ARTWORKS AS COMMODITIES

JOHN A. WALKER (Copyright, 2009)

John A. Walker, Not for Sale, (1975). Oil on canvas. Donated to Wolverhampton Art Gallery. (This painting demands to be a commodity but the title insists it is not for sale - it can only be given away.) ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------So much nonsense and confusion surrounds the idea of art as a commodity, it may be worthwhile attempting a clarification. To many people, art's otherworldliness - its aesthetic, spiritual or transcendent qualities - seem in painful contradiction with its appearance in the marketplace. To them the conjunction art: money, art: business seems sordid and offensive. As a result, strange incongruities of thought arise: works of art are described as 'priceless' despite the fact that whenever they are offered for sale in auction rooms they fetch prices. It is generally assumed that when artists make art they are motivated by the highest ideals (inner

necessity, self expression, the desire to comment politically, etc), hence they are not expected to admit 'I did it for the money'. Nonetheless, artists have to eat and therefore making money from art may be one reasonable motive for producing it. Also, it is perfectly possible for an artist to have several motives some primary, some secondary, some idealistic, some mercenary. Such motivations are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the mere fact that an artist makes art for money is no indication that the resulting work is of no artistic or intellectual value: the aesthetic quality of a work is not determined by the motives of its maker. By the same token, poor quality art may be the result of high, sincere motives. Since the idea of artistic independence has been so crucial to modernism, it may be worth considering how certain of the founding fathers were able to maintain their integrity and independence. Cézanne did not have to please a patron, a public, a dealer or a market, he was under no compulsion to make art for a living because once he inherited his father's money and land he gained financial independence for life. Van Gogh was similarly protected from market forces by the subsidy his brother Theo supplied. Manet and Degas were also affluent. The majority of artists are not so fortunate, they need money in order to practice art at all. Many artists take part-time or full-time employment in order to fund their art activities but this obviously limits the time they can devote to art. Others rely upon a variety of different sorts of income - grants, temporary appointments, residencies, commissions, and so forth - in order to eke out a precarious living. Only a small proportion of artists are successful enough to live from the sale of their work. Most of the artworks produced by professional artists within the context of the

Western economic system become commodities once they leave the artist's studio and are sold to collectors and museums via the dealer/private art gallery system of marketing and distribution. Generally speaking, artists own their means of production (tools, materials, equipment, etc), so in this respect they resemble small, independent manufacturers supplying luxury goods (premium products) to a specialist market. They and their assistants expend mental and physical labour to transform cheap materials (mostly) into higher value goods. (In 2007-2008 certain British artists - Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn - used expensive materials such as diamonds and gold to make art in order to increase its financial value at a time when currencies and stocks and shares were losing value.)

Mark Quinn with gold sculpture of fashion model Kate Moss, 2008. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Higher value is also achieved via the labour of critics, press agents, dealers, museum curators, collectors and auction houses plus the mass media who consolidate the reputation or brand of the artist. (Turning them into art stars or

celebrities.) In those cases where artists receive regular payments from dealers in return for all their output, their economic circumstances approximate more to the condition of wage-labourers (that is, workers who sell their labour-power for a certain number of hours to employers in return for a wage), It is time to define what we mean by 'commodity'. According to the account given by Marx in the first chapter of Das Kapital, commodities have a double aspect: first, they are articles of utility: physical objects existing outside of us possessing properties which satisfy human wants or needs of some sort; in short, they have usevalues; and second, they are depositories of value, that is, they can be exchanged for other commodities considered to be of equal value, or they can be exchanged for money; in short, they have exchange-values. Marx argued that the exchange-value of commodities has a purely social reality and derives from the human labour expended in their production. While all the products of human labour have usevalues, only in particular historical epochs do these products become commodities with exchange-value in terms of money. One such historical epoch is, of course, the era of bourgeois society, capitalism and the market economy. To say that works of art have use-values conflicts with a common cliché about art, namely, that it is useless, a non-commercial, uneconomic activity. In my view, the received wisdom that art is useless is a myth, because it overlooks the various decorative, symbolic, ideological, political, religious functions which art serves. The idea that art is non-commercial is also a myth. The power of this myth to persist in the face of an international market in contemporary art is perhaps due in part to the non-correlation between aesthetic and monetary values: that is, there is no

