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Artist’s Shit

Sometimes I like conceptual art. Like this piece above by Manzoni: the base of the world. The base of the world! It stands on nothing but thin air. It’s clever, but it’s a bit of a one liner. And after you tease out its implications — groundlessness, the world itself as a work of creation — there’s not much else, and the work itself is a bit boring. The limits of the concept impose themselves, and then a piece’s unidimensionality spells its own ruin. It becomes “cute” or “trite.”

Othertimes though a piece becomes more interesting inspite of itself. Like another one by Manzoni, “Artist’s Shit.” The gag for this one was a bit more performative than that of the base of the world: Manzoni collected his shit and then split it into 30g specimens, divided into 90 cans. He labeled each can with its contents, and then sold each for its weight in gold. Ho ho! The art world’s luminaries understand this as a comment on commodification and reification of the artist’s product — explicitly here, his solid waste. But this doesn’t really comprehend what’s going on; or it only grasps part of it. Because while there is certainly something like commodification going on here, strictly speaking our 90 cans of Manzoni’s solid waste are not commodities proper. If there were, someone else could have shat in a can and sold it for its weight in silver, and thereby driven Manzoni out of, as it were, the shit business.

So there is something else at play in the sale of art in the upper reaches. Those that shell out 50,000 GBP for a 30g, oxidized tin of what very well might be shit are after something other than commodities, and the amount they pay for something is caught up in far more complex process than its costs of production — even in the most simple picture. To get at this would require looking at the complex sequence of events and choices that lends a certain artist the aura or cachet that makes his or her work appear as a constant store of value — the rich do not spend upwards of a 100,000 dollars on one of Manzoni’s tins only to debase it by opening it up to find out just what is inside.

Commodification and reification are presupposed in the production of works like “Artist’s Shit.” But they are not what the work is about, even on a functional level. In order for the art world to function, in its semi-autonomous way, over and above the more basic and brutal labor-market, a given amount of liquidity has to be transfered to the buyers and devotees that make it up, and this transfer is effected by the motor of commodity-production. Of course this is the case. But this is not sufficient for a given art-object to be vaulted into Sotheby’s ambit. A peculiar anticipation of an object’s continued value, in spite of being a bit of shit, or a heap of junk, is what allows Manzoni’s tins to function as art. Hence there is little irony in the fact that people buy it, or a pissoir, despite both being recepticles of human waste. Not only are the buyers playing a role within a specific social milieu where there is a status attached to owning a bit of Manzoni, they are anticipating future worth.

This does not mean, either, that anything can be art. It means that almost nothing can. So you have to wonder who the joke is on.

Categories: Asides.

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28 Responses

  1. hey there!

    I don’t really know about the art world (I know shit about it, ha!) but I think I disagree with you on this:

    strictly speaking our 90 cans of Manzoni’s solid waste are not commodities proper. If there were, someone else could have shat in a can and sold it for its weight in silver, and thereby driven Manzoni out of, as it were, the shit business.”

    Let’s run with that hypothetical. Let’s say another equally well known artist did the same thing. Then another, then another, then art students, and so on. The cans look basically identical. The only real difference is whose waste is contained in the can. It’s likely that the price for the works would fall after a certain quantity of these cans exists for sale. Or, if the price doesn’t fall for Manzoni’s cans it’d be something about Manzoni - that he did it first, or some other thing about his art - such that his would be a unique brand, so to speak. Even then, it’s not clear his cans aren’t commodities. Manzoni could himself make so many of the cans for sale that the price fell. Especially if he became hard up for money and had no other way to get it than to sell these cans.

    And that point about competition with other commodities aside, the cans were bought with money and could be resold for some amount of money, rendering them equivalent with all other commodities in the way that all commodities are equivalent, via the ratios of exchange value. I haven’t made that point clearly, I’m not sure how to make it better just now. This isn’t to say that Manzoni’s a waged laborer (more like an independent artisan or a petit bourgeois producer and employer), but I don’t see how his work’s not a commodity.

    It seems to me that these are just very rare and very expensive commodities with relatively restricted use values. I’m being cynical but I think the use value prestige mostly. Another is probably also some art appreciation use value. I think a part of the latter is also a sort of awareness of commodification in art, while still participating in the commodification of art works. That’s the joke, right? “look, the art world will even buy cans of shit.” That the response is then “since a lot of what’s for sale is already shit so we might as well just buy shit in cans” maybe means that at least some things about the art world are themselves a bad joke.

    take care,

  2. Hey Nate, thanks for the response.

    I think your point about the duplication of individual works expresses what makes art-objects significantly different from commodities-proper. At least, insofar as they are valued by the high-end art market. When someone buys a Manzoni tin, they are buying it with the understanding that it is an object possessing authentic authorship; this authenticity is what makes the object worth what it is. Of course, you can fake or forge an artwork in the hopes of cashing in on the aura of authorship, but in that case you are not making an instance of a type; you are making an dishonest copy of a particular. It is the particularity of the thing that gives it its aura of worth, as this particularity lends itself to storing value — in a relatively nondepreciating way.

    Now, if it were the case that other artists could make knock off waste recepticles, this would lower the value of the originals. However, this doesn’t seem to be occur most of the time; it goes against the art-worlds structuring dynamic that demands novelty and singularity. Especially in the high dollar stratospheres of elite painting and sculpture. When Damien Hirst puts a dead shark in a vat, it becomes worth millions; if I do the same thing I am a hack, if I am anything at all, and it is worthless.

    I think this has to do with more the currency of an artist’s name than with the objects themselves. Their value comes from a specific sort of circulation. It is sustained by a set of activities that are ordered in a way that does not extract value in production — or, at least, there seems to be little basis for claiming that their value arises due to labor embodied in them*. This is not to say that the art market would be the same as it is now under noncapitalist relations.

