"The Capitalist Threat"

and the Advent of Post-Modernism

by H.A Fraser, Managing Editor, ABM


Billionaire George Soros has bitten the hand which feeds him and provoked business critics into childish name calling. In his contentious article "The Capitalist Threat" which appeared in Atlantic Monthly (Feb./97), Soros states his belief that laissez-faire capitalism, the system which made him rich, has become a real threat to the values and institutions of democracy. While the article is dense and often vague, many of his observations do make sense. In fact, Soros suggestions for social change bring to mind a dramatic movement that actually occurred around 1970 in the world of art: post-modernism. But first, the Soros article.

Soros' beginnings were difficult. As a young man growing up in Hungary, he experienced the domination of the Nazis and the "oppression" of communism. From his experiences, however, he resolved to help prevent the such conditions in the future. So with the wealth he amassed after WW II, he started The Open Society Fund. Begun in 1979, this foundation creates and encourages values and institutions of the "open society". The Fund does work in 25 countries including South Africa, Hungary, the Soviet Union and Poland. Soros vaguely defines the institutions of the open society: freedom of choice, freedom of speech, limitless progress, a requirement that people think for themselves. Our western democratic countries do qualify as open societies, for now:

Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.

Our reliance on capitalism, write Soros, is reminiscent of the spread of totalitarian ideologies that supported communism and Nazism. These dogmatic movements claimed "to be in posession of the ultimate truth."

Laissez-faire ideology holds that free and competitive markets bring supply and demand into equilibrium and therefore ensure the best allocation of resources. Soros could not disagree more and brings reality to bear on this theory. Allowing our society to be shaped by market forces has led to a new extreme which threatens us all: "excessive individualism". There is too much competition and too little cooperation which has caused "intolerable inequities and instability."

More specifically, Soros describes the conflict between market values and traditional value systems. Advertising, marketing, and packaging shape peoples' non-market values and they begin to rely on money as a criterion for value. The richer you are the more respect you receive: "What used to be a medium of exchange has usurped the place of fundamental values...." A cult of success has replaced a belief in principles: "Society has lost its anchor."

To get ourselves back on track, we must accept that we are human, that we do not have access to absolute truths, that we must cooperate with each other, and that the marketplace is inherently unstable. Laissez-faire capitalism should be "tempered by the recognition of a common interest that ought to take precedence over particular interests...."


The Soros article has been heavily criticised. In a review in the Toronto Globe and Mail's Report on Business Magazine, Terence Corcoran called Soros a "crackpot... atoning for his wealth." While guilt may take some place in Soros' motivations, his observations do make sense. But his happy suggestions of cooperation, balance, understanding and acceptance of our weaknesses are not grounded in concrete guidelines. Would Soros suggest that businesses, big and small, proclaim that they are really just fumbling along like the rest of us (however true it may be)? Corporate Canada would be hard pressed to remove their mask of impervious strength. Their world is far too competitive (as Soros decried). But the crucial question that Soros fails to answer is how would he make the improvements he suggests.

And yet, Soros suggestions for social change bring to mind a dramatic shift in values which did occur in the visual arts around 1970.

In Canada and the U.S., during the late 1960s and early 1970s, scores of visual artists abandoned abstraction and turned towards figurative imagery. 20th century abstraction had by that time devolved into the pursuit of perfect form -- a pursuit based on the belief that pure plastic values can communicate the noblest human values.