necessary connection - a work of art with a high or low aesthetic value may be worth millions or it may not; both values can also vary historically and from social group to social group. In spite of the difficulties of explaining how works of art are assigned their aesthetic and monetary values, it is clear from the above that art in our present society is an economic, commercial activity. Before the development of a market in fine art objects, artists were retained by royalty and the aristocracy; often they were treated as superior household servants. Alternatively, artists were commissioned - by the Church, Kings, Princes, rich merchants, guilds, and so forth - to undertake specific tasks: a tomb sculpture, a ceiling decoration, a portrait, an altarpiece. Since the majority of such works were executed for particular patrons who wanted to possess and use the works in question, and for particular places (that is, fixed, physical settings), the resulting objects did not become commodities offered for sale in an open market, bought and sold again and again over the years for the purpose of profit. This type of transaction still persists today: a community mural is a case in point. There are other kinds of artistic activity which also resist or sidestep commodification, Performance art, for example. (For instance, the 1960s’ autodestructive art events of Gustav Metzger, an artist who has managed to avoid his work becoming a commodity throughout a long career.) Since in the case of a performance there is no physical object to be sold, the perfomer is usually paid a fee. When a performance is repeated night after night - as in the theatre - actors are paid a regular wage for the duration of the play's run. In this instance their economic situation vis-a-vis the theatre management is clearly an

employee/employer relationship and if the employer reaps a profit from the proceeds of ticket sales to the public, then exploitation of the actor's labour-power in the classic Marxist sense takes place. Let us now return to the topic of artworks as commodities. While the vast majority of artists prefer to exclude issues of money and business from the substance of their work, a few have addressed the commodity issue. Andy Warhol is one artist who felt no guilt or scruples about the commercial aspects of art. In the early 1960s, along with soup cans, his iconography encompassed dollar bills. Thus images of money became worth money. And since the bills depicted were of low denominations, their 'face value' inflated as Warhol's prices rose.

Andy Warhol, 200 one dollar bills, (1962). Copyright Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol/ARS New York; Silkscreen on canvas. Warhol prints money. At

Sotheby’s auction house in New York in November 2009 this painting was sold for $43.8 million. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Later Warhol was to declare in his autobiography: ‘Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist ... Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art ... making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." (1 ) Warhol's lengthy, professional career testified to his ability to diversify across a range of media, to exploit publicity and to market his products in ways that many a businessman must have envied. Warhol is anathema to many critics on the left because his work appears to capitulate to the forces of commodification, industrialization, standardization and stereotyping. And there is a large measure of truth in these charges, but at least his work raises these issues, whereas the humanist figure and landscape painters (e.g. Frank Auerbach) praised by the same critics (e.g. Peter Fuller) ignore them altogether.

Julian Opie, Cash This, (1983). Oil paint on Steel. Private Collection. Photo copyright Julian Opie and Lisson Gallery. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Another, more recent, example of a work of art self-reflexively illustrating its status as commodity was Julian Opie's Cash This (1983) a witty, painted metal relief sculpture which showed a cheque being signed by the artist. Here Opie acknowledges that making a sculpture is equivalent to writing out a cheque to obtain cash. This work also revealed the vital role of the artist's signature as the guarantee of authenticity, individuality and value. The mischievous Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960) responded both to Warhol’s dollar painting and Opie’s cheque sculpture by submitting a cheque for one dollar to auction at Christie’s Amsterdam in May 2009.

Amazingly, it fetched 10,000 Euros.

M. Cattelan, Untitled, signed 'Cattelan' (lower right), and dated '2/26/09' (upper right), cheque 7 x 15 cm. Executed in 2009. Photo courtesy of Christies. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------It would, of course, be a delusion to assume that a work of art which exposed its commodity nature thereby overcame or transcended commodification: this artwork too is a commodity (unless the artist refuses ever to sell it). Nevertheless, in its favour it can be said it provides knowledge. Such works by Warhol and Opie may disturb those viewers who wish to separate commerce and culture, but their critical value is extremely limited. Hans Haacke's oeuvre is more thoughtful and political: his photo-text, provenance pieces from the mid-1970s - Manet's Bunch of Asparagus and Seurat's Les Poseuses - systematically documented the ownership history of two nineteenth century paintings and the prices paid for them when they changed hands. Clinically, Haacke revealed the intimate connections between the ownership of art, wealth, power and big business.