    Since there is such a premium placed on the singularity of the art-work — especially if it is going to maintain itself as a nondepreciating asset — the gag about anything potentially being art falls a little bit flat. Sure, a tin of Manzoni’s feces will fetch its weight in gold (far more than that now!), but it is only in virtue of his specific relation to the art world itself that allows this to occur. His work is not interchangeable with someone else’s; he has achieved a privileged position vis-a-vis the movers and shakers whose decision to buy, or not, convey value upon art objects. Not anything can be art in the sense of Manzoni’s tins — in fact, almost nothing can.

    The thought I was trying to work out was how it is that the value of art-objects is determined. It can’t be in the same way that commodities are, but it seems to be a higher level absorption of some of the value extracted in commodity production proper.

    I seem remember somewhere in Marx where he differentiates between commodities and things that not not commodities, but taken on an exchange-value in virtue of capitalist social reproduction. I can’t track down the passage at the moment. Or I may have dreamed it.

    *You might be able to make the argument that someone like Thomas Kinkade, who employs what amounts to a manufacturing house to churn out his paintings, the signs each one, produces commodities. But that is because this is precisely what he does: he mass-produces paintings on the cheap, signs them himself, and makes a profit by exploiting his employees.

  3. The thought I was trying to work out was how it is that the value of art-objects is determined. It can’t be in the same way that commodities are, but it seems to be a higher level absorption of some of the value extracted in commodity production proper.”

    the art market is perhaps like a “model market” in that it is supposed to exhibit the qualities that justify markets. but if the issue is the value of the artwork and its relation to labour: jonathan beller suggests that the labour which is absorbed into the artwork is the looking labour and attention of masses upon masses of spectators, whose labour is work to create this value. that is what drives up the value of a painting or a single art object. the art object which has this kind of value is not merely the product of its artist producer; it is the product of institutions and the whole “art world” which involves a lot of labour.most of it not waged but its nonetheless enclosed in property. brands and artist signatures are similar this way; this is what ‘fame’ really is, the total labour of all the people who know about something or have seen something, that looking and knowing is enclosed by these things (the nike swoosh, an old master painting, the signature of an artist). anyway, that’s the case beller makes in _the cinematic mode of production_ which seems pretty convincing to me.

  4. if you think about the value of the nike swoosh or the image of the mona lisa from the point of view of those consuming these images as commodities, it is really the fame, the total looking and knowing of all those who know and recognise and look and think about this thing, all that “attention labour” - human sensual labour/human life - that is the value, that is the this object as commodity. with one of a kind art objects there is the sort of archaic link to lumpy matter, to the artifact with its aura of authenticity, so that all the labour of knowing is concentrated in that one thing and it bvecomes very expensive. with something like the image of bart simpson or the nike swoosh, reproducible, all that fame, the attention labour, which is produced by waged labour and consultant labour (in advertising and marketing, as the art objects “fame” is also produced by wage labour, in galleries and art journalism and with fine arts, importantly in educational institutions and other public institutions like museums) is concentrated in the license to reproduce the image.

  5. hi JCD, I didn’t understand the direction you were going with before, re: the labor theory of value and artists’ roles. That’s clearer now. Off the top of my head, my impulse is to analytically bracket the issue of artworks’ monetary value from the issue of art consumption (authenticity, authorship, aura, and so on). I’ll think more about this then get back to you.
    take care,

  6. oh also - since at least “fountain” there is a steady transformation of objects produced as commodities in normal industrial production into art objects, sometimes but not always modified (signed at least). (and extensively in the fields around fine art, in antiques, first editions of books, aunt jemima cookie jars, depression glass etc) so it’s not in the production process of the object that the artness of the object is produced. but like the production of commodities the urinal begins as, the production of artness is mass production. (artness is presumably the epitome of what negri and others call “immaterial” product but beller argues that the law of value still operates despite the abstraction, since its only another degree of abstraction, value is always process and relation). but to the question, is artness commodified dead labour, is artvalue labourvalue, arguably it is in fact labour value, though the exploitation of this labour and its enclosure requires supplementary institutions. if the value of artworks (and some other things whose markets are heavily influenced by uniqueness and scarcity - historic chateau, big fine gems, baseballs hit over the fence during the world series) because of their reliability, their non capriciousness in their own apparent market laws, seems to defy the rule that labour creates value, it may be that it only really clarifies this in the most profound sense, that life, human life, relations between people, creates value, that value is alienated life.

    here’s some beller -

    [Aura as “a unique distance” never was anything
    other than the slow boiling away of the visual object
    (the painting, for example) under the friction of its own visual circulation. The painting in the museum
    becomes overlaid with the accretions of the gazes of others on its surface. This statement is merely a
    reformulation in visual terms of Lukacs’ analysis of commodity reification: “underneath the cloak of a
    thing lay a relation between men [sic].”^21^ With the
    painted masterpiece, which, as a unique object, has
    been seen by so many others, the viewer’s image of it
    is necessarily measured against all other *imagined*
    viewers’ images. That is, his or her perception of it includes his or her perception of the perceptual
    status of the object — the sense of the number and of
    the kind of looks that it has commanded. This abstracted existence, which exists only in the socially mediated (museum reproductions, etc.) and
    imagined summation of the work of art’s meaning
    (value) for everyone else (society), accounts for the
    fetish character of the unique work of art. The
    relations of production in the production of the value
    of art are abstract and hence, because they have
    heretofore lacked a theory, hidden.^22^ Because the
    visual fetish emerges when one cannot see the visual
    object in its totality (the totality of looks in which
    it has circulated), we may grasp that part of the
    object’s value comes from its very circulation. The
    fetish character intimates a new value system; the
    aura intimates visual circulation in a visual economy.
    As I have proposed, this circulation is productive of value in the classical terms of the labor theory of value.^23^]

