My Bitch Up,” both directed by
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