Research - Marxism, Capitalism and the Frankfurt School. / by Ally McGinn

Something I have only recently been exploring in research is the impact capitalism has on our society. It is something I have explored in other areas of my life, but have not associated those opinions with my work. As usual, in retrospect, this seems like an oversight. This post serves as a short note to my burgeoning interest in this complex subject, it in no way summarises it, but it dents the surface.

Ally McGinn (2017)  Untitled.  Digital prints, basket and elastic bands. Size varies [Prints are 6 x 4 and 5 x 5]. 

Ally McGinn (2017) Untitled. Digital prints, basket and elastic bands. Size varies [Prints are 6 x 4 and 5 x 5]. 

Marxism is a set of thoughts, to which many subscribe, that describe the class-based system of a capitalist (our) society. Marxism shows that the forces of production and class struggle influence the ideological structure of our society. We are demanding beings, and we create things or buy things, to fulfil those demands. The needs we have are largely determined by our class, and the information we take in that shapes our subconscious assumptions and biases. (Woodfin, 2014)

Marxism suggests that the dominant class, in this case, the bourgeoisie, are able to shift things in their own favour, keeping them in power and the repressed, the proletariat, in the same position. (Woodfin, 2014)

That the ‘rich get richer’, another wording for the above, has enabled the dominant class to subsume surplus in our society, in the form of profit. This surplus, which implies a level of affluence that most working people do not feel, is used by those in power to retain and support the current sociological structure.

The reality is; we live in an affluent society. There is enough for everyone. The waste we produced is more shockingly lopsided when seen against the vast cases of people who lack the ‘basic’ things we need.

This surplus is coming from somewhere, and it comes at the cost of the workers. People whose only choice is to sell their labour.

Marxism suggests that history has been a series of oppression followed by revolution, leading back to oppression, where the cycle repeats. Marx suggests that a workers revolution in the west is coming. He goes on to suggest that one of the ways of breaking this cycle of oppression is to change things in that moment of revolution, to be aware of the oppression and affluence. Years later we can say that the revolution never came. (Woodfin, 2014)

The Frankfurt school were concerned with addressing shortcomings and predictions of Marxist thinking, that had yet, and have yet, to come true. When Marx predicted a workers revolution in the west he did not take into account the nature of capitalism, and it’s ability to convince the people inside it that it is what they want. (West, 2017)

We are alienated beings, which in a way is by design, but it is not the design of a single being or even an overriding group of beings, but by the society, we live in, and the people who live in it. It is a self-perpetuating society. (West, 2017)

We live in what Adorno and Horkheimer would call a society of Culture Industries. Where the culture in our lives is formed with a foundation of mass culture, as a result of being at the heart of a capitalist society. (West, 2017)

Many people describe feeling a void in their lives. More, arguably, are familiar with the idea that we have to work in a job we don't like in order to afford to live the way we want to live.
We live in an affluent society, but that affluence is not equally distributed. Economic control remains in the hands of those who have economic mobility, generally the bourgeoisie. (One of the many points that could be taken further here is the emergence of technology and the ability of those with low economic mobility to change that status - which is far higher than it has been previously. But that's a discussion for another time.

We work in jobs we generally don't like and do many other things we don't enjoy doing, in order to be able to afford the things that shape the quality of the rest of our lives.
We fill the void of alienation we feel, because of the shape of our societies, with ‘things’ but those ‘things’ cannot, and do not, fill the void. So the cycle repeats.
It may be possible to suggest that the cycle Marx described is now happening on an individual level. We realise something is missing, look for something to fill it, find adverts and other suggestions that we can fill it with some consumable thing, we attain that thing (this part of the process can take years) and then comes the inevitable realisation that the void is still there. We like this new ‘thing’ we have but it has not done what we were lead to believe it would do.

We shape a version of the people we want to be with ‘things’ around us. We use them to help us define ourselves. But those definitions and those ‘things’ define us far more by their semiotic significance than any apparent surface values.

“personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”

Adorno and Horkheimer (West, 2017)

The culture industry shapes the way we see things, the way we see ourselves, and the way we live. Therefore it follows that they shape all forms of creative output. (West, 2017)

Culture Industries can have a negative impact on the understanding of ‘good’ art. Not all art has to be seen as good by the majority, in fact, the opposite is likely true. The better works are actually more likely to be those that don’t fit the ideas of the majority. The effect of culture on mass media on art is the normalisation of it. It is a requirement of mass media that it fit the values or taste of thousands, potentially millions.

This shapes the work that is made at all levels.
Whether we like to admit it or not we are part of a capitalist society and it is extremely difficult to remove ourselves from that society. We must earn money to live, and this impacts the way we do things.


What does all of this have to do with my work? The first impact relates to my general outlook and perspective. I can now describe myself confidently as a Marxist, I am against the capitalist society, and reject many forms of it in my home life. This is not a new thought inspired by research, but a development of a perspective born of a response to our society. What I have not explored before is the impact of that perspective on my work in the studio.

It is simple to see the most obvious link, the choice of materials and subject in the studio. I work with materials that have fulfilled, failed, or have yet to achieve, their purpose. I deal with accidental and incidental objects and observations, which reject the notion that we should focus on certain things and ignore others. We are a society of blinkered individuals, we look at the things we are supposed to look at and ignore those we don't.

My materials question purpose and function, which is then deepened by my process with the materials in the studio.

The other ways this perspective influences my work are numerous, and the more I explore the idea the more I find. This document has the potential to get much longer. I look forward to being able to use this perspective as a tool in the studio as well as a subconscious influence.

The power of research can be that it can highlight, articulate and solidify things we already think, and make us realise the connections inherent in being a thinking being.


West, S. (2017) ‘The Frankfurt School pt 3 - The Culture Industry’, Philosophize This!. [Podcast] Avaliable from : [Accessed - 05.12.17].

Jeffries, S. (2012) ‘Why Marxism is on the rise again’. The Guardian. [Online]. Avaliable from:  [Accessed 6.12.17].

Woodfin, R. (2014) Introducing Marxism: A Graphic Guide. [e-book] London: Icon Books Ltd. Avaliable from: [Accessed 26.10.12].