Art, Privilege, and Capitalism
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” cliché.
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…”