Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 11, 2018

Art and the capitalist mode of production

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

Unlike the Corvair, a commodity worth more after its destruction

I had at first considered the possibility of concluding my review of 3 films dealing with the commodification of art with an attempt at situating this tendency within Marxist theory but abandoned that plan because the literature on the topic was much more expansive than I had realized and because my review would have been far too long and perhaps abstruse for most CounterPunch readers. In this article, I want to take a tentative look at one analysis and conclude with my own take.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Deutscher Memorial Prize, Dave Beech’s “Art and Value” rejects the idea that the paintings and other art works sold at Sotheby or Christie’s auctions are capitalist commodities. While I have not read his book, I did read the introduction that is online here. I was struck by the influence that the Brenner thesis has on his approach:

The many ways in which art and artists have adjusted to capitalist society require special study, but I shall neglect all those that have nothing to say about whether art corresponds to the capitalist mode of production. Both the nature of the capitalist mode of production and its relationship to the pre-capitalist mode of production was elucidated during the Marxist debates on the transition from feudal- ism to capitalism in the 1950s and the Brenner debate in the 1970s.15 These debates, which did not put any emphasis on the fate of art, have an enormous bearing on the question of art’s economic and political ontology, if we pursue the Marxist analysis of art’s mode of production.

This suggests to me, especially through its use of the term “capitalist mode of production” rather than “capitalist system”, that Beech uses wage labor as a litmus test for using the word commodity. If you applied that test to slavery, then you would conclude that slaves existed outside the sphere of capitalist commodity production. While nobody would ever mistake what Renoir was doing with picking cotton, it seems to me that both were involved in commodity production within the capitalist system.

Although Beech is not exactly a Political Marxist, he clearly shows their influence. Perhaps they wouldn’t invite him into their club since it is Maurice Dobb that gets cited far more than Brenner in the introduction. For those of you not familiar with these arcane and acrid debates, Dobb had a series of exchanges with Paul Sweezy that anticipated Brenner’s slashing attack on Sweezy in the 1977 NLR. As it happens, Dobb did not meet Brenner’s exacting standards since he argued that slavery and colonialism were essential to the origins of capitalism in England alongside the enclosure acts.

Focused on the “transition” question, Beech writes: “Instead of theorising art’s relationship to capitalism through the concepts of commodification, culture industry, spectacle and real subsumption, all of  which have a superficial ring of truth, the key to understanding art’s relationship to capitalism must be derived from questioning whether art has gone through the transition from feudalism to capitalism.”

Referring at length to Dobb’s analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Beech draws a distinction between the commodity production that has existed from time immemorial to that which exists under capitalism. By this standard, the artist is not involved in capitalist production since he or she is an independent proprietor having more in common with the guild artisans of the Middle Ages:

The artist is also a commodity producer today insofar as she owns her own ‘petty implements’ and, unlike the wage labourer, continues to own the product she produces. However, since the independent craftsman was neither a capitalist nor a wage labourer, and handicraft production does not conform to the capitalist mode of production, then the artist can be a commodity producer without this fact suggesting by any means that the artist has been economically transformed by the capitalist mode of production. Thus, the evident ‘commodification’ of art is not proof that art has become capitalistic.

It is easy to understand why it is difficult to understand art production in conventional Marxist terms. To start with, art is one of the few commodities that is neither consumed like food or wine, nor integral to the functioning of the capitalist economy such as a lathe, a truck or a computer. Once it is produced, it is meant to be preserved for eternity unless it is something like Banksy’s “Girl with Red Balloon” that after being auctioned off at Sotheby’s auction for a cool $1.4 million was shredded by remote control. In keeping with the torrid and irrational art market, its value increased immediately upon its destruction.

The other quality unique to art is that it is meant to be unique—that is to say, never repeated. Except for lithographs and other such works, the artist aspires to novelty both within his own body of work and within the artistic population as a whole. Of course, when an artist has achieved a measure of fame, he or she may defy this convention as Andy Warhol did with his Campbell Soup and Brillo Boxes. Surely, if this is how he started out, the paintings would have never sold for millions.

Obviously unwilling or unable to define the social role of the artists, Beech assigns the term economic exceptionalism to define their relationship to the capitalist system even though they are outside the sphere of the capitalist mode of production:

In presenting this study, I hope to achieve two related objectives: to provide a new basis for the economics of art, and to develop a coherent theory of economic exceptionalism in general using art as a lens through which exceptionalism can be understood. This book also contains the first ever account of a Marxist theory of art’s economic exceptionalism, developing the argument that art is exceptional specifically to the capitalist mode of production. Art’s economic exceptionalism – that is to say, art’s anomalous, incomplete and paradoxical commodification – explains art’s incorporation into capitalism as the very basis of art’s independence from capitalism, because it shows that art has not been fully transformed by the capitalist mode of production.

This sounds more reasonable than the rigidly Brenner/Dobb framework defined at the beginning of the introduction but I will defer judgement until getting my hands on “Art and Value”. I should add that Beech is an artist himself and involved with the Freee [not a typo] Art Project that incorporates his socialist values.

I think that Beech is right to identify the transition to capitalism as key to understanding the role of the artist but I would approach it from a different angle. Under feudalism, the artist was funded by the church or the court. This includes both composers and artists who were expected to write Masses and paint Nativities to earn their keep. Secular works were also permitted but only under the strict guidelines put down by the aristocrat they worked for.

The bourgeois revolution allows them to go off on their own. Composers made independent livings as suppliers of symphonies, chamber music and operas to the various institutions now benefiting from subsidies by the manufacturers rather than the landed gentry or church.

For most of the 19th century until the early 20th century, they had about the same social weight as providers of high culture. What eventually allowed artists to achieve considerable fortunes was the emergence of the museum/gallery/auction world that capitalized on the catapulting of artists into the stratosphere. When he died, Picasso was worth $500 million while his contemporary Claude Debussy died in debt. Leaving behind a score like “La Mer” that could be purchased for very little, relatively speaking, the composer was not entitled to royalties once the work fell out of copyright. Unless you can draw people to pay for a concert ticket, that score will not generate revenue. In a museum, art will also generate revenue but not accrue to the living artist who made it. His or her interest in having it on display is to escalate his profile in the art market and hence his or her income.

Part of the difficulty in assigning a specific social role to the artist of any sort including painters, composers, novelists, etc. is that they occupy a middle position in class society—the so-called petty bourgeoisie. Occupying the same position as a guild artisan of the Middle Ages, they enjoy the possibility of becoming as wealthy as any capitalist. Unlike the more traditional petty-bourgeoisie such as doctors, lawyers, farmers, etc., the painter or sculptor has limitless horizons even if 99 percent of those in the business will likely make little more than a factory worker—if they are lucky.

The United States is in an odd position today with the petty-bourgeoisie constituting a major swath of the population even if supposedly the growth of capitalist property relations would force them into the working class. Fortunately for the left, the artists, rap musicians, professional athletes, novelists, poets, college professors, and fashion designers are on our side. It is the farmer, lawyer, doctor and shopkeeper we have to contend with and many of them constitute the base of the Republican Party.



  1. You no doubt know this, but for my money, it is hard to beat John Berger on art and capitalism, and much more besides.

    Comment by Michael Yates — October 11, 2018 @ 8:02 pm

  2. since reinventing myself as artist, amateur, to convey some concepts neither academic colleagues nor activist comrades were interested in, I learned from artists, professional, to define the difference between labor and work. I tell artist friends who profess they earn their living from their art, but complain that they can’t without prostituting their art, to recognize they labor in order to work. Their work may hone the skills and attract the market for their labor. Their labor, whether they have a commission or are creating what they think they can sell, is bossed time for pay. One’s labor and one’s work may look the same and sometimes may be the same. But Work may be unbossed and unpaid: free. There are two terms in English, Spanish, French. Creating for a client or “the market” is labor and they are producing commodities as certainly as a steel worker who produces I-beams his boss hopes to sell, but may not. An artist’s unbossed, unpaid work may or may not be what the critics deem their “best work”, but it is free. Their labor gives them the freedom to do it. Delivering this point of view to artist friends has the good effect of comforting them, grounding them in identitying themselves and their self interest as working class, not petite bourgeois, and most welcome to me, creating collaborators who share what neither colleagues nor comrades did: a passion for reducing the labor time to earn a rising standard of living. Selling as little labor time as possible to get more free time for one’s “real” work, may be more essential to artists than academics or activists. ‘Tho both scholarly and political work might improve if academics and activists were also more able to differentiate for themselves and others when they are doing their “real work” and when what they re doing is “just labor. Just as in justice, not as in merely, ‘Tho that too.

    Comment by Peggy Powell Dobbins — October 11, 2018 @ 10:07 pm

  3. “…after being auctioned off at Sotheby’s auction for a cool $1.4 million was shredded by remote control. In keeping with the torrid and irrational art market, its value increased immediately upon its destruction.” The high price of the Banksy piece is indeed indicative of a torrid art market. But to be surprised that its value went up after it was destroyed in the manner it was, shows no understanding of (good) contemporary art.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — October 12, 2018 @ 3:50 am

  4. So-called “classical” music flourished in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries as part of both early and later mass culture–such composers as the great Hector Berlioz and the prankish Louis Gottschalk (a great friend at one time of Walt Whitman BTW) put on monster concerts that were lavishly attended. Crowds flocked to view vast panoramic paintings. There was a range of performance genres from the more popular to the more as it were “sublime,” all patronised by an increasingly mass audience. Artists had become wealthy ever since the Renaissance, or strove to become so: but now art ventures became profitable, or were meant to be so. Indeed, the very origins of eg the classical symphony involved this movement away from courtly semi-privacy toward a broader audience. The Mannheim school of classical music promulgated a set of novelty musical tricks that early mass audiences wanted to hear, even as the composers continued to be sheltered by aristocratic patronage–and of course the rise (and fall) of opera mirrors the same conundrum.

    Part of the problem with art is the indefinable element of quality–or greatness–that seems to mirror the elusive notion of use value as capitalism develops. What is the implication of this in Amazon World? We find it harder and harder to define greatness in art while we find the usefulness of ordinary products increasingly compromised by poor quality and planned obsolescence. The institutionalization of commodified art (nobody reads poetry but poetry classes are wildly popular in universities) represents a sort of end-of-life phase of “quality” art–something of which the capitalist audience are very much aware but are powerless to prevent.

    This helplessness of art before capitalism reflects the hopeless inadequacy of the contemporary religious (neoliberal) view of the individual human being as nothing but a bundle of market transactions on every level from the sexual to the spiritual and back again … .

    No idea where this leads … .

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 12, 2018 @ 1:16 pm

  5. poetry classes = poetry writing classes

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 12, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

  6. Farans,
    I have heard that there are places where poetry is widely read. I have never been to any of those places though. So, I can not personally verify that.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 13, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

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