Hans Haacke, Manet Projekt ’74. This work - a text panel that was part of a planned installation - documented the provenance of Manet’s painting Bunch of Asparagus (1880). It was rejected by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne because it exposed the Nazi-era career of patron and Deutsche Bank chairman Hermann Josef Abs, who had loaned the painting to the museum. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------Evidently, there are some paradoxical cultural commodities whose message or content - their use-value - is at odds with, or critical of, their status as commodities. An obvious case in point are the writings of Marx and Engels. Their books argue for the abolition of capitalism and private property, yet they are sold for profit by privately owned publishing companies who, presumably, take the view that readers will not take the Marxist message literally and abolish them! Similar paradoxes occur in the realm of rock music: John Lennon, a multi-millionaire, wrote songs about revolution, power to the people and imagining no possessions. Bow Wow Wow's number C30, C60, C90, Go! (1981) encouraged listeners to tape record music rather than to buy it. This song, inspired by Malcolm McLaren's anarchism, was

intended to embarrass the record company - EMI - that issued it and succeeded in so doing. EMI did include a version of the song on one Bow Wow Wow compilation - a Spanish version! Jamie Reid (b. 1947), the designer of the Sex Pistols' punk graphics, held an exhibition in Hamilton’s Gallery, Mayfair, London in 1986 in which was included a notice

Jamie Reid, An image for Suburban Press. Photo courtesy of Hamilton’s Gallery. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------to be attached to shop windows which claimed that the shop welcomed shoplifting. Since this item was for sale its message was clearly at odds with its commodity status. One wonders what the result of a court case would have been if a visitor to the gallery had decided to take the instruction at face value and had stolen the piece. Can one be found guilty of shoplifting an item which advocates shoplifting? In the discourse about art and culture, commodities and the commodification of art are generally regarded as 'bad things'. But why precisely this should be so remains obscure. Let us try to spell out the objections to commodities.

(a) A socialist objection to art commodities bought and sold by a succession of dealers and collectors is that each time a profit is made artists are deprived of the full fruits of their labour. Artists would, one assumes, welcome a law which gave them a cut every time their works were sold so that they could benefit directly from any increases in monetary value over time. (Such a law now exists: Droit de Suite or Artists’ Resale Rights.) (b) The second objection is much more subtle and complex. It is an objection made by the Frankfurt School philosophers, in particular T. W. Adorno, and derives from Marx's analysis of commodity fetishism. While the criticism can be applied to art commodities, it is most often directed towards mass culture, or what the Frankfurt School preferred to call the culture industry. Modern forms of mass culture are really the consequence of the application of industry, big business and technology (especially mechanical reproduction) to the arts. Whereas it is clear that traditional works of art were made for the sake of their use-values, this is not so clear in the case of mass culture. As Adorno remarked: ‘Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through.’ (3) In other words, once a market exists it becomes possible to manufacture goods for the purpose of exchange and profit rather than for use by the makers. Critics usually regard this development as retrogressive because the commodification of culture inevitably alters its character for the worse, for example, causing a loss of artistic integrity and quality, tending towards standardization, pseudo-individualism, stereotypes,

passive consumerism, etc. etc. The formidable catalogue of objections to mass culture are probably familiar, so I won't list them in detail. While it is tempting to conclude that goods made for sale and profit must be artistically worthless, it is surely too simplistic a response. Not all popular films, records, TV programmes are bad, escapist, reactionary, etc. Also, cultural commodities must meet some needs in the audience or public otherwise they would not sell, hence use-values cannot be dispensed with altogether. And, as we have seen, a work's content may even be critical of commodification. Adorno's critical assault on the culture industry can itself be criticized: it lacked historical specificity; it failed to differentiate between different media, forms and products; it treated the industry as monolithic; and it was extremely pessimistic. His blanket condemnation also failed to consider whether there was a possibility of struggle for artists compelled to work within existing capitalist relations. It is this possibility which more recent critics - especially those studying the realm of rock and pop music - have been examining. Simon Frith, the sociologist and rock music critic, has expressed doubts about the kind of analysis which sets art against business: ‘I don't believe that pitting art versus business ... actually helps us in analysing a mass culture like rock. It is precisely because music, money, and adulation can't be separated - by musicians or audiences that rock is so important. Rock fans and rock performers alike want their music to be powerful, to work as music and commodity.' (4) He goes on to argue that the commercial process of rock is essentially contradictory. The music business constantly strives to control the market and public

taste but it never completely succeeds because consumers are active not passive, and because shifts in musical taste are unpredictable. Later he adds: ‘The rock industry, as a capitalist enterprise, doesn't sell some single, hegemonic idea, but is, rather, a medium through which hundreds of ideas flow. Commercial logic shapes these ideas, but ... efficient profit-making involves not the creation of "new needs " and audience "manipulations" but, rather, the response to existing needs and audience "satisfaction" ... The record industry must always try to mould its market (this is the reality of rock-as-commodity), but this must always involve a struggle (this is the reality of rock-as-leisure commodity)," (5) Whereas 1960s’ counter-culture and 1970s’ punk/new wave independent labels sought to establish alternatives to the large record companies, 1980s pop groups adopted a new realism - some would say cynicism. Sigue Sigue Sputnik (SSS) was a band which exemplified the new commercial blatancy of the 1980s. (See http://www.sputnikworld.com/) This group was carefully devised mainly by Tony James an ex-punk guitarist from Generation X. SSS's artificiality, their marketing strategy for gaining large advances from record companies, the techniques of image-construction, hype and so on were all revealed in interviews, articles and TV programmes about the group. Although a record was eventually released for the public to buy, essentially the appeal of the band was the spectacle of self-promotion itself. In other words, success was not measured in terms of musical or visual aesthetics but in terms of playing and winning against the system, manipulating it in order to supply cash and resources so that the game could be continued. One cannot criticize SSS for hiding the truth, on the contrary, the

