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Understanding Freedom and Control in Art Through a Marxist Approach

Understanding Freedom and Control in Art Through a Marxist Approach

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Published by Loh Jian Hui

First I explain what I mean by the Marxist approach towards understanding the notion of freedom and control in art, using Damien Hirst as an example to show how art is “controlled”. I shall then move on to art that is “free” using the example of Krzysztof Wodiczko and the kind of art made possible with the Internet. I shall then explain how some of my own artworks fit within this framework and end with a qualification of this approach.

First I explain what I mean by the Marxist approach towards understanding the notion of freedom and control in art, using Damien Hirst as an example to show how art is “controlled”. I shall then move on to art that is “free” using the example of Krzysztof Wodiczko and the kind of art made possible with the Internet. I shall then explain how some of my own artworks fit within this framework and end with a qualification of this approach.

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Understanding freedom and control in art through a Marxist approach

Benjamin Low Teck Hui

Interactive Art Level Two Student ID 12406

HP no. 97974063 benjamin.low@mylasalle.sg

An academic paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Diploma of Media Arts (Interactive Art)

LASALLE College of the Arts © Benjamin Low Teck Hui 2012


Signed Statement This paper represents my own work except where otherwise indicated or acknowledged. No part of this essay has been or is concurrently submitted for any other qualification at any other academic institutions. Signed: ___________________ Name: ___________________ Student ID number: ___________________



I shall first explain what I mean by the Marxist approach towards understanding the notion of freedom and control in art, using Damien Hirst as an example to show how art is “controlled”. I shall then move on to art that is “free” using the example of Krzysztof Wodiczko and the kind of art made possible with the Internet. I shall then explain how some of my own artworks fit within this framework and end with a qualification of this approach.


The Marxist notion of freedom in art

Marxism is a broad and sophisticated school of philosophy that is applied to many social sciences such as economics, politics, sociology as well as media theory. There are also several branches of neoMarxism that offer a contemporary take on classical Marxism, the scope of which is beyond this 3000 word paper. I will be using very broad brushstrokes from classical Marxism as applied to media theory, and extending this into the realm of art.

According to the basic tenets of classical Marxist theory, there is the assumption that the prevailing socio-economic order is an exploitative one, with the elite bourgeois or capital owners exploiting the majority working class, or the proletariat. The proletariat are hired in order to produce objects that generate wealth for the bourgeois. Such workers are alienated because they have no control over the purposes and products of their labour, and can own products only by paying back their wages to the bourgeois. Marxism is defined by this class relationship.

In media theory, this is related to the notion of control of mass media by an elite rich who have the power to be the opinion makers and representative voices of society. Powerful media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and William Randolph Hearst (who inspired the movie Citizen Kane) can help make or break governments and influence policy-making through the selective representation of news and events via their media empires.

This means that the capitalist interests of the elite are protected via the repression of real debate and critical thinking, and the dumbing down real issues by spectacle and sensationalism in mass media. The promotion of a mindless consumerist culture in mass media perpetuates the capitalist status quo. Extending this into the realm of art, it can be argued that art created for the sake of media attention (e.g. by provoking controversy) or for purely commercial aesthetics, as opposed to art that has a strong sociocultural context and inciting critical thought, serves capitalist ideology.

Classical Marxism famously predicted that that capitalism will lead to an unstable state of affairs culminating in a Marxist revolution1. While this failed prediction has been a major flaw in classical Marxism (an issue addressed in neo-Marxism), it shows how capitalism has managed to be self-


“Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!” - Marx


perpetuating and self-reinforcing2. Marxism states that the dominant ways of thinking in a society will always reflect the prevailing mode of production and the interests of the ruling class.

