Thursday, March 1, 2012

Essay on Davis, Prompt #2

Prompt #2

Art, Privilege, and Capitalism

Caia Caldwell

In Davis’s Life in the Iron-mill, Hugh Wolfe, a mere furnace attendant at the mill, has a hidden talent. He can sculpt, and do it well. One night, Bourgeoisie men see the figure he created while at work. Made out of korl, the art is of “a nude woman's form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the tense, rigid muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf's” (Davis). This story, about class, privilege, capitalism, and art can be examined though Marcuse.

For Marcuse, art is irrational. It is a break with traditional “rational” thought, and this is a good thing. Art refutes what socially has accepted, and “contains the rationality of negation…In its advanced positions, it is the Great Refusal—the protest against that which is” (Marcuse, Chapter 3).

This is what Wolfe’s sculpture does. He is an artist (although I’m sure the character would not think about himself that way), and his art is a protest. The woman he depicts is a working class woman who has known a hard life. She is “muscular, grown coarse with labor” and unattractive—“there was not one line of beauty or grace” (Davis). As the Doctor identifies the figure as a working class women, Mitchell is appalled is says, “God forbid!”

The Doctor is quite taken by the work though, and tells Wolfe he is able “to live a better, stronger life than I, or Mr. Kirby here? A man may make himself anything he choose” (Davis). Yet Marcuse proves right in the end. Art is repressed. Rational thought replaces irrational thought. “The fact that the transcending truths of the fine arts, the few wealthy and educated was the fault of a repressive society.” The Doctor says he cannot help Wolfe. Kirby and Mitchell ignore the talent they see in front of them.

Why do they do this? Why is Marcuse proved right? For the bourgeois class, they thought they had no use for Wolfe’s art. The “transcending truths of the fine arts, the aesthetics of life and thought were accessible only to the few wealthy and educated” (Marcuse). This was the way it was. So Wolfe became another causality of rationality; a great waste of talent who was destined, from the beginning to just be another laborer in the great capitalistic system.

However, I am not as cynical as Marcuse. Times have changed, and again, we must remember that Davis’s story was written in 1861. Class divisions have broken down, and (in the U.S. at least) opportunities for scholarships and education have greatly improved. Yet, to an extent, we can still consider art a privilege. When school districts have budget shortages, art classes and programs are one of the first things to be cut. Most artists have a difficulty making a steady or sustainable living, hence the “staving artist” clichĂ©.

So, in the end, I will have to side with Marcuse: “Separated from the sphere of labor where society reproduces itself and its misery, the world of art which they create remains, with all its truth, a privilege…”


Ben Fellows said...


Your connections between Davis and Marcuse are great, I especially like how you link the idea that art is a break with rational thought and how the statue is a protest. Typically, a statue often depicts beautiful figures, but Wolfe's sculpture does the opposite, a true break with rational thought. Your description of the society Davis presents is certainly a repressive society, supported by how the bourgeois reacts to both the art and to Wolfe.

You conclusion paragraph is very powerful in that it applies Marcuse to modern society, with an issue that is very relevant.

The only advice I have for this, if you plan to make a revision to it, is to perhaps make it an even stronger paper with a more focused thesis.


Adam said...

What you display most of all here is that you are able to produce a reading of Davis which is focused, compact, and detailed. You also show yourself to be able to focus clearly on some matters of great importance in Marcuse, although I'd make one small comment on your reading of Marcuse: for Marcuse, art is a *higher*, or transcendental, form of rationality. Which doesn't mean that it can't be presented or understood as being irrational.

So, I think your compact reading of Wolfe's character using Marcuse is good.

However, at the end I think you get involved in some dangerous slippage of concepts.

You are arguing, essentially, that Wolfe represents an artist who tries to be transcendent, but both the man and his art are repressed. Good.

You also argue that things have changed - there are more opportunities for education, etc. That's true, of course - but that very fact is at the heart of Marcuse's argument that in *his* time, as opposed to Davis's time, society has become one-dimensional. Remember, he agrees that life is *better* now - but it is simultaneously more regimented or more repressive.

In other words, what present as a disagreement with Marcuse is actually a point of agreement: you both think that opportunities have improved.

What he thinks we have incredible difficulty doing is *transcending* or *critiquing* our current (but much improved!) world. It's not that we don't educate children in art classes - it's that art gets integrated into mass culture, and fails to be transcendental, fails to effectively question the established order.

In other words: I think your reading of Wolfe through Marcuse is quite good. I also think that you'd need to revisit some of Marcuse's claims about the nature of repression and one dimensionality in our world before addressing whether his analysis of *us* needs revision because of your analysis of Davis through Marcuse.

Maybe the greatest fundamental difficulty here is that, while you are very good at applying Marcuse's concepts to Davis, that's not *his* starting point. His concepts are intended to apply to modern life first; you are reading them back to Davis (with considerable justification), then pointing to a difference in Davis' time and ours which is, in fact, a primary basis of his text.

If you revise, you might work your way through some of these problems. Or you might possibly decide that there's lots of interesting work to be done, in terms of how we should understand Davis, just by analyzing Wolfe through her.