whole process was gleefully revealed. Somewhat surprisingly, instead of reacting negatively 'This is a con trick, I won't buy their record' - a considerable number of the public did. Sheer survival becomes of increasing concern to millions during economic recessions. This is probably the reason for the appeal of TV soap operas such as Dallas. Stories about power and money, business success or failure, captivate mass audiences whether the stories are fictional or real - as in the business sections of newspapers. In recent film-making the achievement of producers and directors has not been to make good films (that is relatively easy), but to raise the finance to make them in the first place. (Marx claimed that the economic was determinant in the last instance, but in artistic production it often seems determinant in the first instance.) Tony James had the insight to realise that the spectacle of business struggle is fascinating in its own right. He had the intelligence to see that designing a package, constructing an image, is as much an art as any other form of creative endeavour. Truly, Warhol's remarks about business art and the art of business have never been more apt. On the one hand it could be argued that such a strategy represents the ultimate in 'selling out' but, on the other hand, it could be argued that the strategy represents a new level of frankness about the reality of culture within capitalism. Perhaps one use-value of SSS is the knowledge they provided about the workings of the system. To blame those rock groups who simultaneously expose and exploit art as commodity is to displace criticism from where it really belongs - the system which generates commodities in the first place. It is surely unfair to blame messengers for

the bad news they bring. Examples have been cited from Pop music because the cultural/commercial tendencies of the age are more extreme and vivid in such fields. However, as distinctions between the production of art and mass culture industries dwindle, those same tendencies are increasingly evident in the art world itself: witness the 1980s’ New York gallery scene and the aggressive marketing, hyping and packaging of such art stars as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, etc. Keith Haring (1958-90), an artist who was willing to undertake virtually any type of design commission, responded frankly to these changes by opening a ‘Pop Shop’ to sell a range of his products in large editions with prices to suit all pockets. (See http://www.popshop.com/) (Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas had a similar shop in London for a time. Julian Opie also now has such a shop. See http://www.julianopieshop.com and Damien Hirst has opened two shops called Other Criteria https://www.othercriteria.com/info/contact/shop to sell merchandise by himself and other artists.)

Keith Haring in his Pop Shop, Lafayette St, New York, 1986. Photo Charles DolfiMichels. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------From October 2009 to January 2010, Tate Modern in London mounted an exhibition entitled ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’ that addressed many of the themes touched upon in this article and in my books Art in the Age of Mass Media, (London & Sterling VA: Pluto Press, 3rd ed. 2001) and Art and Celebrity (London & Sterling VA; Pluto Press, 2003). A preview statement declared that the exhibition

‘argues that Warhol’s most radical lesson is reflected in the work of artists of subsequent generations who, rather than simply representing or commenting upon our mass media culture, have infiltrated the publicity machine and the marketplace as a deliberate strategy. Harnessing the power of the celebrity system and expanding their reach beyond the art world and into the wider world of commerce,

these artists exploit channels that engage audiences both inside and outside the gallery. The conflation of culture and commerce is typically seen as a betrayal of the values associated with modern art; this exhibition contends that, for many artists working after Warhol, to cross this line is to engage with modern life on its own terms.’ (6)

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Notes and references (1) Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again , (London: Pan Books), 1979), p. 88. (2) By the fetishism of commodities Marx meant ‘The social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour'. The commodity is a mysterious phenomenon because social relations between human beings appear as relations between things. See 'The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof' - in - Capital, a Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Vol 1, (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1970), pp. 76-87. (3) T. W. Adorno 'The culture industry reconsidered', New German Critique, Fall 1975, pp. 3-19 (4) S. Frith, Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock, (London: Constable, 1983), p. 91.

(5) op. cit. p. 270. (6) http://www.huliq.com/13/84036/enjoy-pop-life-tate-modern -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in the Irish art magazine CIRCA, (32) January-February 1987, pp. 26-30. John A. Walker is a painter and art historian.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful