"Fetishism, Hands and the Lives They Are Attached To"
16"x20" Acrylic on Canvas.
Here is hopefully the first in a series of concepts I'd like to illustrate through surrealism in the coming years. I finished this piece a few months back but am finally getting around to uploading a photo - the process for this was actually pretty cool since I finished it up over a Facebook livestream, just in time for my collaborative exhibit with Steveboyyi back in September. I haven't been making a lot of art lately for myself, which is the consequence of taking on a life that's been a bit on edge lately.
So I’m going to get a bit technical here and dig up some old writing of mine, starting with an overview of commodity fetishism (which is essentially the main concept I wanted to illustrate here). Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism delves deep to emphasize two notions of value in the world of economics; use value and exchange value. The former generally manifests first, as it is the value intrinsically associated with a product; as Marx articulated, “there is nothing mysterious about it”. Where value becomes complicated is in the latter form; when we prescribe an exchange value based on a particular commodity’s relationship to other commodities (and, furthermore, credit this as a natural process).
What Marx refers to as fetishism can be broken down in terms of a veil, or “mist”, by which we are systematically obstructed from perceiving the living process of production that accompanies a commodity. Commodities differ from traditional subsistence products in that their value is rooted in exchange -- it is a physical means by which one is able to accumulate more wealth. In a capitalist society, our relationship to commodities is, therefore, restricted to the commodity itself, not so much the means (social or otherwise) by which it reaches our local Walmart or grocery store shelves.
Commodity fetishism is our displacement of intrinsic human value onto material objects by our assigning of “divine” qualities to those items; it is our interpretation of exchange values as a natural occurrence, existing regardless of human intervention. This ideology is perpetuated by reason of its continuous “acting and re-acting” of values upon one another, which creates a system in which “objects rule the producers instead of being ruled by them”. Furthermore, Marx suggests that “the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves.” In all actuality, the commodity is merely the manifestation of a countless social relations, invisible to consumers by the time a product reaches their home.
Simply put - this is all to suggest that our view of every single hand that touches the products we consume is entirely obstructed. From seed to plant, to farm, resources used, pesticides, harvest, market, shipping & export, marketing, and labor in every step of this endless process, even in policymaking and behind the scenes where prices are set on a global scale… we are unable to fully see every link in this chain.
[I won’t lie - I am OBSESSED with this concept. It’s been a running theme in most of my work ever since I started to gain an awareness of how unnatural my surroundings are.]
As a consequence of commodity fetishism, the structure of our global markets make it so that the people who live closest to the environment -- the people who live off the land and are most engaged -- have the least amount of say in what happens to it. This phenomenon is also a result of tightly wound Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) developed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in an effort to collect on developing countries' debts. Indebted countries (often newly independent from colonial control) are generally unable to escape the clutches of these programs because money is “released in instalments, after verification that the stipulated measures have indeed been implemented” (Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank by Eric Toussaint, pg 98). By ensuring the effectiveness of the programs on the behalf of institutions that implement these adjustments, all power is allocated to the hands of the few. The overall price that we pay comes in the form of an ever-growing gap between the wealthy and impoverished and irreversible damage to parts of the environment.
The impact of lending on developing countries is as follows; instead of debts getting repaid, Third World (or really, majority world) countries end up overly indebted to lenders in a process that involves increasing the exportation of raw materials, interest rates that rise and prices on raw materials falling. One key adjustment we see made is the opening of market barriers and development of export-driven markets within developing countries.
The problem with such a system is that it typically leaves exporting countries heavily reliant upon single resources; this reliance equates to entanglement in extremely volatile markets. Volatile markets mean unstable incomes for the producers of whatever commodity a country is good at producing, which further results in widespread poverty. Furthermore, the environmental impact of this can be witnessed in places known for their food commodities, where monocultures develop and require the use of exorbitant amounts of pesticides and land clearing of biodiverse habitats in order to accommodate the growth of a single crop.
SO NOW… we get to food commodities. I did a bunch of research on bananas years ago for a Social Problems class, which honestly was a course that has guided my work as an artist and working professional ever since…..
SIDE NOTE: Interestingly enough, my alma mater (UW-Superior, located in Wisconsin, land of cheese and the war on liberal arts education, led by Scott Walker) recently decided to suspend a ton of significant programs across fields - they gutted the political science, communicating arts, and sociology departments, while also making cuts to the sciences, history, computer science mathematics, legal studies, health, and virtually every minor you can think of, honestly. They blamed first generation students being “overwhelmed” by all options as a significant reason for the cuts: http://www.businessnorth.com/daily_briefing/uw-superior-makes-changes-to...
60% of the banana industry is run by 3 corporations, which you probably can name already. It’s a toxic business; spray fungicides are used 40 times per year in cocktails, nematicides applied by workers 2-4 times/year impair neuropsychological abilities (reflexes, memory, sense of smell, color distinction), the herbicides and chemical fertilizers applied once a month like Paraquat cause severe blindness and burns, and after the harvest, workers are exposed to fungicides & formaldehyde (disinfectant) in packaging - all of this exposure contributes to sterility, cancer, and birth defects.
Environmentally, soil fertility is impacted, forests get cleared to make way for monocultures which destroy biodiversity, toxin-laced plastics always end up somewhere they don’t belong, etc. On top of this, 20% of average harvests don’t meet the beauty standards for this iconic fruit, which actually comes in a wide variety of better tasting flavors and colors than actually are provided in the grocery store. Fruit that isn’t aesthetically appealing gets tossed.
This is the story of nearly all the commodities we consume. Think cows. Think t-shirts and textiles. Think of the invisible hands in everything, and the lives they are attached to.
What we passively assimilate into and define as “natural” is actually guiding us further toward alienation, away from what Marx might consider to be harmony with our human essence. We live in a system under which it possible for a life-sustaining food product (i.e. an apple) to be deemed less valuable than a mechanically produced baseball card, whose value varies by content of image, artificial rarity and presumed potential for exchange instead of by its inherent utility. Marx’s theory begs us to address the mist that impedes our vision and social relations by first acknowledging that it is just that -- a content-blurring mist. It is a mist in which we have only a very limited understanding, at least in terms of how wide its scope is and if there is anything that actually exists outside of it. The only seemingly certain attribute of this fog is the fact that it seeps down from a source high in the upper echelons of the capitalist society, where power is concentrated. It would appear that this mist embodies the residual trails of exhaust emitted via two pipes in the capitalist machine: one, which reasserts the elite’s control in the production of commodities, and the other, which affirms their control of our perception of this system.
With all this in mind, I hope I’ve given enough context as to the symbolism in this piece. As opposed to explaining each and every image I chose to include, my hope is that my approach to surrealism is effective in illustrating complex ideas like fetishism, so that viewers remember the concept and understand it better when a scene is attached. What you choose to do with this understanding will hopefully be in an effort to perpetuate awareness, and maybe even to re-eavulate your involvement in these cycles.
Ultimately, this painting was one looong prayer for the world.
Checkout some of the live-painting process here at this link (and like my page while you're at it): https://www.facebook.com/moiraliketheory/videos/10207708896319774/