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].

Research Methodologies - Methodological Exercise - MA Open Studios by Ally McGinn

We had the MA open studio’s last night and it was the first time we have all shown work together, and for many the first time, we had seen each other's work. There are some extremely talented people on the course, and it was a very interesting evening.

Inspired by the immersion of other practices I realised that it could be an interesting methodological exercise to view my practice through the lens of other artists, whose practice I know in some way.
This exercise could highlight elements of methodology as well as new perspectives for my own work.

Please Note - All interpretations of the work of other artists are subjective. My interpretations are based on conversations with these artists and encounters with their work, but they are all subject to my bias and misunderstanding.

These are not explorations of the work of these brilliant artists. Where possible I have linked to their websites, I would definitely encourage having a look.

This list of artists is primarily the full-time students (whose work I know to a certain extent) and a few others who I have been able to chat to about their work.

Shirley Sharp -

Shirley’s work, for the purpose of this exercise, would make me view my work through the speech act, or act itself. I would think about the figure of the artist, and the relationship between viewer and artist in a more representational way.
* Pile of canvases that are shaped on one side to form the shape of a person. The other side is left as the natural forms of the pile.


Matthew Dibble -

Dibble’s work is involved with the haptic experience of materials. If I were to use his perspective to explore my subject and interests I would certainly create sculptures. I would likely focus on the pure materials of painting formed in new ways.
* A horizontal plane, with a vertical upright in the centre. On one side (or space - created in the intersection between the two) would be chaos, on the other, order. Representing the space of the work.
* A frame cut into pieces and reassembled to create a new form, on which to display the work.


Deborah Westmancoat -

I have only seen Deborah’s work as an almost scientific process of exploring materials and their effects, and so, I feel, that through this perspective I would explore the qualities of paint and other mark-making materials with the aim to create an archival installation that presents this exploration to the viewer.

Note - The archive was something I explored in the second year of my BA and it is something that has since been an element of influence.


James Glover -

Through James’s perspective, I would likely think about the processes of artists and ways to mechanise them. Many of the processes of artists are menial, or monotonous in some way, and these could be explored in many ways. Most likely in the form of a painting machine or drawing machine, but there are other options. (This is interestingly something I considered a few years ago, but I got distracted by another idea.)

Through studying the reality of artistic practice, rather than the assumptions we make, it is clear that there are activities outside the realm of ‘Art’ that artists undertake more than the ‘Art’ itself.


Jana Jonhardsdottir -

The thing taken from Jana’s current work, in this exercise, is the deconstruction and reconstruction of layers within her work.
My interest in accidents and incidents would come to the fore here, and I feel I would like to make a piece that layers incidental elements on top of one another. If I were to stick to the parameters of being inspired by another practice then these layers would be trapped in perspex.
Layering, without perspex, involves something being hidden, which is something my work has dealt with in more detail. The moment we stretch a canvas we are hiding the wall and the stretcher. Those things upon which the painting relies.


Julian Green -

Julian's work would encourage me to create a detailed representation of an overlooked object. Which is a very interesting idea, as it's not something I've ever considered for myself. The interesting thing is the reason why; I have always considered the ‘real’ object more powerful than its representation, but this is a bias.

This has come to being in the studio in the creation of the piece ‘Reflection’ (2017) which was placed a few weeks ago. I am now forced to wonder if the subconscious influence of Julian's detailed representations encouraged this work. It certainly wasn't a conscious link, but it remains an interesting one.


Scott Sandford -

Scott’s close-up abstractions would encourage me to view the individual elements of my work, expanding them where possible. The obvious route would be to take close-up photographs of things like canvas, wood, and paint. (which I began when working with a microscope in 2015) However, I now think the more subtle perspective i could take from Scott’s work would be to explore the close-up detail in a more material way. For example, enlarging the canvas in a sculptural form, reducing details so that a single element becomes the focus.
In a way, this links to my placement test for threads of canvas.


James Thornton -

James’s work is presented in a similar form to mine, and as we share a studio space this is a very exciting development. What I would probably take from his work, if I attempted to use what I know of it to explore my own, would be a focus on representing a single form, or focus, in various ways. Showing the reality of multiple perspectives on the same subject/object.
This comes into my practice in the use of canvas in alternative ways.


What this exercise has shown me is that there are elements of practice that are already linked through us all. Thinking through and articulating this process has led to some new connections or more appropriately the realisation of existing connections.
I can't currently say if this will have an impact on my work in the studio but I believe it will have an impact on my interactions with my fellow artists.

Research - Danto - Short Note by Ally McGinn

Danto is an extremely influential figure, I've read a few of his books. What I would normally be tempted to do here is write a few thousand words on him, his works and the implications of those works to my field. However, my list of potential blog posts is growing. So for now, as a place setting for a potentially longer text later.

