The Industrial Revolution
An English Invention

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 find its own answer, only to have the next generation find this answer inadequate. In the process of attempting to locate 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 gradually 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. But–and this is an important element of the revolution–the technological advances introduced the notion of change, interjected notions of novelty and progress into society, long before the actual industrial evolution had arrived.

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 textile mills. In England and America, these mills sprang up near rivers, a source of natural power and thousands of workers were pulled from the surrounding countryside to new factory towns, lining the river banks. Under the auspices of Josiah Wedgwood, the the first assembly line was set up for the mass production of fine pottery in a new factory at Etruria. Not to be confused with the moving conveyor belt deployed by Henry Ford more than a century later, Wedgewood’s establishment divided the production of a single vessel into segments in which the crafting of a single part was the sole task of a a worker. The potters of Etruria were therefore separated according to their assigned tasks and each focused on one aspect of the making of the object. This separation of labor into specific repetitive tasks and the “alienation”–as Karl Marx would have it–of the worker from the product would be the model for mass manufacturing for the Industrial Revolution.

Philip James de Loutherbourg. Coalbrookdale by Night (1801)

Pre-revolutinary manufacture was in the hands of one maker who was the “designer” who made a unique hand made item from start to finish and was thus totally identified with this object. Whether this was a piece of luxurious jewelry for a courtier or a laboriously hewn wooden bowl handed down within a peasant family, the craftsperson was not separated from his or her own tools or from the resulting product. The industrial revolution was based upon separating the worker from the tools, which are owned by the factory, and from the completed object, which emerges fully formed at some point far away from most of the workers who contributed to its making. These separations are extremely efficient and allows depersonalized manufacture on a large scale of a mass number of consumer goods. Mass production meant mass profits for the owners. Thanks to the increasing importance of industry to the economy, the workplace moved from the home to an environment that was artificial, where there was no day and no night, only endless labor. The factory was among the first truly “modern” works of architecture, specifically designed for a designated purpose. The exterior was usually long and low with glazed walls, allowing for the maximum amount of light to pour into the long open workspaces inside. The machines could be placed row upon row, operated by low paid workers, supervised by the all seeing eyes of the overseers. 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, and harnessing them to the mechanical demands of animated devices.

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. There was no concept of worker safety, of benefits to the laborers, of a living wage, because the alternatives for those formerly of the peasant class were few. In England, their way of life was effectively ended with the closure of the Commons, or lands that had been, through customs and practice, been set aside for centuries for the benefit of the lower class community. The owners of the land, the gentry had traditionally felt an obligation, noblesse oblige–inferred responsibility–to take care of the less fortunate. The medieval arrangement of mutual recognition between “master” and “servant” worked until a more profitable alternative presented itself, a shift that began to manifest itself in the early eighteenth century. Farming crops became less profitable than a combination of farming coupled with the raising of livestock on a large scale. Slowly the Commons closed: fences were erected, walls were built, people were shut out and forced to seek work in the factories that were springing up, conveniently, at the same time. Hungry peasants joined the growing army of industrial workers.


1860 view of Wedgwood’s Etruria Works

Labor in the factories, as was pointed out, was very different from the labor of the fields, and people had to be trained to the new demands of life in the enclosed factory and the dark and dank mines. One had to be taught to endure work that was hard and difficult, often deadly and dangerous. 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 “shift” or the number of hours worked and, therefore, timed to the ticking of the clock. Time itself was sped up, cut, like the gestures of the body, into tiny pieces, and adapted to the needs of the task at hand. 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, the result of a rational and an analytic process, which investigated and examined each aspect of manufacture, a mode of thinking that would, in the twentieth century be called “Fordism” or time and motion studies. The factory was a vast machine, and the workers mere cogs in the machine. The process and pace of manufacture ruled their lives and their deaths.

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 middle class individuals, all determined to take advantage of the opportunities capitalism promised. The medieval world, largely rural and ruled by the landed gentry and an unquestioned habitus, or habitual learned behavior, depended upon personal contacts consisting of mutual obligations, and this world simply disappeared. Money and the exchange of money could not recognize moral values and the profit motive ruled all actions. Not until well int the twentieth century were there any constraints on the actions of capitalism, a cultural force beyond the control of mere individuals. Nevertheless, people were shaped by the demands of capitalism, which in the eighteenth century was global and international. Newly rich middle class individuals created prosperity for themselves and controlled the new sources of wealth, whether through manufacture or trade, as completely as the now-deposed aristocrats had once ruled their domains. While the middle class rose, working conditions actually declined in quality for the lower class workers, regardless of age, 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 (not women) with wit and foresight and a few good ideas could become wealthy and powerful, taking advantage of new prospects and horizons. 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, even, by the twentieth century, for the laborers. 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. Even today, the average worker, whether in a factory or field or a tech lab, is paid for about two hours a day, with the owner pocketing the other six hours as profit. This profit is usually shared with stockholders and not with the workers. Today, for example, the shareholders demand and end to labor, which is expensive, and ask the owners to increase returns by shifting to automation or by finding cheaper workers. During the eighteenth century, the middle class grew in social and political power and became their own investors, elevating each other as bankers, lawyers, and manufactures, participating in the new system of exchange and international trade. The profits were theoretically endless. Land is limited; farming is dependent upon weather; manufacturing, on the other hand, is limited only by demand and independent of anything but the marketplace, which was, as Karl Marx pointed out, driven by bourgeois 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 manufacture of commodities necessitated the training of a new kind of individual, the consumer, who would be willing to purchase the new, the novel and the innovative. The consumer society was built on endless change and turnover of ever new objects to admire, desire and purchase. The spenders were, at first, the moneyed class, now defined, not by birth, but by ability to consume. Once acquired by the acquisitive class, the ephemeral commodity would “melt into air,” as Marx put it, only to be replaced by the next fad and the next novelty, the new desire. It is during the nineteenth century, that this system of “melting” would be formalized into a social practice called “fashion,” centering at first upon clothing. The creation of the web of commodities exploited the rights of the workers who were so blinded by their collective need to survive and make a living of sorts that they dared not complain. Caught up in a apparatus that was the vast economy, the worker was oppressed and was socially and cognitively conditions or disciplined to accept his or her fate. 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 workers would recognize that their wages were stolen, that their souls were crushed, and that they had rights and power. Without them, the machines would stop as surely as if they had thrown their sabots into the gears. Under the spell of “consciousness raising,” the proletariat would seize the mode of production, and inaugurate the phase of the people’s ownership–“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, the alliance of the governments with the owners of the modes of production. Another attempt was made to rise up in France in 1870 but once again, the lower classes were defeated and seemed to subside to the will of the ongoing Industrial Revolution.

It is important to note that only in England could Karl Marx had conceived of his economic and philosophical theories. The Industrial Revolution, which seemed so all-important in England and Scotland, actually spread very slowly to the continent. Decades after Marx completed his economic theories the industrial revolution and its effects began to alter France and then Germany. But in England, the shape of the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the construction of a new knot of human being, enmeshed in a new system of human relations, based upon reciprocal powers. The internal workings of the system were disguised by the beguiling array of commodities offered to the workers. Buttressed by capitalism, the Industrial Revolution offered more chances for social mobility than political revolution. If one worked hard, then one could join the class of consumers. 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 that the quality of life was improving, offering more opportunities for more people.  It was an era when most people believed in Progress, not just of science and technology, but also for human beings themselves. It was an article of faith 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. Old worlds were destroyed and the new worlds were not easily reached by those who had been displaced off the farm and from the factory or out of the office. The alternative belief system was that of a sense of a Mastery of Nature. 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 as a philosophical or social movement was long over, but 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.
[email protected]

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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