  7. Aura as “a unique distance” never was anything
    other than the slow boiling away of the visual object
    (the painting, for example) under the friction of its
    own visual circulation. The painting in the museum
    becomes overlaid with the accretions of the gazes of
    others on its surface. This statement is merely a
    reformulation in visual terms of Lukacs’ analysis of
    commodity reification: “underneath the cloak of a
    thing lay a relation between men [sic].”^21^ With the
    painted masterpiece, which, as a unique object, has
    been seen by so many others, the viewer’s image of it
    is necessarily measured against all other *imagined*
    viewers’ images. That is, his or her perception of it
    includes his or her perception of the perceptual
    status of the object — the sense of the number and of
    the kind of looks that it has commanded. This
    abstracted existence, which exists only in the
    socially mediated (museum reproductions, etc.) and
    imagined summation of the work of art’s meaning
    (value) for everyone else (society), accounts for the
    fetish character of the unique work of art. The
    relations of production in the production of the value
    of art are abstract and hence, because they have
    heretofore lacked a theory, hidden.^22^ Because the
    visual fetish emerges when one cannot see the visual
    object in its totality (the totality of looks in which
    it has circulated), we may grasp that part of the
    object’s value comes from its very circulation. The
    fetish character intimates a new value system; the
    aura intimates visual circulation in a visual economy.
    As I have proposed, this circulation is productive of
    value in the classical terms of the labor theory of

    Aura, then, is to ideology as simulacrum is to
    spectacle. In the simulacrum, the particular content
    of a message, its use value, is converted into nothing
    but pure exchange value. The amplitude of the message
    itself is liquidated under the form that it takes.
    Media bytes realize their value as they pass through
    the fleshy medium (the body) via a mechanism less like
    consciousness and more like the organism undergoing a
    labor process — call it an haptic pathway. New synapses
    uniting brain and viscera are cut and bound. Internal
    organs quiver and stir. We arise from our seats in the
    cinema and before our television sets remade, fresh
    from a direct encounter with the dynamics of social
    production and reproduction.
    [23] Properly speaking, contemporary media bytes do
    not have an aura, but have become simulacra. The term
    aura is better reserved for the painting hanging on
    the gallery wall — its circulation among gazes
    transpires at a slower speed. As I noted, the
    painting’s aura derives from the gap between what one
    sees and its status as a work of art in circulation.
    One covets the authentic knowledge of an object that
    is slowly boiling away under the gazes of passers-by
    only to be reassembled as an abstraction of what the
    many eyes that have gazed upon it *might* have seen.
    The painting becomes a sign for its own significance,
    a significance that is an artifact of its circulation
    through myriad sensoriums. Simulation occurs when
    visual objects are liquidated of their traditional
    contents and mean precisely their circulation.
    Liquidated of its traditional consents and intimating
    the immensity of the world system, the affect of the
    visual object as simulacrum is sublime.
    [24] Put simply, the aura is Benjamin’s name for the
    fetish character of vision.^28^ It is the watermark of
    the commodification of sight. The frustratingly
    mystical properties of the aura are due to the fact
    that it is the index of the suppression of the
    perception of visual circulation. The aura is the
    perception of an affect and indicates the moment where
    the visual object is framed by the eye with the desire
    to take it out of circulation. Like the fetish, it
    marks the desire to convert exchange value into use
    value, to free the object from the tyranny of
    circulation, and to possess it. The fetish character
    of the commodity is the result of capital’s necessary
    suppression of the knowledge of the underbelly of
    production, i.e., exploitation; it is the
    mystification of one’s relationship to the products
    for consumption. Here, this mystified relation,
    expressed most generally, is our inability to think
    the production of value through visual means, that is,
    our inability to thoroughly perceive the properties
    and dynamics of the attention theory of value in the
    production of aesthetic, cultural and economic value.
    The fetish marks the independent will of objects,
    their monstrous indifference to our puny desire, their
    sentience, that is the registration of their animation
    in circulation. Commodity fetishism is the necessary
    ruse and consequence of free enterprise, and its
    sublimity is the antithesis of social transparency.
    This sublimity is further intensified (as is social
    opacity) with simulation in the postmodern.^29^ The
    aura, as the visual component of the fetish, specifies
    the character of representation, visual and otherwise,
    under capitalism during the modern period. Simulation,
    which occurs at a higher speed and greater intensity
    of visual circulation, specifies the character of
    representation in the postmodern period.

  8. oh, a comment vanished, but also, artness isn’t the only thing anymore like an art object this way, with a puzzling value… in the expanding image/entertainment industry the case of the mysterious market value of some things is common but its all always about the same thing as the art object, audience, the “immaterial” (material sensual and intellectual) labour. Take YouTube. YouTube attracts heaps of attention; double the attention of its closest competitor (CBS internet properties). It reaches over a third of the total internet audience. When it was bought by Google, this attention was all it had. No income, just costs. all it is as a capital asset is this volunteered labour, the looking labour of the viewers and the voluntary user uploads providing something to look at. It was just an immense clump of unwaged labour, of unwaged human life. actually monetising all this attention has been a challenge - the only obvious thing is to advertise to the audience it attracts. and that’s what it’s doing, but in the current conditions this really means transforming youtube into a premium content broadcaster - they can sell advertising on their longer, professional broadcasts. they can’t really sell advertising on everything. they may never be profitable. but nonetheless the value of all this attention is recognised and a price is put on it - $1.6 billion in 2006. an art object is like this in a lot of ways. monetising an art object’s fame in some other way than just selling it to another collector would be a challenge. but still, completely unknown art objects are not valuable. artness and the value of youtube are pretty similar really, although obviously google intends to try to monetise the youtube attention in a traditional way. but if the theories about postfordism and what is (mis)named “immaterial” labour have any accuracy, refer to anything real, i think it is this, developments in the enclosure and capitalisation of unwaged labour of this sort, of which the art trade, the contemporary art market since modernism, is one of the oldest cases.

