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Written for Sheffield Hallam Undergraduates End of Year Catalogue and Show, The City Gates, June 2009
Marx and Senses
In 1843 Karl Marx began crafting the abstract curlicues of Hegelian philosophy into world-oriented political polemic. He snapped up Hegel’s categories of subject and object, master and servant, individual and community, nature and history, ideal and real, and exposed them in the light of contemporary class society, with its specific capitalist economy and bourgeois politics. In Marx’s vision of the world-spirit brought down to Earth, the question of the aesthetic – and its embodiment in the senses – is key. Marx presents the human as a crafted work of art, a product made over time and through experience. In centuries of labouring and collective association, humans develop their sensuous capacities, their abilities to discern and produce things of beauty. Marx states that: ‘The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.’ The subjective senses - a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form - , aspects of what Marx calls ‘essential powers of humans’, are cultivated socially and historically. But those sensuous capacities are distributed unequally. They are inhibited by the iniquities of the social system, manifest in the existence of private property, which forces social beings to conceive themselves as individuals, and the dominance of money, the mechanism whereby inequality is policed and experience is deferred. For Marx, the variety of our senses – gathered up as being - is subordinated under capital’s rule to the sense of having. His call, dialectically realizing of and realized in social revolution, was for the return of sensuous, aesthetic experience to the collective. In his utopia everything is experienced for its own sensuous qualities, rather than its value in money terms – its exchange value.
Subsequently Marx analyses the capitalist economic mode and, in particular, the fate of the factory drone, powerlessly subjected to the dull, de-sensitizing repetitions of industrial labour. Concomitantly, in Britain, where capital’s rule was unleashed earliest, the government schools of design are founded (Sheffield being the first in 1843), in response to changes in the mode of production pinpointed by Marx. These schools nestle within the most industrialized cities. The rise of the machine expunges craft labour, in which an artisan accompanies an object’s journey into the world from start to finish. In an epoch of expanding commodity production and diversifying machinic techniques, new skills of art-labouring are needed to manage the design and oversee the production of machine-tooled goods. A skilled working class, trained in the new schools, emerges. It alienates its skills – the mental ones of conceptualizing as well as the manual ones of, for example, electro-plating, iron hammering, modelling and engraving - for the price of a sausage or two. Located in the centre city, these schools of design and then the art schools (Sheffield’s design school became the School of Art in 1855) are ameliorations of the factory society, icing on the cake, but only for those who can afford the cake. At best, they are the incubators of a type of work where the all-round sensuousness intrinsic to all is allowed to develop but only partially. For the art-labourer in industry, their creativity is parsed through conditions unlike those in artisan’s workshop. They design and decorate in the context of a strict parcelling up of labour’s tasks and under the watchful glare of a chain of supervisors, bosses, owners and commercial agents. It designs and produces the new baubles for a life of rampant having. The Schools of Art provide training in how to confect a superior class of bauble - paintings or sculpture - high-end commodities, but commodities all the same. From now on art and artifice come to be the alibi of class society: see, our dominion cannot be so inhumane - for we are capable of generating artifacts of great beauty and anyone who hands over their own money might purchase them. The schools of art and designs are beacons inside the city. Out from them emanates the only remaining light flickers of a life worth living – for all the constrictions seem unable to deny art’s marking of a space of other-thinking and other-working, in short, art’s relationship to emancipation.
Let's Go Metro
At a certain point – 1969 in the case of Sheffield – art and design was actually and metaphorically exiled from the centre-city, in the reorganizations and mergers that formed the polytechnics. These recombinations were attendant on government policy, designed to rationalize, equalize and homogenize education provision. But in Sheffield the call came – compelled by a times-typical brew of land speculation and brand enhancement so the university may ‘grow its business’ - to return to the centre-city, to parade art and design before the glare of publics, not so much those in the centre city itself, but those in the wider world. Through relocation, the art school hopes to be a beacon on an international market in an age of competitive cities, regions and countries. All is brand-spanking new and art’s return is to centre-stage, for art is the plus that no-one can deny. As publicity for the Design Research Society conference in Sheffield in 2008 puffs: art and design have been doing their work of beautification, making ‘a new and delightful city centre’. And art enriches – in the monetary sense, for Sheffield’s present is the future we are told to bank on in an epoch of cognitive capitalism: home to ‘new cultural industries’. Culture and industry continue dalliancing – that old couple, those bedfellows, in and out of each other’s pockets, in the city, outside it, wherever they could get down to it over this last century and a half. Art is a more or less repressed part of our being in the world. Art as a means to having is another thing.
Little and Happy Shopper
The industrialized city was the place where culture fermented, in its academies and alleyways. Perhaps it returns to a city now thoroughly imbued with the value of the amalgram cultural industry, a setting where every brand, logo and sign aches for the status and graceful favours of art and the receipts that should follow. Walter Benjamin coined a couplet about the (Communist) politicisation of aesthetics (a thoroughly urban art activism, if ever there were one) smashed down by the (Fascist) aestheticisation of politics (a crushing response to democratisation). Might it also be possible to speak of an urbanisation of aesthetics, kickstarted in (a critical) response to urbanisation, now substituted by an aestheticisation of the urban (the city of culture, the longer-for salvation of dying cities through art). In such a city art takes up its place.
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