Philosopher and critic Arthur Danto suggested a thinking test that is very useful in understanding the importance of context and concept in the understanding of art.

Imagine there are four seemingly identical paintings on the wall, all painted in the same, flat, red. Each is done by a different artist, but there are no real discernable visual differences between the work. However, the origins and context of each are vastly different; (1) one is a close-up painting of a red tablecloth, (2) one is a painting representing the Red Sea after the Israelites had crossed, (3) one is a pun on the communist flag, and (4) the final one is an unfinished painting that was included for it's similarities to the others, but had crucially never had the moment of nomination as art.

Each has art historical precedent, and in ’Transfiguration of the Commonplace’, where this analogy can be found, Danto describes some of the links that might be at play here. However, the links and reasons each artist chose to create their red painting are not as important as the comparison between them. (Danto, 1981)

These paintings now become vastly different simply because we understand more about them. This thought experiment serves to highlight the ontological reality of art.


I've discussed Danto in my post about Andy Warhol, but I will add one point here; Danto is also responsible for a term I have used liberally throughout this blog, and that my grammar checker hates, the ‘Artworld’ the title of an essay by Danto after he visited the Andy Warhol exhibition of ‘Brillo Boxes’. To Danto, these boxes represented ‘the end of art’ which, rather than being a sign that art was dead, was the mark of the moment when art became anything. The important factor, to Danto, was the ‘Artworld’, the theories surrounding art and it's history, that allowed anything to be considered as art. It's historical perspective. (Danto, 1964)

''Given two things that resemble one another to any chosen degree, but one of them a work of art and the other an ordinary object, what accounts for this difference in status?'' (Danto, 1981) It is the artworld that allows two seemingly indiscernible objects to have such disparate meaning and value.

This term has been incredibly useful for me, and part of my lexicon, but I tend to forget that it's meaning isn't common knowledge, although interestingly the meaning can be understood without knowing about Danto and his epiphany.


Danto is a prominent art critic, writing about numerous artists and exhibitions. In a text about Jasper Johns flag paintings, which I recently saw at the Royal Academy, Danto described them as ‘reverse readymades’, a term coined by Duchamp, which describes works of art that become the everyday. (Danto, 2001)


Danto, A C. (1998) Beyond the Brillo Box: The visual arts in post-historical perspective. California: The University of California press.

Danto, A C. (1964) ‘The Artworld’. The Journal of Philosophy, Volume (61): Pages 571-584.

Danto, A C. (2001) The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World. London: University of California Press.

Danto, A C. (1981) Transfiguration of the Commonplace. London: Harvard University Press.

Research - Taste - Kant, Hume, Bell and aesthetics by Ally McGinn

A term I've been considering a great deal lately is the idea of taste, and the ways we are drawn to things. Many of the works I'm drawn to conceptually, attempt to deny factors of taste, by definition. While the draw towards some form of aesthetic ‘rightness,' at least in my studio practice, continues, both consciously and subconsciously. This is a point in my studio practice that I am attempting to work through.

Taste is generally considered to be subjective; everyone likes different things. However, there is also a tendency towards a particular aesthetic quality in some works. Put in a room full of artworks many people will like similar things, and some artworks feel ‘right’ to some majority. Entirely anecdotal these two statements have been considered valid enough to debate, for centuries.

The philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant both explored the notion of taste and this disparity between the perceived truth that no taste is superior and the more visceral sense that there is some aesthetic hierarchy that is yet undefined. (Janaway, 2006)

To Hume, it could be broken down to an issue of education and experience. Taste is a skill that can be taught, leading to an eventual consensus and a universal ‘standard of taste.'

Hume believed that we are creatures more defined by our feelings than any rationality. That we are mostly guided by our feelings, to which rationality is often later used to back up the initial feeling. We reason from, rather than to our convictions. (Janaway, 2006)

Hume believed that our feelings, or passions, could be developed, taste is one of them.

I find myself very drawn to this idea, or more accurately, to the lens Hume views human beings through.

In a classic example, Hume described a taste test. Two people taste the same cask of wine; one notes a metallic note, and the other a leathery one. Both are ridiculed for their assessments until a key on a leather thong is found at the bottom of the barrel. This case highlights an important distinction, the difference between ‘bodily taste’ and ‘mental taste.' Bodily taste can be described as the objective features that we observe and use to justify our judgment of taste; the metallic or leathery notes found in the barrel are located in the wine and are not, as the people ridiculing the tasters assumed, due to the refinement of their palette or their perception of taste. (Philosophy Bites, 2017)

The critical factor, for Hume it seems, is the removal of personal preference and prejudice in the judgment of taste. The difference between ‘Is this good?’ and ‘Do I like it?’.

This is a way of understanding our ‘faculty of taste’. We must attempt to operate this faculty from an unbiased perspective, with a knowledge of sorts, and with a considered argument justifying the judgment of taste.

Hume saw the faculty of taste as defined by five key criteria;

  • Good sense
  • Delicacy/refinement of sentiment
  • Practice
  • No prejudice
  • Comparison

Hume did not assume that all viewers of artwork should be ideal critics, but more highlighted the philosophical conundrum surrounding the issue of taste. Objectivism is critical, but only when we understand our subjectivity. (Intersubjective??)

Tangential thought/link - The only accurate judgment is one, using Hume’s view, that can stand the test of time, and can be expanded into the test of culture. Moving the artwork through time and location should not change the judgment of the ideal critic, which could suggest that the ideal critic does not exist? (Philosophy Bites, 2017)

To Kant, it was more an issue of beauty. He argued that the judgment of taste is grounded in the artwork, not our perception of it. This is a complicated argument because the ingredients of beauty cannot be explained entirely, there are some things considered beautiful to most, a sunset, roses.

There are thousands of ‘beautiful’ paintings. (It is worth noting that there are certain ‘rules’ of beauty - including theories about symmetry, etc., but that is a tangent I won't follow here)

The point remains that Kant saw beauty (vital for taste) as intrinsic to specific objects and images. Beauty, to Kant, requires ‘purposiveness without purpose.' (Kant, 2007) For an object to be purposive, it needs to have that ‘rightness’ that some objects have.

Kant argues that we see an object as beautiful because it promotes a feeling of harmony in the viewer. The generation of feeling comes from the object, not the viewer. Therefore it is intrinsic to the beautiful object.

Kant influenced a great many critics, artists, and thinkers.  His work on art was not limited to ideas of beauty, and he certainly didn't believe that all art should be beautiful. Kant believed that for a real experience of beauty the viewer must remain distanced from the object, an uncontaminated experience (independent from purpose). (Kant, 2007)

Aesthetic judgments have a normative aspect, explained basically - we either agree or disagree with them. Kant believed that we all share a type of ‘common sense’ in which we are all constructed in the same fundamental cognitive way - if one person likes something, it should hold that another can and does as well. This is an important idea, given the prevalence of art in human culture, taste is a part of the artworld, and our shared ability to experience artworks allow these conversations to take place. (Philosophy Bites, 2017)

Edward Bullough continued Kant's aesthetic theories to say that a viewer needs a degree of ‘psychical distance’ to view an artwork. A degree of open-mindedness. He argued that the inclusion of political or sexual issues would only take away from the aesthetic experience and understanding. (Janaway, 2006)

When seen like this I would argue that both Hume and Kant can be correct. Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there is some element of beauty is intrinsic to the work, and aesthetic beauty can be almost universally acknowledged but the appreciation of that beauty. Moreover, the beauty found in a conceptual idea, a social statement or a witty commentary is a skill that can be honed, or expanded merely with knowledge and experience.

When thinking about taste, the physical form of the artwork is fundamental; it is the way the work is experienced. Clive Bell, an art critic, coined the term ‘significant form’ in 1914. He was talking about the combination of certain qualities that together form something that people respond to on an aesthetic level or the idea that some artworks are liked due to some underlying, and undefinable, aesthetic ‘rightness’ – Beauty - a word fraught with conflicting associations in the art world. Seen as a positive by many it is often considered unfavorable for an artist, certainly for current art students. For something to exist without needing the foundation of a well thought out context or concept, it needs to be able to rely on something else. Beauty is often the alternative. These works are art, as defined by their artistic creator, so in many ways, art can stand without context or content, but there needs to be an alternative foundation. It would be difficult to conceive of an artwork without any of it. It is worth noting here that Bell acknowledged that a critic could inform a viewer's knowledge of significant form. (Freeland, 2002)

Bell, Hume, and Kant (and others) seem to agree that to appreciate beauty the work must separate itself from other concerns. Maybe the closest we can get to that separation involves an appropriate perspective.


Regarding my practice, this research has helped highlight the importance of recognising my personal preferences in a work of art. While I've been working on my faculty of taste over the years of study, it has been more externally focused. The application of this faculty in my practice is a fundamental skill I can improve, with firmer knowledge of it I hope to be able to apply a more precise perspective to the visual ‘editing.' One free of my personal preferences - which I can already say includes a sometimes overwhelming visual aesthetic, and a tendency to lean towards an aesthetic ‘rightness,' which can be detrimental to the work.


Freeland, C. (2002) But is it Art?. New York: Oxford University Press.

Janaway, C. (2006) Reading Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art: Selected texts with interactive commentary. Pondicherry: Blackwell Publishing.

Kant, I. (2007) Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Philosophy Bites (2017) ‘Elisabeth Schellekens Dammann on Disagreement About Taste’, Aesthetics Bites. [Podcast] Available from: [Accessed 01.11.17].


The image I've used to illustrate this post can be accessed here -