  9. Thanks Chabert; I found and unspammed the Beller comments. For some reason wordpress axed them.

    I think that the comparison of art to youtube and online adverts is pretty good, especially if we bear in mind that the art market monetizes its labor-process in a different way: by nominalizing the value of more or less singular objects, which are then submitted to a more or less closed market their realization. At the rarefied level of the art-icons, this appears to be disconnected from the labor that produces it (at least, in analytic outlined by Marx where it is surplus-value extracted from the labor time of direct producers); but I am sure once you look at the more nuts and bolts operation of the gallery scene in art-center cities, where the gallerists take 50% of the sales of the artists they represent, this problem becomes far less mysterious and more analyzable as the case of a reserve labor army and a mercantalist sort of market.

    But for the singularities, the Mona Lisas and the Chateaux, there might be something to the notion of the collective indirect labor conveying value on an object. Graeber’s book on value might be a way to get a grasp on this, in conjunction with Beller. But if this is the case, it would seem to suggest that this collective indirect labor could be rationalized and calculated — monetized and exploited — in a way very close to direct exploitation of labor. Which I am not sure if it can. At least not in a manner that is even as stable as direct exploitation.

    At any rate, it seems to me that the vertiginous heights of exploitation reached with the implementation of neoliberal policies created such a vast sea of surplus that all manner of schemes were devised in order to collect and absorb it, valorize it, to try to keep the banks of the system from hemorrhaging. So you have this effort to monetize indirect labor (I actually like this term, “indirect,” for non-waged bodily action that goes into the reproduction of social forms) which is really an effort to contain the massive and growing contradiction within the exploitation of direct labor. And the value of these objects (art or ancestral mansions) and processes of valorization (youtube or adverts) would then be more or less transferred over from traditionally exploited direct labor.

    I’m not sure if this is a tenable line or not. Thoughts?

  10. hey y’all,

    see here -

    Re: the various reasons people buy and care about art, it seems to me that these all fit into that wide open category of use value. At that level I don’t think art presents a problem for the category ‘commodity.’ People can buy all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons (any need at all whether of the fancy or the belly). That these use values are weird or specific doesn’t speak to the object not being commodities, I think. There may be interesting logics to the determinations of those use values, and it may be that Marx’s account of commodities and commodification isn’t sufficient for understanding those determinations, but that also doesn’t strike me as supporting the point that they’re not commodities.

    On the labor theory of value and the economic value of art works, I think it might be helpful to think about socially necessary labor time. As I read Marx, surplus value works like this: workers receive wages equivalent to (approximately equivalent in any given case, equivalency is more of a big systemic thing than a specific instance thing) the cost to keep them alive on a continued and reproducible basis. Employers set them to work making products, sell the products for more than it cost to pay the employees and buy the needed materials. I think artists could fall under all of that pretty easily, with the caveat that they’re working mostly for piece wages than time wages. (And sorry if this is really basic, I’m not trying to be pedantic, just rehearsing the argument to try and get my own thoughts clear.) That in some cases artists or a specific artist has a quite high cost of subsistence raises questions like why and how and so on, but I don’t think the problem is at the level of what is or isn’t a commodity. Marx says somewhere that labor power is relatively unique in that it has moral determinants to its cost. The vagaries of how much artists get paid would fall under the heading of moral determinants. Again, not sure that any of this helps understand artvalue or art’s economic value, but I think that those explanations would take place conceptually inside of understanding art as commodity, rather than placing art outside the category of commodity. (Not sure that makes sense, dont know how to put it better.)

    All of that said, I think some artists end up being more like employers in specialty firms (or like some entrepeneur-and-inventor capitalists who had something of a more direct managerial as well as technical hand in running things in industrial firms 100 or 150 years ago) than like workers. I don’t know very much about Christos, for instance, but I’d bet that his big projects end up looking a good deal like the operations of for profit event planning and implementation firms. This is only partly related, but this piece from ephemera may support this point -

    All of that said, two other things - I agree with the Colonel completely re: immaterial labor. If those ideas have purchase, it’s in the art world and related pursuits. Two, I think the point about the appropriation of unwaged labor in all of this is really interesting and important. I’ve still not read that Beller book but I’m going to move it up on my list based on this conversation.

    take care,

  11. sorry for the link at the top there, I accidentally pasted together two things and then had to re-edit.

  12. At the rarefied level of the art-icons, this appears to be disconnected from the labor that produces it (at least, in analytic outlined by Marx where it is surplus-value extracted from the labor time of direct producers)”

    perhaps we oughtnt look at the art market as similar to a market for consumer goods commodities but as similar to markets for say oil futures and 144a shares. Now the actual labour that creates the 144a shares - the lawyer and the investment banker who actually create these shares as shares, this form of thing for sale - doesn’t connect to the value of these things. the creative labour involved in putting the asset in a form is not all the labour in the asset. and the buyers are a small group, the same elite who buy fine art at southeby’s.

    so objets d’art, it’s not quite like a box of cereal, and not quite like fifty million dollars of shares in Google, but its more like the latter.