What this suggests is that capitalist economic relations are accompanied by a corresponding set of dominant cultural values, ideas and beliefs - ideology in other words, that is perpetuated by institutions such as the family, religion and political system. This leads to a false consciousness3 in society whereby workers are blinded to the true nature of their exploited position, by inverting capitalist arrangements so that they appear natural and inevitable rather than historically specific and changeable. A neo-Marxist analysis of media by the Frankfurt School4 holds that the ability of individuals to think and act freely, imaginatively and creatively - to be human - was being crushed by a relentless all-encompassing capitalist machine. People were reified or reduced to objects - cogs and pulleys in the system or commodities in the production of wealth. Lofty Enlightenment ideals about the expansion of the mind and enhancement of the human condition had failed to materialise because reason and rationality had been incorporated into capitalist economic relations, taking on a pragmatic, instrumental logic focused on maximising efficiency, profit and control, and suffocating critical thought, creativity and human subjectivity5. In their view, art in its pure form represents everything important about human subjectivity, including creativity, freedom and independent critical thought.

I would argue that uncritical art that veers towards commodification is the kind of art that is trapped by the instrumental logic of capitalism, and controlled by the interests of the elite capital owners via the consumerist ideology. This kind of art acts as a purveyor of the dominant capitalist ideology 6 in making attractive what is essentially meaningless and superficial for the purposes of consumption. On the other hand, art that raises awareness of the oppressed, marginalized, or social inequalities, tend to lift the veil of false consciousness, exposing the power dynamics and relations brought about by capitalism,

“Capital is money, capital is commodities. By virtue of it being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or, at the least, lays golden eggs.” - Marx
3 4

Hodkinson. p107. a group of theorists who fled Nazi Germany to the United States in the 1930s. Hodkinson. p108.



“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” - Marx


enabling people to break free of their oppression and flourish as individuals. Commodified art serves to incorporate consumers further into the capitalist machine, numbing and distracting the minds of the masses from the real reason for their alienation, and ending any prospect of mass opposition.

Artist as counter-Marxist: Damien Hirst

Perhaps a good case study for capitalism as a model in the arts industry would be Damien Hirst, reportedly Britain’s richest living artist with his wealth valued at £215 million in 20107. He was prominent in the 1990s as a leading figure of the British Young Artist movement and was patronised by the collector Charles Saatchi. His work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, consisting of a 4.3m tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a tank, was the iconic work of British art in the 1990s. In 2008, he sold a complete show at Sotheby’s by auction and raised £111 million, including £10.3 million for The Golden Calf, an animal with 18-carat gold horns and hooves preserved in formaldehyde.

Figure 1. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst, 1991

His association with Saatchi, a wealthy art collector and entrepreneur, reflects a wider trend of the link of the production of art with powerful commercial interests, as opposed to producing “art for art’s sake” or prioritising the expression of an art idea as the motivation for its creation. Art becomes a commodity8 whenever it is conferred an economic exchange value, and can be bought or sold at a price. Its commodity value is usually independent of any intrinsic artistic merit it possesses as assessed by art critics and academics. In December 2004, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone


according to the Sunday Times Rich List


“A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” - Marx


Living was sold by Saatchi to an American collector for £6.5 million.

Shock value and controversy has surrounded a lot of Hirst’s works, and this has garnered him a lot of media attention. Hirst once said in 1990, "I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say 'f off'. But after a while you can get away with things." A Thousand Years consists of a rotting calf’s head places in a tank with maggots which then hatched into flies that feasted on the corpse. It is a frightening work which has helped raise the profile and commercial value of his works. Controversy in this sense serves towards capitalist interests.

Fig 2. A Thousand Years, Damien Hirst, 1990

In 2007, in an exhibition of his new work at the White Cube gallery in London, the centre-piece was a Memento Mori titled For the Love of God. It was a human skull recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds weighing a total of 1,106.18 carats. Approximately £15,000,000 worth of diamonds were used. The asking price for For the Love of God was £50,000,000 ($100 million or 75 million euros). On 30 August 2008, it was sold to a consortium that included Hirst himself and his gallery. This quite clearly shows the motivation of art for commercial profit, but this could be applied to other artworks out there as well. From a Marxist viewpoint, the capitalist system is reinforced by the production of art, rather than art serving as a means of creative expression to break free of the false consciousness of society.