The American abstract expressionist, Robert Motherwell wrote in 1944 that "all my works, consist of a dialectic between the conscious (straight lines, designed shapes, weighted colors, abstract language) and the unconscious (soft lines, obscured shapes, automatism) resolved into a synthesis which differs as a whole from either."1 In 1947, Barnett Newman asserted in that "the basis of an esthetic act is the pure idea... that makes contact with mystery -- of life, of men, of nature, of the hard, black chaos that is death, or the grayer softer chaos that is tragedy. For it is only the pure idea that has meaning." 2

Canadian abstract painter Guido Molinari epitomised the pursuit. His idealism in 1959 was dizzying:

For me, the primary plastic reality lies in the structure, that is to say in the dynamic function resulting from the relationship between elements, colour and plane ... [which] should be used and integrated in a new symbolic function suited to the development of a new language which will be truly adequate for individual expression...The meaning of my work lies in continued research, through an analytical method, to clarify the basic structure of those forces which compell me to organize pictorial space according to certain constants, and thus to become aware of the symbolic reality which constitutes my own artistic language. 3

Truly a time of the heroic artist and heroic thoughts. There seemed little room for self-doubt on the evolutionary trail that would lead to the image that would say it all. By 1960 , however, the journey seemed to end with the "what you see is what you see" inaccessible black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. But not long after, another painter of abstract canvases, American Philip Guston who had doggedly pursued perfection for close to 20 years, was one of the first to make a dramatic break with abstraction. Guston explained his thoughts of the time in an interview:

Who is a painter, after all? Man is an image maker, and painting is image-making. The abstract painters -- what are they tell us? That this is absolute? Well, all right, so is this beer glass. But what else is man?4

Guston abandoned abstract expressionism in 1968 and began to produce Robert Crumb "Zap Comix" inspired cartoon figures: cartoon hooded figures, truncated heads smoking or covered in bandages rolling through a grey world. There is little doubt that Guston gave up the impossible mission of the heroic abstract expressionist. His images speak of a broader view of man.

In Canada, Paterson Ewen turned away from a 20 year career as a painter of abstract canvases. In 1970, he abandoned his 10 x 10 ft minimalist paintings and began to create figurative imagery of phenomena/weather. He recalled his thoughts of 1970 in a 1975 interview:

I really felt like just playing instead and I thought I was making an anti-art gesture in the formal sense with those last paintings. Daubing rows of dots on plain canvas with felt. But then somehow this turned out feeling like traces of things moving through space... I began to get the feeling... that what we usually call the more simple things are immensely complicated, so I just accepted my limitations and put down the parts of these happenings that were for me fun to do.5

When you ask questions of the artists who went through this transformation, they invariably say that they were simply tired "of all that purity". There is a mood of reconciliation in their responses. Soon after 1970, figurative imagery began to reappear in art in general (although it never entirely left) and made art media headlines in 1980. Critics explained the sudden proliferation of styles and modes of art by saying that we had entered the period of "post-modernism". They used the scientific buzz term "paradigm shift" to describe the sudden change in art world attitudes. The meaning of all this for us, the viewers, lay in the fact that we began to recognise ourselves again in what artists were producing. We were weak (David Salle) flawed (Chuck Close) broken (Ewen), or just plain human (Duane Hanson). Engaging narrative (Judy Chicago), symbol (Wanda Koop), allegory (Joseph Beuys), and funk (Greg Curnoe) emerged to tell us more about us.

So where does this leave us with Soros' concerns of our present socio-economic condition? Given our observations of the relatively recent changes in the art world, could Soros be on the right track? Or is he a guilty-ridden "crack-pot"? It is hard not to be convinced that we need to re-order our values. Are we infected by the "cult of success"? Do we measure our successes in material goods? What is the condition of our environment and how did it get that way?

The discussion is enormous. But, if Soros is right, someone should tell him that the changes might already have begun.

1 Robert Motherwell in Sidney Janis, Abstract and Surrealist Art in American (N.Y., Reynal & Hitchcock, 1944) p. 65.

2 Barnett Newman in The Ideographic Picture (N.Y., Betty Parsons Gallery, 1947) n.p.

3 Guido Molinari in Art Abstrait (1959).

4 Philip Guston quoted by Dore Ashton, "Yes, but... A critical Study of Philip Guston," (1976) in Norbert Lynton, Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980 (London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982) p. 13.

5 Nick Johnson, "Paterson Ewen, Rain", Artscanada, No. 196/197 (March, 1975) p. 41.