    More like capital markets than consumer markets. That there are not a lot of participants is not unique - there are more participants in the art market than there are bidders for insolvent investment banks.

    but a painting is not an investment bank, but at the level where the value seems to be distant from the labour, it’s a capital asset as well as a thing of beauty etc. Not a consumer good. Although one enjoys it. And uses it in a way that consumer goods are used -to hang on the wall for example. But at that level where it becomes the puzzle it is, it is a pretty liquid asset which can be relied on for very good returns. The object alone however has no value of this kind. Only the authenticated object. So the labour producing the object is not all the labour in the thing sold at auction. There is as well the labour producing a) the authentication and b) what it authenticates. This latter is not the object but the connection of the object to something else. That something else is a bit abstract but not moreso than the exchange value of any commodity. What is it? I’ll call it “the artness” just for the moment.

    Now the artness is nothing other than all the attention that’s been paid to this object, the looking, feeling, thinking, talking, writing about, referencing, knowing, and all that is likely to be paid. It is a “thing” that it all that combined, a social phenomenon, a social product.

    If you want to buy something that was made with a lot of that labour, ongoing, it’s very costly. If you want an artwork you love but has little or none of that - a copy say of a famous painting - it’s cheap. If you buy a young artist at her first show, and then you get a lot of people to pay attention to her and to her objects, you will very reliably increase the value of your art asset. if you put people to work, if you get them to labour on creating “the artness” attached to the object you own, you will profit. you can alienate that labour through ownership of the object which is the focus of this labour. It’s a business, to do this. It’s an important part of the collector and dealer’s trade - compelling the labour that increases the value of the artwork. Publicity. Now the compulsions to labour at artness production are kind and gentle, and people do it for pleasure; it is just persuasion and creating the opportunity; but the title to the value created and the mechanisms for its alienation is enforced by force like any other, the conditions are the conditions of capital private property that allow for this alienation of labour through art object ownership, this alienation of the social life of human beings with/through/around objects of art.

    To buy objects and then put people to work - cajoling and noodhzing and promoting, or hiring people to do that - to alienate their labour through your ownership of the object, is a business that’s actually pretty predictable - its not less stable than others really. It requires skill, but not the actual capitalist collector’s necessarily – there are pros in this business. In some ways it is more stable than many other enterprises – the people whose labour you compel (gently gently) don’t always do what you want, but they’re never on strike and they’re never asking for pay.

    Unsurprisingly, an advertising mogul is the grandmaster of that game to the point where now his very purchase of an artist is so attented to, is such trigger for lots of this kind of labour, it immediately multiplies the value of the art objects he’s just bought many times.

  13. oh typing at the same time as nate, so sorry if it doesn’t take account…

  14. as to the other puzzle, why the value produced by the labour in artness production attaches so firmly to an original single object rather than, like the same labour compelled in brand fame or a reproducible image commodity fame, disseminating to copies. we see this also with famous people, with actors. the actor is unique, irreducible, not interchangeable. a copy cannot be made, a good fake is not worth what the real one is worth. with actors, we see a huge difference in what they are paid to sell their image to be infinitely reproduced (for movies) and what they are paid for live performances (on stage). but the value of their fame adheres to them, the one and only real person.

    whence comes the desireability of possessing authenticity then, authentic unique things, as nate suggested, is a seperate question from the exchange value of various authentic things - the desirability of clothing is a seperate issue from the exchange value of different items of clothes. but “authenticity” as understood is a condition of the art market - it’s a given, the “artness” of individual objects is produced with that already understood and functioning socially. It is so firm that as you note artists in the past century have liked to take it as a topic, and make fun and try to “undermine” it while also evidently relying on it and knowing it’s way too strong to be undermined by some art objects themselves or artists gestures. perhaps its sanctity has to do with its relation to the sacred principle of property, of the one to one relation that is private property. though capital is fungible, the distinction between my money and yours is absolutely sacred, and my connection to my money, the mystical oneness, I and Mine, is all that modernity really possesses in the way of deeply held ruling class religious beliefs.

  15. Well, this is a super-interesting conversation. I’m inclined to agree with portions of the positions outlined in both Nate’s, Chabert’s and JCD’s comments.

    Certainly the mobilization of activities and behaviors that Chabert points out, and the mobilization of waged and unwaged work through the culture industry, points to some of the ways in which art of this sort is capital, and does depend upon exploitations direct and indirect. And, I think, Nate’s right that “socially necessary labor time” is under-theorized; society can decide that anything at any cost is socially necessary — if it’s a million dollar can of shit, then so be it. Part of the work of the culture industry (and other sectors too) involves the expansion of socially necessary labor time, so that capital can continue to be realized…But art isn’t really capital of this sort, not in the way that, say, YouTube is.

    Thus, I think, if we want to route accounts of art’s commodity status through Marx, we’d do best to look at the stuff on fictitious capital in Vol. 3. An artwork of this sort — and this chimes in with what Chabert says above — is sort of like land or stocks… It is a form of property that isn’t back by direct exploitation of labor but that nevertheless pumps in exploited (dead) labor from elsewhere in the system. It’s a deduction from value generated in the real economy.

    It occurs to me also that the growth in the art market is a way in which the ruling class can gently and subtly (rather than precipitously) devalue excess capital that can’t be realized in production, taking it out of circulation and storing it in the form of purely symbolic images and emblems of power. . .

    Well, contradictions above, I suppose. But so are my fragmentary and as-yet-unreconciled thoughts.

  16. Hey Nate:

    Perhaps I am interpreting Marx too strictly in his analysis of commodity production by restricting the term “commodity” to that swath of goods that are produced for broad consumption, and where the impetus of accumulation turns on exploiting direct labor. The social use of such things needs to be “general,” it would seem, as otherwise there would be no way for a competitor to edge in the market with a different instance of a commodity of the same type.

