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THE VALUE OF A GENERAL MODEL OF THE

PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION AND CONSUMPTION OF ARTISTIC SIGNS FOR THE DISCIPLINE OF ART HISTORY
JOHN A WALKER (Copyright 2009)

At the outset I would like to make a plea for clarity and consistency in the use of terminology. In my view, it is unfortunate that the expressions 'art history' and 'the history of art' are used interchangeably by so many scholars. Art history is something different from the history of art. Art history is the name of an

intellectual, theoretical discipline whose object of study is the history of art. [An example from the sciences will make this clearer: astronomy is a science that studies the cosmos using ideas, theories and data acquired by physical instruments such as telescopes.] Although the phrase 'the history of art' indicates that there is a single, homogeneous object of study, in practice art history never supplies us with a single, complete, homogeneous account upon which we can all agree. There are always multiple histories, various histories of art. These histories are the output, the products of the discipline art history. They are physically embodied in various languages, media and forms of presentation; for example, lectures with slides, diagrams, articles, books, radio and television programmes. A whole talk could be devoted to the problems involved in specifying the object of study of art history. Suffice to say, art history is not merely concerned with studying artworks, styles, genres, artists, patrons, the concept of art, taste, etc; these would be the objects of study of an artologist. The object of study of art history is the history of all these things. In short, art history is a branch of the intellectual discipline history. It is time art historians started to pay some attention to the problems of history-writing and developments within history, especially those on the continent (e.g. the work of the French historian Fernand Braudel [1902-85]). Another talk could be devoted to the idea that art history generates a particular kind of discourse, and to the problems caused by its representation of the object of study in particular languages and media. I leave these topics for another time. Today my aim is to focus upon the production, distribution and consumption of artistic signs model and to evaluate its usefulness for art historians. Before looking

at the constituents of the model I want to make some general, preliminary remarks concerning the model and the reciprocal relationship between production and consumption. The bulk of art-historical literature consists of 'partial' studies in the sense that there are studies of artists, works of art, patrons, dealers, styles, periods, national schools etc, etc, but what is lacking is a general account of how all these particular studies inter-relate and, taken together, constitute a coherent totality. The diagram entitled 'A general model of the production, distribution and consumption of artistic signs' is intended to display, schematically, the system as a whole, and to show the logical relationships and connections between its various elements. One advantage of such a general model is that it enables us to see at a glance where a particular study belongs. It also enables us to identify those topics which currently receive little attention from scholars. Such a model is not without its limitations; for example, it does not explain how radical social change comes about. Inevitably it is highly abstract in character and therefore it would, no doubt, require modification when applied to particular human societies. The model, I should explain, was designed with modern Western society in mind (1800 to 1980), consequently, it would need to be revised when applied to the cultural production of a tribal or a feudal society (for instance, the emphasis given in the model to the art market and to questions of distribution would be non-existent or less in tribal or feudal societies). Nevertheless in spite of these qualifications - and I am sure you will find other faults in discussion - it seems to me that the model has a general validity through time and cross-culturally because the activities of production and

consumption are so fundamental to human behaviour and to the reproduction of the human species. (Some may object to the terms 'production' and 'consumption' in relation to art on the grounds that they are redolent of modern manufacturing industry; from a materialist perspective such a connotation is not, however, unwelcome. There are alternative terms, for example, 'creation' and 'experience' or 'reception' - but they are not so apt. In any event, it is not the verbal tag by which a process is known which matters so much, but that the process is described at all.) The diagram treats the processes of artistic production and consumption as a fairly autonomous system, although it is obvious that these processes take place within a wider social environment or context. (Therefore we should always talk about art within society, not art and society.) Any specific historical study using the model would need to make explicit not only the boundaries or frontiers which ensure art's relative autonomy but also the connections between the micro system and its encompassing macro system. (An act of censorship upon an artist or a film is a simple example of the way in which an external authority can exert pressure upon the practice of art, thus momentarily cancelling its relative autonomy.) Various kinds of artistic production are embedded within a more encompassing mode of production - such as feudalism or capitalism - but this does not mean that they necessarily exemplify the larger system in a part/whole manner, because a contradictory relationship may exist between the two spheres. For example, a handicraft artistic mode of production typical of feudalism can persist into the era of capitalism so that its status vis-à-vis the dominant mode of production is anachronistic.

It is well known that in orthodox Marxism art is conceived of as part of an ideological superstructure which is dependent upon a material/economic base. This over-simplistic model needs to be amended to take account of the fact that although art is a signifying practice operative within the spiritual, mental or ideological realm, it also has a material, technological and economic base specific to it. Thus artistic production is both ideological and material in character. We can visualize this diagrammatically as follows: Instead of material aspects of art where art is confined exclusively to the upper realm,

we should envisage:

where art is conceived of as overlapping the division between superstructure and base. For the purposes of exposition and clarity the two processes of production and consumption are treated separately in a linear, sequential order, but it should be recognized that in practice the two processes are interdependent. As Marx explains in Grundrisse (London: Macmillan, 1971), production and consumption, together with distribution and exchange, are simply separate moments in a totality, a cyclical system. Their reciprocal nature is indicated by Marx as follows:

‘Without production, no consumption but also, without consumption, no production; since production would then be purposeless ... Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter's material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for products the subjects for whom they are products. The product only obtains its 'last finish' in consumption ... because a product becomes a real product only by being consumed.’