Fig 3. For the Love of God, Damien Hirst, 2007

It is well known that Hirst’s works are mostly done by his assistants in a “factory” setup. He said that he only painted five spot paintings himself because, "I couldn't be fucking arsed doing it". He described his efforts as "shite”. “They're shit compared to ... the best person who ever painted spots for me was Rachel. She's brilliant. Absolutely fucking brilliant. The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel." He also described another painting assistant who was leaving and asked for one of the paintings. Hirst told her to, "'make one of your own.' And she said, 'No, I want one of yours.' But the only difference, between one painted by her and one of mine, is the money.’" By February 1999, two assistants had painted 300 spot paintings. From a Marxist viewpoint, Hirst is a capital owner since he owns the factory and the means of production, including the labour of his assistants. He profits from their labour and this can be seen as a kind of exploitation.

I shall stop at the example of Damien Hirst since these arguments can be easily applied elsewhere to explain how art is controlled and subjected to the capitalist economy. I shall now move on to art that is more “free” in the Marxist sense.

Artist as Marxist: Krzysztof Wodiczko Taking the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko9 (b. 1943) as an example, in his Homeless Vehicle Project,

renowned for his large-scale slide and video projections on architectural facades and monuments...War, conflict, trauma, memory, and communication in the public sphere are some of the major themes of an oeuvre that spans four decades. His practice, known as Interrogative Design, combines art and technology as a critical design practice in order to highlight marginal social communities and add legitimacy to cultural issues that are often given little design attention.


he uses art as an agent of social action. He collaborated with members of the homeless community to develop a physical object and conceptual design to make their participation in the urban economy visible and self-directed10. Many of his other projects also reflect his belief in lending a voice to the marginalised and oppressed in society.

There are other artists who create art that reflect their strong beliefs in certain social issues regardless of funding or profitability issues. There are also community art projects that bring about awareness of the plight marginalised groups or galvanise social action. In these cases, art is not directed by the instrumental reason of capitalism towards commodification but by the belief in social equality, which lends itself to the vision of a classless society in line with Marxist ideology. Hence, from a Marxist viewpoint, this kind of art is more “free” rather than “controlled” by capitalist ideology.

Fig 6. Homeless Vehicle. Krzysztof Wodiczko. 1988-9. New York

Freedom in Art on the Internet

With the ubiquity and reach of the Internet, there has been a fundamental shift in the way certain kinds of art is made. Open source tools make available the software tools for the layman to create art. Members of online communities share their creative works and help out one another. Portals such as Youtube help reach out to a global audience. Art does not have to exist in the gallery or museum, it can exist in one’s home and shared with others through the web. Funding can be obtained from crowdsourcing websites such as kickstarter.com which has raised over $100 million for creative projects,

“You see this in certain gestures, certain ways of behaving, speaking, dialoguing, of building up stories, narratives: the homeless become actors, orators, workers, all things which they usually are not. The idea is to let them speak and tell their own stories, to let them be legitimate actors on the urban stage.”Wodiczko, Critical Vehicles, 177.


rather than from governments or private corporations.

This democratisation of art-making acts as a counterweight to the commercial world of art that exists in galleries, museums and auction houses. It exists in a global networked virtual space that transcends national boundaries and governments. This kind of art can be made by and shared with anyone with a computer and internet access. Audiences are empowered with the tools, knowledge and resources to create their own art, moving from being passive consumers of art to active producers of culture and meaning.

Despite sporadic state censorship and the presence of commercial interests online, it can be argued that the forces of capitalism and state control have much less dominance on the Internet than in the real world, leading to the conclusion that perhaps, this kind of art is more “free” rather than “controlled”. This art movement can also be seen as a kind of Marxist revolution, whereby the masses are empowered, freeing them from the control of an elite few. Nevertheless, this movement only affects certain types of art, most notably in the field of media art

I shall now analyse two of my recent artworks within the Marxist context of freedom and control.

My artworks in a Marxist context

1) The River

The River is a light sculpture installation as part of the iLight Marina Bay 2012 festival. There is a light animation looking like a water ripple effect that is programmed based on sound samples taken along the Singapore River. Hence the light animation represents life along the river.


Fig 4. The River as part of iLight Marina Bay 2012 by LASALLE College of the Arts.

The artwork has a strong visual aesthetic which makes it attractive to the viewer. It is also a kind of commercial aesthetics that increases its commodity value as people are willing to pay more to enjoy an artwork. Aesthetics and controversy are two sides of the same coin that help artists pander to the dollar.