    I seem to have read somewhere (in Marx or elsewhere) where the distinguishes between this sort of thing proper, and its shadow treatment of other goods that are not commodities, but are treated in similar manners do to the ubiquity of exchange relations. This is what I intended in saying that art-works are not commodities.

    I definitely agree about some (many or most, the merely mortal) artists becoming like employees in specialty firms. And they, who are the products now of many years of professional education and cultivation, seem to be roughly similar to other professionalized classes of people in America: clerical workers, writers, professors, etc. The particular dynamic of whichever industry will have specific exigencies, but overall they are submitted to exploitation of labor.

  17. Chabert:

    The inner workings of the stock market, and all the privileges given to the super-elite corporate types are something of a mystery to me. (If you know of an account of how this world works, I’d be much obliged.)

    Re: authentication of artworks: thanks for the expanded example, I think it helps get a grasp on this. But I still struggle with the actual monetization of these people’s labors — the ones whose attention creates the artness of a given objet d’art. The value of these things seems more indeterminate than that of a sock made in Singapore, whose relation to exploited labor is calculated down to a thousandth of a second (market conditions being equal).

  18. Jasper:

    Thanks for the tip on fictitious capital. I’m adding it to my reading list.

    My gut tells me that yes, the art market is a way to funnel off the excess surplus-value produced in production. The cultural labor necessary to create the artness that makes a given object the receptical of that value is a given and necessary part of that funneling, but I don’t think it produces the same sort of value as what is funneled away. Art and chateaux absorb dead labor — far more than is produced by the living labor employed to making/sustaining artness.

  19. I still struggle with the actual monetization of these people’s labours — the ones whose attention creates the artness of a given objet d’art”

    I’d suggest that’s what’s happening at an art auction. The same way as any other commodity – the alienated labour is exchanged for money.

    Perhaps the question is how is this labour alienated. But it’s the same too – you get people to produce something that you own.

  20. hey everybody,

    I agree with Jasper, this is a really good conversation. Thanks all. JCD, I don’t know if there’s much at stake in our difference of opinion and I don’t know why I want to keep art as commodities, probably just that I want Marx to explain or at least contain most everything. I agree that there are important distinctions between the types of objects we’re discussing here and items of mass consumption, I just see that as a distinction within/among commodities.

    I should back up, actually. I don’t want to claim “art=commodity” in all cases, rather I want to quibble with what I take to be your claim that “art≠commodity.” (Let me know if I got you wrong here.) I want to say that there’s no contradiction as such between the categories “art” and “commodity.” I’m not sure how to do this yet. I want to think about it. For now, here’s some Marx quotes, from the Theories of Surplus Value.

    productive labour as labour which is directly exchanged with capital (…) These definitions are therefore not derived from the material characteristics of labour (neither from the nature of its product nor from the particular character of the labour as concrete labour), but from the definite social form, the social relations of production, within which the labour is realised. An actor, for example, or even a clown, according to this definition, is a productive labourer if he works in the service of a capitalist (an entrepreneur) to whom he returns more labour than he receives from him in the form of wages; while a jobbing tailor who comes to the capitalist’s house and patches his trousers for him, producing a mere use-value for him, is an unproductive labourer. (…) A writer is a productive labourer not in so far as he produces ideas, but in so far as he enriches the publisher who publishes his works, or if he is a wage-labourer for a capitalist. The use-value of the commodity in which the labour of a productive worker is embodied may be of the most futile kind. The material characteristics are in no way linked with its nature which on the contrary is only the expression of a definite social relation of production. It is a definition of labour which is derived not from its content or its result, but from its particular social form.”

    This is probably a roundabout way to get to art and commodities, but I think the quote makes it clear that for Marx some of this stuff can be productive of surplus value. Presumably this means that it’s commodity productive. Also to the extent that actors, clowns, and writers can produce art, this might be an argument for artworks as commodities. I suspect that this “Marx sort of said!” claim isn’t sufficient or satisfying, I hope it’s at least a bit helpful. :)

    take care,

  21. Sorry to post twice, I meant to include this in the other post. I think one issue tied up with this is the status of piece wages and artisan production. It seems to me that sandwiches sold at a fast food place are definitely commodities, and the labor of the sandwich makers is commodity productive and (to the degree that the firm is profitable) surplus value productive. Likewise for sandwiches at a local restaurant. I would argue that the same is true if I start making sandwiches myself and selling them from a cart on the corner I think they’re still commodities, with the distinction that in this last case there’s no surplus value extracted from others because I have no employees. I still need to make more money than it costs me to make the sandwiches, in order to live. The absence of surplus value extracted from others, though, doesn’t make the product not a commodity. (That is, it can be a commodity without being surplus value productive in a given enterprise.)

    take care,

  22. there are peculiarities. art owning and art commissioning was inherited by capitalism from the past; art value also. i watched a funny thing the other day on the web, an interview with the production designer of a wes andersen film darjeeling express. or limited. anyway the production designer is showing the train, or trains, which they shot on, real trains. he is showing the local artists - they’re in jodpuhr - hired for wages, handpainting elephants on the sides of the train, and then in the dining car he is proudly showing how everything is handpainted, the plates, the napkins, everything authentically hand done. and this is for a movie, most people will consume this authenticity in an infinitely reproducible digital form. but still the filmmakers thought it added something, this authenticity of the objects which the actors were surrounded by, even though the audience of the film is never in contact with it but only with a reproducible image. perhaps the plate with the handpainted elephant is not a commodity, it’s art, one of a kind thing, but the digital image of it is assuredly a commodity.

