Metaphors of Economic Activity in 19th and 20th Century Western Art

Article excerpt

This paper examines the use of economic subject matter in 19th and 20th century Western paintings. We find that while economic activity occupies a large, portion of daily human life, it has been largely ignored as a subject matter for art. The paper examines the differences between economic activity, such as labor, capital, production, and market exchange as artistic subject matter. Using a panel approach, examples of 19th and 20th century paintings that use economic activity as subject matter are examine and classified into sub-categories of motifs. Analysis suggests that industrial production and capital themes are more negatively presented than labor and market exchange themes.


Since Thomas More's Utopia appeared in 1516, there has been a long and honored tradition to use thematic symbols, such as metaphors and analogies, to illuminate various aspects of business activity (e.g., Brunswick, 1952; Manning, 1979; Morgan, 1986; Putnam, Phillips and Chapman, 1996). Within this context, debate appears to revolve around some common themes such as: a) the philosophical useful of such vehicles in both economic theory (Hannon, 1997; Kay, 2002) and organizational research (Tsoukas, 1991 ; Ortony, 1993), a controversial topic so aptly illustrated by the lively debate between Morgan (1980, 1983) and Finder and Bourgeois (1982) (see also, Bourgeois and Pinder, 1983), b) the appropriate application of particular thematic symbols, such as the optical metaphors of lenses, prisms or mirrors (e.g., Grant and Oswick, 1996; Makherjee and Rahman, 2002), to correctly illustrate various organizational activities, and c) the pedagogical value of symbolic creation in the business classroom (Shaw and Locke, 1993; Ryman, Porter and Galbraith, 2002; Mockler, 2002). Regardless of the academic debate, metaphors, analogies, and other thematic symbols remain some of the most endearing vehicles of communication in the world of business and economics, as illustrated by the colorfully artistic covers of almost any modem corporate annual report.

Morgan (1986) correctly points out that a metaphor is a "way of thinking and a way of seeing," but just as a metaphor or some other thematic symbol may illuminate an organizational or economic issue it can also describe how its creators perceive the subject. Examining perception within this context slices the discussion in a radically different way; symbols, metaphors and recurring representational themes now become tangible evidence of beliefs, biases, and culture. So while a debate as to whether a "prism" is an appropriate metaphor for "pluralistic experiences" is useful (e.g., Mukherjee and Rahman, 2002), the continuous application of this particular metaphor may also tell us something important about cultural perception of "pluralistic experiences." This multi-dimensional, and sometimes hidden, tie between the cultural context of symbolism and themes, the subject or topic depicted, and creative process becomes, in part, the foundation for both art therapy in psychology (e.g., Koplewicz and Goodman, 1999) and the various modern schools of artistic interpretation (e.g., Johns, 1991; Lubin, 1994; Prown, 1997).

The context for this study is the world of professional fine art, and the development of apparently enduring motifs and symbols of economic activity. It is often said that art captures the emotions of the time, or as Prown (1997) notes, "art embodies in material form cultural evidence - evidence of belief - and the study of artistic evidence can enlarge an understanding of culture, past and present (p.22)." Here metaphor becomes the intellectual idea of the painter, something that is communicated to the viewer (Fitzgerald, 1998). And as motifs and recurring representational themes develop in art they, in turn, become part of our social history (e.g., Lubin, 1994; Prown, 1997; Stein, 2000). What then is this metaphorical history of work, business and economics; how does the world of professional art, in fact, depict such issues? …


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