This project was funded by a government agency that organised the event. The purpose of the event was promote sustainable light practices, with Philips being the main sponsor for the lights. The event also helped to bring hype and international media attention to the newly built Marina Bay waterfront area, with many of the art installations projecting art images onto the facades and surrounding areas. The festival helped brand Singapore as a hip, beautiful and creative place to be in, and presumably conducive to business.

The festival resulted in negligible benefits to the environmental as there was no action taken or any policy changes with regards to sustainable light practices. It seems to me that the festival was to promote the commercial value of Marina Bay or Singapore in general. The capitalist status quo is maintained, and art in this context serves towards protect elite capitalist interests, rather than bringing in a new kind of socio-cultural consciousness.

The River falls within this larger raison d’etre for the festival and as artists, my classmates and I have had no control over the context of the artwork, having to follow the project brief given to us. Having no financial resources and having to depend on the funding given to us by the festival organiser reminded me of the concept of the labour of the proletariat being exploited by the bourgeois.


2) Abstraction Abstraction11 is a collaborative performance installation between the faculty of Media Arts and the Theatre and Performing Arts in LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. It is based on the text of A Disappearing Number (2007) by the contemporary British experimental theatre group Complicite. It explores the theme of Mathematics, the juxtaposition of East and West culture and of human relationships.

Fig 5. Abstraction. Performance installation. 2012. LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.

Although a student production and a school exercise, this performance installation would be a precursor to similar works aimed at a commercial audience. While The River was an installation and this would be more of a media-cum-theatre performance, the differences in form belie the fact that both fall under the rubric of consumerism. Both artworks possess a pleasing aesthetic to cater as widely as possible to the taste of the public. Despite the artistic intention of conveying the themes of A Disappearing Number, Abstraction (like The River) would not help bring about any change in the false consciousness of society in the Marxist sense, hence preserving the status quo of instrumental capitalism. Seen in this context, Abstraction is merely a commodity.

Qualification of the Marxist approach

The Marxist approach towards art helps explain the commodification of art as part of being


Picture gallery available at http://www.zacr8.com/gallery/gallery_2012_abstraction.html (accessed 15 April 2012)


subsumed under the capitalist economy, and how this limits the actual freedom of artists to produce art for art’s sake as opposed to catering to commercial interests. However, like all theories about art, the Marxist approach cannot be seen as an all-encompassing approach towards understanding the notion of freedom and control in art.

For example, representation in art is regulated by censorship laws and policies, which is a function of state control, rather than that of private commercial interests. State control might also take the form of banning certain kinds of art that are subversive towards state authority or the sponsorship of art that promote nationalist ideology or political propaganda, e.g. public sculptures, museum art. Apart from the capitalist forces of the free market, the role of the state cannot be underestimated in understanding how art can be controlled.

There are also other valid approaches towards explaining the notion of freedom and control in art that are beyond the scope of this paper. Some other media theories that can be used in this context include the functionalist uses and gratifications perspective, and cultural studies notions of subversive audiences (Stuart Hall, 1982).



I have defined freedom in art as the degree to which art is free from capitalist control which tends to commodify art to protect the commercial interests of the elite bourgeois. I used the example of Damien Hirst to explain how art in this sense is not free. I then contrasted it with art that tends to bring about some form of social equality, erasing class distinctions and empowering the marginalised or exploited, such as the art of Krzysztof Wodiczko and the rise of media art on the Internet.

I then analysed two of my artworks and found that they tend to be commodities falling under the control of capitalist ideology. In qualifying the Marxist approach towards understanding freedom and control in art, I raised the importance of considering the role of the state as well.



The Marxist approach can be used to explain the pervasive extent to which art is controlled by the instrumental logic of capitalism. A lot of art out there is uncritical and commodified to cater to consumerism, thus perpetuating the false consciousness of society. A cursory analysis of my own artworks shows that it is not easy to create art that is truly “free”. Nevertheless, artists should always strive towards this notion of freedom by questioning the hegemonic ideology and constantly engaging in a cultural contestation of meaning over the status quo. As Marx once said “Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time.”

Bibliography Hodkinson, P. 2011. Media, Culture and Society, an introduction. SAGE Publications Inc.


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