    so I think also, no matter how one feels about whether some individual art thing is a commodity, i don’t think there can be any doubt that derivatives are commodities. so even if impressionist paintings are not commodities, impressionist futures are, and they will exist soon, they already notionally exist. the paintings and sculptures that an art fund owns may not be commodities, but the shares in the fund are certainly commodities. if a publicly traded corporation buys those shit cans, then every shareholder owns some of those shitcans, its no more difficult to commodify that than to commodify its other assets, the office space, the furniture, whatever else it owns.

    commodity signifies a relation, its not a character of a physical thing. every commodity is more/other than merely commodityness. even dollar bills all have unique serial numbers, no two are exactly the same.

    with digital copies we come closer to something really really interchangeable and identical. interestingly artworks (like currency) are one of the few things, “goods”, that can actually take this form, infinitely reproducible as absolutely identical copies with no original, while lots of commodities - most - can’t ever be that interchangeable and identical.

    anyway, funnelling away and storing out of circulation. I’m not sure this is true now though once perhaps it was. Artworks at the level we are talking about don’t seem to take capital out of circulation. They’re easily leveraged, they are pretty liquid, more and more are owned by funds and corporations which issue shares.

    but say this was the role, storage out of circulation. the relations between these objects used this way still have to make some kind of sense. it’s not conspiracy and it can’t be caprice. the market is not volatile. works appreciate. it’s quite reliable, it’s not especially erratic or influenced by changes in taste or anything like that. there is a speculative bet in every sale of course, as with real estate and stock, a portion of the value is fictitious, an expectation of future alienated labour, but in comparison to other things of this kind artworks are pretty stable, not as volatile as things traded in wildly liquid markets of course. a manet doesn’t jerk up and down in value like a hunk of gold. there has to be some explanation for the permanent value artworks acquire and their stable relations to one another and to things whose value we know is a portion of total surplus labour - to money.

    i think its a question of value produced initially in commons enclosed and continuing to be produced. there are a lot of professional artness producers, some who work at for profit enterprises like auction houses but many working at universities, museums, academies, institutes: they are retained by the class of people who possess art, who possess capital assets in the form of fine art. i think cultural production has existed, a lot has been produced, that’s not capitalised but now more and more is capitalised and in more reliable and systematic ways. liquidity clarifies values. As with fine art indexes, and one day soon enough derivatives. At root, artworks are more than commodities, and so is labour power, the common denominator of all commodities, as is anything else that’s commodified except perhaps financial instruments which exist only electronically.

  23. Hey Nate:

    Oh, I’m not trying to take art away from Marx! I’m just trying to come to grips with how art production works under capitalism; it doesn’t seem to follow the general laws of commodity-production Marx lays out in vol i, and for that reason alone I wanted to distinguish it from commodities. But it’s still treated and traded as if it were a commodity, under the commodity-form, etc. But the rules for valorization of art-objects seem to be different. But I’m perfectly willing to take back the statement that art != commodity, unless it’s understood to mean only that art-object’s values as singular things makes them take on value in distinct ways.

    I’ve been thinking about what LCC said in regards to authenticity and ownership, and I think that it’s there that the rub really is for the production of artness, as opposed to use-value of generic commodities. Artworks are evaluated because and through their singularity, as the sole example of this or that Great One’s effort at this or that time; because of social property relations, all the loving glances turned toward accrue to a single thing. The social use value of the art object demands this: the Mona Lisa as socially functioning art-object, with its coy smile, its home behind glass, etc, is perfectly one and owned. All the faux Mona Lisa’s, the posters and fridge magnets, etc, descend back down into the generality of indistinct use-values that can be interchanged, and hence competive productive pressures and all the rest brings them far closer to what we’d (or I’d) want to call a commodity proper.

    And hence the fact that one person or corporate entity can own the artwork. The value of the singular piece becomes a great reified example of all the effort and thought that people put into thinking, knocking off, co-opting, referencing etc. it.

    So I think the big issue is the singularity inherent in the social use-value of these objects. Normal commodities (sandwiches, tee shirts, tee vees) are “indistinct,” in the sense that one sandwich made by you or me or that guy over there are all socially useful, and their value is determined by socially necessary labor time. But only one — or 90, in the case of the tins — art object is authentic, and the social relations that determine its social value make it the property of a given individual.

  24. Hey Chabert:

    I think I’ve come around to being able to grasp how this works. The great mass of unwaged labor, indirectly monetized via the ownership of (singular) revered objects. If the authenticity of objects were impossible — if they were reproducible and evaluated in terms of a general use — this would be impossible.

    But thanks for the comments: very helpful.

  25. what i think is really interesting about thinking about the labour value of artworks (or licenses which is similar) is it helps me really grasp labour value tout court. I mean, what really is labour value of anything and how capital really is alienated human life - its not at all metaphorical or figurative. for me the solved puzzle of the value of a Clifford Still clarifies the value of anything, the sum of currency it sells for, the new volvos that’s the equivalent of, but also the distinction between consumable commodified use values and capital that marks the class divide - the consumable bags of coffee you could exchange, through money, for a Clifford Still canvas, versus the shares in Starbucks. Because finally ultimately the art market is driven by the desire for use value in an unequal society with a class of owners - there exist people with such accumulated power/property in social resources they can own something as collective and socially huge and signficant as the artness of major artworks, and it is the desire to own this specific thing,this social significance and meaning and uniqueness, that makes the art market, finally. the owners participate in the love and the social signficance - you want the Still canvas in your home, to look at and to have that prestige and everything that it is, but the consumption by owners of capital of sensual stuff is actually profitable to them rather than costly. Whereas the art consumption of people without capital is expenditure, you pay to visit a museum, it doesn’t pay you. The art consumption of capitalists pays them; ownership of prime real estate furnished with antiques and fine flatware and glassware (insured) appreciates, while rented housing furnished with ikea is just expenditure. So even the sensual consumption of the owners of capital is profitable because they own a portion of basically the whole life of humanity, and this class which owns is constantly skimming the surplus, in everything. If you think about organ transplants, its even years of life - a capitalist can take some years of life from the guy in Moldova selling his kidney. So in art value creation and alienation of that value, we see very strongly what Marx meant by there not being any freedom for people who don’t own the surplus while these relations of property obtain. people feel very free about their cultural production - they feel they are very freely spending their free time and educating and cultivating themselves and consuming entertainments etc. But this is really not free, as engaging in the wage contract is not freely exchanging labour power for money (of course there are degrees of coercion, but the point is the most free activity of formally free people who don’t own capital, exercising the maximum liberty, in a social order enclosed in property is not free.). Because of private property in all the commons, the means of social production (including cultural and intellectual and aesthetic).

