George Wyllie and Adam Smith: why was a twentieth-century artist so fascinated with an eighteenth-century economist?

This blog article was contributed by Senior Visitor Services Facilitator Jo Rodgers

This blog must begin with a disclaimer: in a break with the pattern of our last few articles, there will be no sketching here. I will leave the artistic endeavours to more talented colleagues and instead stick with what I know – history. I’ve chosen to write about George Wyllie because I share with him a fascination with the famous eighteenth-century philosopher and economist Adam Smith.

George Wyllie

George Wyllie 'paper boat' launch 1989 Courtesy Stephen Mansfield and The Scotsman Publications Ltd

George Wyllie ‘paper boat’ launch 1989
Courtesy Stephen Mansfield and The Scotsman Publications Ltd

George Wyllie (1921-2012) was a Scottish artist and sculptor. Wyllie trained as an engineer before joining the Royal Navy at the beginning of World War Two, and later worked as a customs officer in Gourock. Then, at the age of 58, he decided to become a full-time artist and sculptor. Perhaps it was because he came to the art scene at this older age that he refused to refer to himself as a ‘sculptor’, but only as a ‘scul?tor’ – just one of many instances when Wyllie questioned prevailing norms.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith by John Kay, 1790

Adam Smith by John Kay, 1790

Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a key figure in the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ – an intellectual movement in the eighteenth century which pushed the boundaries of human knowledge, and led to the creation of entirely new spheres of enquiry including geology, sociology and political economy. It is for his contribution to the latter field that Smith remains so famous today, as his 1776 work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is widely considered the first modern work of economics.

Wyllie’s art as a political statement

So what connected this eighteenth-century ‘father of economics’ to the twentieth-century ‘scul?tor’?

Well, interestingly, they both held the same job as customs officers in Scotland (an occupation also shared by Smith’s contemporary Robert Burns!). However, Wyllie’s fascination with Smith stemmed less from biographical similarities and more from the political atmosphere in Scotland at the beginning of Wyllie’s career as an artist.

The economic policy of the Thatcher government (1979-1990) led to the decline of heavy industry in Scotland during the 1980s and had a debilitating effect on many Scottish communities. Thatcher claimed to draw inspiration from Smith when she argued that ‘there is no such thing as society’. The Wealth of Nations argued that overall wealth is increased if everyone pursues their own interests, with little regard for others in society: ‘He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.’

Wealth of Nations

Wealth of Nations

Wyllie was deeply affected by the decline of Scottish industry, and described:”the daily frustration of looking over an empty Clyde … [wondering] why the potential of this great waterway is being disregarded.” He also recognised that Smith’s arguments were more nuanced than contemporary economic theory supposed, and decided to use his art to question the prevailing orthodoxy.

‘Paper Boat’ and ‘Adam also wrote “The Moral Sentiments”‘

His Paper Boat is perhaps the most famous example, as it attracted international attention in 1989 when it sailed around the world from Glasgow to New York and back. The arrival of the Paper Boat at New York’s World Financial Centre in 1990 even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Wyllie took advantage of the publicity to read a passage from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In this 1759 work, Smith argues that people have a natural tendency to care about others and to have ‘fellow-feeling with any passion whatsoever’. In other words, human beings are motivated not only by self-interest, but by a powerful and innate sympathy with others. It is this sympathy as well as self-interest, which guides people’s actions. By using Adam Smith’s writings as part of his artwork, Wyllie was able to engage with contemporary debates and make a political point about how people should treat each other.

George Wyllie's Paper Boat on Thames Courtesy of The George Wyllie Foundation www.georgewyllie.com

George Wyllie’s Paper Boat on Thames
Courtesy of The George Wyllie Foundation
http://www.georgewyllie.com

Adam also wrote 'The Moral Sentiments',  diploma piece by George Wyllie

Adam also wrote ‘The Moral Sentiments’, diploma piece by George Wyllie

In 2001 Wyllie made his point even more starkly in his Royal Academy Diploma piece, which is entitled ‘Adam also wrote “The Moral Sentiments”‘. Currently on display in the Gateway Galleries in St Andrews, this artwork consists of a copy of The Wealth of Nations (1776) which has been bolted closed. An imaginative and interesting piece, the artwork has even greater significance when approached with an awareness of the importance of Adam Smith in Wyllie’s work.

A small paper boat made by george Wyllie, along with a QM plaque showing the destinations of his giant Paper Boat.

A small paper boat made by george Wyllie, along with a QM plaque showing the destinations of his giant Paper Boat.

If you want to find out more about the scul?tor George Wyllie, visit A Scottish Palette at The Gateway Galleries, or The George Wyllie Foundation web pages www.georgewyllie.com and www.facebook.com/ForTheBurds

Advertisements

One thought on “George Wyllie and Adam Smith: why was a twentieth-century artist so fascinated with an eighteenth-century economist?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s