Harold Skimpole: Art, Time & Money

 

Harold Skimpole is a character from Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”. He is described as being innocent, like a child who knows nothing of time or money.

From this description we could conclude that Dickens is saying that time and money have eaten up our innocence. Dickens was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was pushing capitalism to its full potential and carving a new world-order designed to produce unlimited wealth on the one hand, and abject poverty on the other. A revolution that has endured centuries and continues to steam-roller forward through our own innocence-starved lives. But now, the concept of time-and-money has taken away far more than just our innocence: it has robbed us of our freedom, and, most especially, of our humanity.

In Bleak House, Skimpole has the airs of an artist: an amateur artist; a pure artist. Art, in its pure form, is always a gift – and we can see an association between the pure artist and innocence, because anyone who gives freely must be either innocent or mad. And yes, there is also an association between innocence, the simpleton, and madness. But art, as a gift, is the antithesis of capitalist ideology, because a gift is, in its essence, outside the economy and beyond the realms of time and money.

An authentically human system cannot ignore true art, and a truly human economy would have to understand the incompatibility between art (that which must be given) and the false-necessities created by the ubiquitous presence of money. A truly human economy, therefore, should be designed in a way that allows art to be created in a space beyond time and money, or, in other words, outside the money system itself.

 

PROPOSITION A:

The existence of art has to challenge the ubiquitous nature of the money system.

 

When Skimpole says: “… go after glory, holiness, commerce, trade, any object you prefer; only – let Harold Skimpole live!” in effect Dickens is saying that the capitalists can build society anyway they want. However, the world they are building stifles Skimpole, and if Skimpole is a symbol of the artist, then Dickens is saying that the time-and-money system is choking art.

But Skimpole is a survivor, who has still not been swallowed up by the System. Somehow he manages to maintain his autonomy, perhaps because “he still had claims too, which were the general business of the community and must not be slighted,” or because he is anti-materialistic himself: “I covet nothing”; or because: “I feel as if you ought to be grateful to me for giving you the opportunity of engaging the luxury of generosity. I know you like it … I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness.” Forget your worldliness and play with me, he says, which is what any pure artist would say as well.

Art is the gift of escape, but it is also the gift of progress-through-creativity, and because of that it is not only a gift it is a fundamental feature of humanity whose essence is to become through a continual process of becoming. Only through art can humanity ever really conceive itself to be progressing freely. Art is an essential ingredient in any definition of freedom. And, as Skimpole asserts: “the base word money should never be breathed near it!”

Skimpole can only exist in the time-and-money system by being a charlatan, and as a charlatan he is unscrupulous at ensuring his survival. But Dickens is also blaming the system for Skimpole’s unscrupulousness. Skimpole has no choice, just as art or any artist has no choice. In order to survive in this world, everyone needs money, artist or not. Skimpole uses his charms to maintain his independence from the System, but the System is still there and he is still inside it. He is an impossible man, but in his absurdity resides something that the world that makes him absurd also needs: His creativity.

In the eyes of capitalism, Skimpole is a parasite, just as all artists are who cannot justify themselves in the world of the free market are parasites. But let us remember that some parasites achieve greatness as well: those who, doomed to be amateur nobodies in their poverty-stricken lives, became superstars after their death. A most poignant example is Van Gogh, whose work now brings in millions and yet he never sold a painting in his life. Likewise, Dostoevsky was a struggling unfortunate; as was Beckett.

Art in the civilised world now seems to be the heading the same way as the nomad. There is no space for the real artist in the free-money-market world. And, like any nomadic society, the artist will be forced to eventually conform to the system or perish.

Of course, the irony of this, is that art is one of the defining features in the identity of the civilised world against the barbarian. By reducing the artist to the level of the parasite, civilisation reveals a triumph of barbarism within its own walls. It has its pinacothecas and museums, but these only display its own hypocritical attitude toward the artist, who, like Skimpole, is only a parasite until proven otherwise.