    So the artwork is a sensual pleasure for its consumer and owner but over a certain level of social labour involved in it, it is also capital, you can trade it for money which you can trade for a portfolio of different assets whose sensuality, whose human use value, is less intense and whose collectively produced quality is less obvious. Perhaps possessing artworks and keeping them in one’s residence of office helps the rich feel their social mastery as what it is; looking at these things you can experience the power, possession and mastery over human life, over human culture and human history, more vividly than glancing at your portfolio of shares of equivalent value. Though finally it is the same, a major painting or a stock portfolio, title to a portion of the alienated surplus of the whole of social production. The ‘social factory’ theorising raises this but what I prefer about Beller’s case is that he doesn’t see this as annulling the law of value (rendering exploitation and accumulation mysterious or transforming it into nothing but biopolitical control by the state with no real motive or logic and sidelining the importance of property) but confirming it.

    anyhoo thanks for the conversation

  26. hey JCD,
    I reall need to go to bed but I can’t resist … (I’ll be cursing you and the Colonel in the morning when I’m sicker and more tired, be warned!)
    You wrote:
    “I think the big issue is the singularity inherent in the social use-value of these objects. Normal commodities (sandwiches, tee shirts, tee vees) are “indistinct,” in the sense that one sandwich made by you or me or that guy over there are all socially useful, and their value is determined by socially necessary labor time. But only one — or 90, in the case of the tins — art object is authentic, and the social relations that determine its social value make it the property of a given individual.”

    You’re right that the singularity is the sticking point in our friendly disagreement. I don’t think this is at all incompatible or even that anomolous as a commodity. Here’s two examples. Say I have a very sick child, some condition which is curable if expensive and prolonged treatment is given, which my insurance doesn’t cover. I want my child cured/healed. I raise a bunch of money to get the treatment. On the one hand, the services purchased are banal, clear as commodities. On the other hand, the use value for me is absolutely singular: saving my child’s life and quality of life. Not a child, not a category, but my child here and now. Second example, purchasing travel to see a loved one. Again, the item purchased on the one hand is absolutely banal as a commodity. On the other hand, it’s totally unique: I have to see grandma this year because she doesn’t have many left, and she will tell me about when grandpa organized a union at the steel plant in Elgin. Again, a singular use value.
    Now, obviously plane tickets and surgery are not (or not always!) art works. But art works aren’t always art works either - I could buy works of an up and coming artist as an investment, or sell photos from my friends if they become famous. I think music performance may be a better parallel: one of my all-time favorite memories is the time I saw Jawbreaker and Jawbox play a show together at the Metro in Chicago in the 90s. I went expecting the performance to be unique and it was (Jawbreaker stood in the wings and watched Jawbox play “Capillary Life” and sang along to themselves, I told this story to a former member of Jawbox later and he was moved by it - I tell the details mostly to support the claim to singularity). But the performance was also a commodity - I bought it, the club/promoter made a profit from it, etc.

    Last thing, I’ve been thinking more to see if there’s anything else at stake in my objections than wanting Marx to be right (I know you’re not attacking Marx), and while this wasn’t my intent, I think one corrallary to all of this may the question of what is and isn’t commodifiable. I take it to be implied in your argument that things with real artness aren’t commodifiable, or not fully so. I don’t have an argument really but I generally operate from the assumption that any human interest or desire or use value or whatever we call it is commodifiable. Put differently, there aren’t a priori limits to commodifiability. I might be wrong about that, but that’s my gut feeling. (I know you’ve said that art works can be a sort of quasi-commodity where a version of commodity logic is still operating.) I retained very little from it so I can’t point to anything relevant in the book, but you might take a look at Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory related to this. I think Marcuse has an aesthetics related book too.

    Put differently, I don’t think use values of any sort are necessarily problematic for/as commodities. I think status as a commodity is a mode of control of access to use values, and any use values are at least potentially subject to that sort of control.

    take care,

  27. Hey Nate:

    I think I would divide the singularities into objective/subjective. Objectively singular things would be things that collect all that subjective attention, collective labor, into one thing; so they become something of the apotheosis of reification. While you’re right that each and every desire is incommensurate with each other, as desire, since it is personal, unique, etc, I don’t think this changes the fact that the commodities that satisfy or enable them are not.

    I’ll have to check my selected Marcuse and see if any of his aesthetics was included in it.

    What our difference of opinion comes down to is the way I’d choose to use “commodity” as a descriptive term (at least, when I first wrote this post; I am wavering now). I would not want to use it to describe valorization of things that do not produce “commodities,” but merely things exchanged under the commodity-form. This is a sort of nitpicky and irrelevant distinction, and would go back to the broad sort of distinction between productive and unproductive labor, trying to divine where the value of things is created, how it is distributed, etc. I am less committed to this now.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] in, is it a commodity or no? Good conversation on that subject here. I mentioned this in a comment on another post here but I figure it merits it’s own […]