Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Pitmen Painters and Existentialist Thought

September 11, 2009 · 4 Comments

Philosophy post! Prepare for pretentiousness, big words, and most importantly, bullshit! I’m only kidding of course. Yesterday’s play, The Pitmen Painters raised some important questions about personal identity. In fact, the entire first act was dedicated to that theme. The miners are faced with an important challenge to their working class identities. When the wealthy heiress Helen Sutherland offers Oliver Kilbourne a weekly stipend for painting, he declines after much deliberation, hollering on about how a miner absolutely cannot be an artist. He is a pitman through and through and that will never change. His identity does not extend any further than his career.

Oliver is a perfect example of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of mauvaise foi, translated as bad faith. Sartre realized that humans tend to define themselves as per a list of finite list of descriptors, such as profession, sexual orientation, actions committed in the past, etc. His most famous example is the infamous waiter. This particular waiter wakes up every morning and thinks about waiting tables. He goes to work and is in his element, focusing primarily on his job and considering everything else to be either peripheral or in some way related to working in a restaurant. He is more waiter than human. Sartre considers such a person to be lying to himself, because human identity absolutely cannot be isolated into one overarching trait.

Oliver is in bad faith, at least throughout act one. There really isn’t much more to his shallow existence beyond his job as a pitman. He considers Helen to be part of “Them,” the upper class of Britain who might as well belong to a different nation. The two classes are worlds apart. Oliver and crew can’t even fathom pursuing a career in something as lofty as painting, a profession stereotypically associated with those who actually have time to paint, namely the upper class.

I apologize, but some technical jargon is necessary at this juncture. A key concept in existentialism is undefined nature of humanity. There are two important ideas to be understood here: facticity and transcendence. Facticity is past actions or social roles, or what most people attempt to use as fodder for definition. If I killed a man last week, the murder is part of my facticity. Transcendence is what a person is yet to become, an infinitely open space to be filled with future facticity. Sartre famously writes in the god-awfully long Being and Nothingness, “I am what I am not and I am not what I am.” Read that one a few times. To be what one is not is not as contradictory as it seems. The nothingness represents the freedom all people possess to make choices and live dignified lives. Do not become too deeply ingrained in your past; it does not define you.

The Ashington Group initially disagree with everything Sartre said. A pitman you’re born a pitman you’ll die, and you’ll never be anything more. As the men become more and more well known in the art world, they insist on remaining “non-professional” artists and keep their dismal jobs down in the mines. I believe that the group, especially Oliver, conquer their bad faith. They finally realize the crucial balance of facticity and transcendence. Their art remains based on working-class life and pitman culture, but they learn to embrace the future instead of gluing themselves to their past.

Categories: Andrew B
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4 responses so far ↓

  •   anyasettle // Sep 11th 2009 at 13:52

    You’ve made some great connections, here, Barron. I have yet to take any sort of philosophy course so my knowledge on the subject is limited. My response, therefore, is actually more of a question than a comment. I would argue that Oliver does not solely identify as “pitman.” He mentions both his mother leaving him and the responsibility he felt towards his younger siblings as a result of that abandonment. Is it possible, then for Oliver to have a, equally rigid, multi-dimensional ‘mauvaise foi’ rather than a static, single-dimensional one?

  •   abarron76 // Sep 11th 2009 at 14:38

    Bad faith is not necessarily one-dimensional. The idea is that Oliver had convinced himself that he is defined by his past, upbringing certainly included. The future was insignificant to him, as he was sure that there would ever be any change awaiting him. He lies to himself by refusing to evolve. His mauvaise foi is what held him back from Helen’s offer, and he deeply regretted the decision later on in the play after his philosophical awakening.

  •   fitzgerald // Sep 11th 2009 at 15:08

    I am not entirely familiar with Sartre, having only read his “Nausea,” but from what you’ve said I think I can agree that Oliver is a good example of “bad faith.” Oliver does seem to define himself as a pitman, but I am not sure that he “transcends” this. Helen points out that Oliver’s art has not developed/grown; he is stuck on “working-class life and pitman culture.” Both he and his group look forward to a socialist future, but one that was never realized; transcendence was never reached because as time went on and the socialist movement died, that movement became part of their facticity.

  •   The Pitmen Painters and Existentialist Thought | Norwich Travel - Culture and Recreation // Sep 12th 2009 at 18:30

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