The Invisible Hand
“The Invisible Hand” is an art object created out of the 2nd phase of Birmingham School of Art’s Swop Shop Programme. SWOP SHOP will pop up in Selfridges Birmingham between 21st – 30th September 2018, as part of Birmingham’s Live and Loud.
I have been working in collaboration with Luke Sewell, an MA student in ‘Innovation and Leadership in Museum Practice’, who works in printmaking that uses lino print and analogue photography to tell often overlapping stories about themes ranging from revolutionary history to Birmingham-based urban agriculture. The programme aims to draw on the tradition of bartering and exchange system. No money changes hands, but instead, objects or skills are swapped. These objects are reworked by students from Birmingham School of Art and Birmingham City University to create a new art piece or possibly a new skill, zine or concept. It is entirely up to the students to decide how to interpret the exchange. The items are reintroduced to the public for a further and final swop. This object will be on display at Selfridges Birmingham alongside other objects created by several students also involved in the programme.
Our first object was entitled “All the Produce of The Land”. This was a portrait painting visible from either side of the frame (fig 2a,2b,2c). “All the Produce of The Land” examined the exploitative colonial relationship between Britain and Jamaica. The piece focused on three historical figures of the 18th century: Queen Nanny, the18th century Maroon chieftess, who led a successful armed rebellion of escaped slaves against the British in Jamaica, Matthew Boulton a leading Birmingham industrialist and Samuel Galton Jr, a local gun manufacturer and prominent figure within Birmingham’s Enlightenment elite circle of thinkers and opinion-makers. In making All the Produce of The Land, we asked, ‘Who benefits from capitalism and who become mere cogs in the wheel of production?’
Fig 3 – Cast iron cobblers foot
After the first round of swop shop, we received a cast-iron cobbler’s foot (fig 3) in exchange for our artwork All The Produce of The Land. Luke and I felt it would be interesting to maintain a critical argument regarding capitalism, So in our second piece (fig 1), “The Invisible Hand”, we continued that critical discourse. “The invisible hand is a term used by the 18th-century economist Adam Smith (1723 -1790), credited as the philosopher of modern free-market capitalism. As a metaphor for the workings of capitalism, the term expresses Smith’s view that an individual’s unconscious drive to strive towards their own economic self-interest often also results in a general societal good, or benefit. In other words, individualism in the form of the pursuit of individual economic self-interest through wealth accumulation invariably also has a wider beneficial effect for society as a whole, as if led by an invisible hand. This idea underpins liberal capitalism’s view that the state should not be allowed to control the economy, but instead, let individuals trade freely with one another, with minimum state regulation, thereby, allowing the invisible hand of the market to find its own balance organically.
Adam Smith’s concept of the invisible hand was introduced when we began to talk about using the foot as a metaphor for the heavy load that worker’s bear concerning capitalism. The weight and rigidity of the iron foot functions as a metaphor for the pressure of capitalist production upon ordinary workers. From above and from a position of power (multi-national companies and their shareholders) the view is luxurious. Viewed from underneath, the weight of the foot becomes heavy and oppressive, bearing down on workers – many in the Third World – who labour on the production lines of multinational companies, such as Nike, in often poorly regulated and exploitative working conditions.
We placed the foot on a plinth made out of foam board. The iron foot acts in critical opposition to the idea that the invisible hand can overcome exploitation through a free market. We argue that on the contrary, a free market left to its own devices with minimal state intervention would lead to further exploitation as corporations would begin to create their own rules outside of the state.
On the base of the foot, we have transferred Exodus 18 (fig 4), taken from the Bible, to point towards the idea of the Protestant ethic of capitalism. The piece suggests that the metaphor of the invisible hand signals both the morality of the market that can and will produce social as well as individual benefits and the invisible hand of God, who sifts the worthy from the unworthy; the saved and the damned. By this logic, poverty for some is inevitable; a natural consequence of their lack of worldly economic or spiritual self-interested individualism. Wealthy capitalists just happen to possess the rational self-interest and/or pious dedication to salvation through hard work needed to succeed. Against these logics of the invisible hand, the piece seeks to draw the viewer’s attention back to the way that enterprises may exploit and overlook their ethical and moral corporate responsibilities.
The iron foot sits on a white plinth (Fig.5). Either side there are lino prints of golden coin-shapes referencing the deceptive concept of trickle-down economics, one of Adam Smith’s greatest legacies and to also reflect Selfridge’s iconic architectural building. The piece asks how in our modern consumer culture, do we, as consumers, remain conscious of the real relations of production underpinning our consumerism and not merely rely on the assumption of some God-like invisible hand to make a social good of our privileged position of spending and consuming?
Materials used: Iron cobbler’s foot, foam board, imitation gold, ink (fig 5, 6 and 7).
If you would like to swap an object or a skill in SWOP SHOP please follow the link to view all the artworks and a full list of all Students from Birmingham School of Art involved. The criteria for each exchange are that your object or skill has a personal, social or political value to you. It could refer to your heritage or the heritage of the region or city. All objects that are donated will go on to become further artworks. Bring your objects to be considered for exchange to:
When: Friday 21st Sept – Sun 30th Sept.
Where: Selfridges Birmingham, Luggage 1
SWOP SHOP TALKS
- Saturday 29 September, 12pm-1pm: Talk – Birmingham Does Art
SWOP SHOP MAKING WORKSHOPS
- Saturday 29th September 1pm –2pm
- Saturday 29th September 2pm – 3pm
This project has been programmed by Birmingham City University, a Tate Exchange Associate, with support from Selfridges.
Fig 5 – The Invisible Hand
Fig 6 – The Invisible Hand
Fig 7 – The Invisible Hand
How do you feel now the process is underway?
It’s been an excellent exercise for me to reconsider the “why” behind making the art piece as I usually work backwards; first by making the artwork and researching later, as to the meaning and why, though often starting with a familiar critical theme. This hasn’t changed accept thinking more about how the art piece works in appearance in comparison to why the piece has been made. It’s been a great exercise in taking an inanimate object that holds meaning to someone else with its history and story and making it into something entirely different that somehow links back to initial purpose.
Working in collaboration with Luke Sewell as given us an opportunity to pull on our collective knowledge and skill to introduce critical arguments, using art to push forward theoretical ideas. We are both interested in how art can be a political tool to critically examine subjects relating to social inequalities.
Thank you, Dr Denise Noble, for your support