The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution

For the artist of the modern period, the most essential problem was how to depict the modern: as a new style, as new content, as a new attitude?  Each generation would fine its own answer, only to have the next generation find this answer inadequate.  In the process of attempting to find the “modern,” the role of art would change, the role of the artist would change, the role of the public would change, and ironically, the artist and the public would become completely separate. How did the artist become separated from the mass art audience? This estrangement was the result of significant social and economic changes that had changed the artist’s role in society. The condition of the avant-garde—that is, artists being “ahead” of the public’s taste and expectations—is closely linked to the development of the Industrial Revolution. This social and economic revolution in manufacturing was, perhaps, both the most sudden and swift and also the most complete and comprehensive revolution in history: it changed everything.

The trend away from small scale artisanal or intimate domestic manufacture towards mass production began around 1740, in England and a bit later in America with the industrialization of the textile industry and the development of mining to find the coal to run the machines to run the mills. In England and America, textile mills sprang up near rivers, drawing thousands of workers from the surrounding countryside to new factory towns. Under the auspices of Josiah Wedgwood, the the first assembly line was set up in a new factory at Etruria for the mass production of fine pottery. Labor was divided into segments and the potters of Etruria were likewise separated and each focused on one aspect of the making of the object. This separation of labor into specific repetitive tasks and the “alienation” of the worker from the product would be the model for mass manufacturing for the Industrial Revolution.

Thanks to the increasing importance of industry, the workplace moved from the home to an environment that was artificial, where there was no day and no night. The factory was among the first truly “modern” works of architecture, specifically designed for a designated purpose. This interior environment was based upon the relentless rhythms of the omnipresent machines that ruled those who worked for and with them, severing the workers from the outdoor world of nature and its eternal rhythms. Beneath the earth, miners toiled in an equally artificial environment, in total darkness broken only by candles, in constant danger from escaping gases or cave-ins or flooding.

Here in the mines, as in the factory, night and day had no meaning, time itself was unnatural, linked to the length of the “shift,” or the span of time one worked, not to the rising and setting of the sun or to the cycle of the seasons.  Far from home, severed from the land, people–men, women and children–now worked long days, measured by carefully segmented time, in dangerous places for low pay.  But their alternatives were few.  With the growth of population due to better hygiene and diet, farming communities could absorb only so many people and many hungry peasants joined the growing army of industrial workers.


1860 view of Wedgwood’s Etruria Works

Humans were “disciplined,” as Michel Foucault explained through time honored methods developed by monasteries and carried over to the military and to schools and finally into factories. In Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Foucault wrote,

Disciplinary control does not consist simply in teaching or imposing a series of particular gestures, it imposes the best relation between a gesture and the overall position of the body which is its condition of efficiency and speed. In the correct use of the body, which makes possible a correct use of time, nothing must remain idle or useless: everything must be called upon to form the support of the act required.

 “Labor” became a new kind of concept, referring to a new kind of  work regulated by the rhythm of the machine and timed to the ticking of the clock.  Time itself was sped up, cut, like the gestures of the body, into tiny pieces. Work, too was speeded up and was equally divided into a segmented process. In dusty, noisy factories, absorbed in repetitive tasks, working like machines, the workers were also alienated from the end product, an object produced in pieces, the result of a rational and an analytic process, which investigated and examined each aspect of manufacture. Each worker was responsible for a segment, for a part of the process.  The factory resembled a vast machine, the workers mere cogs in the machine.  The process and pace of manufacture ruled their lives.

With the social and financial shift from landed wealth to industrial wealth, money and power were no longer solely dependent upon inherited position and were increasingly based upon new opportunities provided by trade and commerce and manufacture. The shift in social power also moved the site of culture from the aristocratic courts to urban centers, teaming with ambitious individuals, all determined to take advantage of the opportunities capitalism promised. These individuals created prosperity for themselves and controlled the new sources of wealth as completely as the now-deposed aristocrats had once ruled their domains. Working conditions actually declined in quality for the workers who worked every day for well over ten hours a day under inhuman and unhealthy conditions.

Despite the unprecedented hardships on the workers, the Industrial Revolution allowed a new form of upward mobility. Any man with wit and foresight and a few good ideas could become wealthy and powerful. Two hundred years ago, vast fortunes were made by the newly formed middle class who had scrambled up the social ladder, eager to forget their humble origins. Coming from the lower classes, the peasants and the urban proletariat, the factory workers operated machines which fabricated products on a massive scale, making consumer goods available to the entire population, making the owners of the factories wealthy while raising the standard of living for everyone.

Those who owned the manufacturing process—mining and making—enjoyed the fruits of what the Prussian philosopher, Karl Marx, called “surplus value,” meaning the difference what the worker was actually paid and what the object was actually sold for. During the eighteenth century, the middle class grew in social and political power.  The result was a changing of the guard from one ruling class—the aristocrats who had inherited wealth, which was based upon land holdings—to the middle class who had created wealth based upon manufacture. Land is limited; farming is dependent upon weather; manufacturing, on the other hand, is theoretically unlimited and independent of anything but the marketplace, as Karl Marx pointed out, was driven by desires for commodities. Later Sigmund Freud would agree with Marx that a commodity was a mere symptom or a fetish, guaranteed to create, not to satisfy desire.

The ephemeral commodity would “melt into air,” as Marx put it, only to be replaced by the next fad and the next novelty.  Writing the Communist Manifesto (1848) in exile in England, the Prussian philosopher imagined an uprising of the proletariat once the “veil” of ideology was torn from its eyes. The proletariat would seize the mode of production, and this phase of the people’s ownership would be “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Witnessing the degradation of the workers on the eve of the Revolution of 1848, Marx waited in vain for the success of the workers’ uprising. But it was not to be. The Revolution which sprang up all over Europe was crushed by reactionary forces. Another attempt was made to rise up in France in 1870 but once again, the lower classes were defeated.

Buttressed by capitalism, the Industrial Revolution offered more chances for social mobility than revolution. Increasingly workers were seduced by the all-powerful commodity, which, as Marx noted, had the qualities of the fetish to arouse desire.

“Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character. At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to have become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy.”

During the nineteenth century, burgeoning technology was buttressed by an unfettered optimism.  It was an era when most people believed in Progress, that industrialization had ushered in a better way of life, which, like the human beings who benefited from it, would develop and evolve in a positive direction.  The world became defined by constant changes, some of which were good, but there was a dark side to the state of flux: upheaval and disequilibrium.  Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, human beings seemed to be in control of the environment, capable of acting as designers of Nature itself.  Although by the time the Industrial Revolution was fully in effect, the Enlightenment was a philosophical or social movement was long over, the new economic system of capitalism still echoed some of the Enlightenment’s most cherished concepts: optimism and progress.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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  1. […] “The condition of the avant-garde—that is, artists being “ahead” of the public’s taste and expectations—is closely linked to the development of the Industrial Revolution. This social and economic revolution in manufacturing was, perhaps, both the most sudden and swift and also the most complete and comprehensive revolution in history: it changed everything.”Industrial Revolution from art history […]