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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.)

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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.

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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 use-

values; 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 use-

values, 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 com-

modification, Performance art, for example. (For instance, the 1960s’ auto-

destructive 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 pro-

ceeds 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.

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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, in-

dustrialization, 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.

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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 authen-

ticity, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 con-

tradictory. 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.pop-

shop.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 Dolfi-

Michels.

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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)

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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

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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.