Furthermore, each process includes its opposite; that is, in the course of production labour-power, tools and raw materials are used up, 'consumed' (Marx calls this process 'productive consumption'). And in the course of consuming (e.g. food) human beings produce themselves (hence the term 'consumptive production'). A material which is the culmination of one process of production often serves as the raw material for a second process of production in which it is used up. It follows that whether something is regarded as production or consumption depends upon the viewpoint adopted: pigments, from the viewpoint ofthe painter, are materials of production; but from the viewpoint of the paint manufacturer the painter is a consumer of pigments. Despite the duality of the two processes, Marx is inclined to assign priority to production, in part because production 'produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption'. A final point about production, that is, to emphasise its social character. According to Marx, production by an isolated individual outside society is as much an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another. In this model, therefore, works of art are conceived of as social phenomena, as signs embedded in social relations, as signs mediating between people. Notes on diagram 1 The diagram is arranged in three vertical columns. On the left is production, in the centre distribution, and on the right consumption. The horizontal axis is that of time. Each process takes time and the sequence of events is logical: production

comes first, then distribution, then consumption. 2 To indicate the relative autonomy of the art micro system within the macro system of society a dotted line should be employed. It is obvious that certain elements of the diagram, e.g. the financial resources used to fund art, may well derive from sources external to the system. 3 The reciprocal nature of production and consumption is indicated by various feedback dotted lines which reveal, for example, the influence of the taste of a patron upon the production process. 4 The diagram begins with the assumption that there is a social demand for art otherwise it would not exist. This demand may be manifested by a specific commission on the part of a patron, or it may take the form of an internal need to communicate within an individual artist. 5 During the phase of production a labour-process occurs at the end of which there is a product of some kind. The art-making labour process involves various factors: social demand, a labour force, material and ideological resources of various kinds. 6 The particular labour-force - artists - brought into existence by the division of labour and specialization, need to be trained, hence the inclusion of academies and art educational institutions. Artists also develop various professional and trade organisations which regulate artistic production. 7 Resources have been divided into three categories: first, material, that is, premises, raw materials, tools, technical skills; second, financial (capital, income, patronage), third, artistic ~ ideological, by which I mean things like a repertoire of imagery, symbols, artistic conventions, styles, genres, earlier works of art,

influences, upon which living artists draw. 8 The labour theory of value should be of use in analysing the production and distribution phases, explaining how art works gain use-values and exchangevalues. (This work needs to be done.) 9 The distribution phase is simple enough. It is concerned with the means by which art works are disseminated and circulated. Works of art are physically distributed, displayed, exchanged, publicized, and reproduced. The problem here would be to demonstrate the links between the economy of art and the general economy of a society. Analysis is also complicated by the fact that certain works appear successively on the market in different countries and in different periods. 10 The consumption phase. (This phase covers the area of scholarship German literary theorists call reception theory or reception aesthetics.) It is concerned with the emotional and intellectual responses of people to works of art. As indicated, the public for art is not completely homogeneous - there are specialists and laypersons. During the phase of consumption artworks are decoded, interpreted, misinterpreted, reinterpreted, and critically evaluated. 11 A more detailed diagram would be needed to display the complexities of the response of art historians to works of art. To reveal, for example, the way in which they apply techniques such as content analysis, formal, stylistic and iconographic analyses to works of art. 12 Finally, it is assumed that art has the capacity to influence people for good or ill; it can therefore influence society in various ways. The existence of censorship or state control is always a tribute to the power of art in this respect.

Weaknesses of the model 1 Does not explain originality or creativity. A theory of art-work on the lines of Freud's dream-work and joke-work is needed here. 2 It does not explain how artistic production is differentiated from production in general, i.e. it does not reveal how the concept 'art' itself emerges. 3 Perhaps one needs several models to indicate the co-existence within capitalism of various modes of artistic production, some handicraft, some industrial. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------This article was first published in the magazine Block no 9, 1983, pp. 73-76. In turn it was based on a paper prepared for a conference on Art History held at Middlesex Polytechnic in 1981.

The above diagram deals with design history’s field of research. It appeared in my book Design History and the History of Design, (London: Pluto Press, 1989). Clearly, it is a development of the earlier art history diagram. The main difference between the two is the addition of another vertical column - production (2) devoted to the subject of manufacture because in design, unlike in art, a manufacturing phase generally follows the designing phase. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------John A. Walker is a painter and art historian. He is the author of many books and articles on contemporary art and mass media. He is also an editorial advisor for the website: "http://www.artdesigncafe.com">www.artdesigncafe.com</a>

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