Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

A Marxist View of the Pitmen Painters

September 11, 2009 · 1 Comment

Yesterday we all went to the Pitmen Painters at the National Theater. I greatly enjoyed the show however I found it sad, yet sadly true. The story is about five Pitmen who are able to take an art appreciation class thanks to the WEA (workers education association). Their teacher, Mr Lyons, soon realizes that the Pitmen know nothing about art and decides to have them learn through painting their own works. As the Pitmen progress they catch the eye of heiress  and art enthusiast Helen Sutherland. Helen buys some of their paintings and is at first astounded by the honesty in their works. She also attempts to pay Oliver, one of the pitmen, a weekly wage so he can paint without the interference of his pitmen work. Eventually Helen grows bored with Oliver’s work and moves on.

Helen claims that she and Oliver met across the boundaries of class, but I really find this to be untrue. I think that Helen only appreciated the Pitmen’s art because it was a commodity for her. She wanted to OWN Oliver and his work like she would any other commodity. And just like with any other commodity she soon grows bored with him and moves on to other more trendy things.

During the scene of the Pitmen’s first art show everyone, including Lyons, is refering to the Pitmen as Pitmen who can paint, rather than as individual artists. The only reason the Pitmen became popular was because they were working class not because they were talented (though they were). Lyons was selling the work of these working class men by making the fact that they were working class a commodity, and therefore made them a novelty. In a way, he advertised them like monkeys in a cage at the zoo or as some sort of side show act “come see the Pitmen Painters! Have you ever seen anything like them? See the working class does have talent! Unbelievable! Anyone can paint!” And of course the public gets tired of the same circus act and they move on. So, the Pitmen are left the way they were before. Lyons left them, Helen left them, and their popularity left them.

I also feel that Lyons used the Pitmen for his own gain, almost like “look what I got these monkeys to do! I could teach anyone, why don’t you hire me?” At one point in the play Oliver asks Lyons “why can’t I live like this? Why couldn’t this be me?” he also says “we are both mediocre artists, why can I be in the place you are?” (Note: not direct quotations, but something very similar) And the reason is of course class. The bourgeoisie is forever exploiting the proletariat, and the proletariat is forever being held down by the bourgeoisie. It is only after the painting class that Oliver is finally able to eliminate his false consciousness and see what was going on the whole time, just to be put back in the same place he was before when Lyons says “well if you want the world to change, you will have to change it.” I love Marxism but I don’t think that the proletariat has the resources to overthrow the bourgeoisie, because part of what makes the proletariat the proletariat is their false consciousness and their inability to get past the glass ceiling. In order for the proletariat to aquire such knowledge would be for them to rise into the bourgeo themselves, which would not stop the problem but rather perpetuate it. This is would be impossible in a place like Britain in the 1930s, where and when the class devisions where so impossibly strong, and as they still are to some extent.

Categories: Rebecca
Tagged: , ,

1 response so far ↓

  •   russella // Sep 13th 2009 at 05:35

    You bring up one of the greatest flaws of communism(i think): the working class cannot see the strings. AND if they discover said strings then they are no longer really a proletariat. Marx himself was under the patronage of the wealthy. Communism is based around a paradox.

You must log in to post a comment.