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Art and Value – Museum Collections as Commons: A Review of Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics by Dave Beech



Art and Value: Art's Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics reveals the irreconcilable differences between the Marxist economic definition of the term 'value' and its other uses in relation to the art object. It corrects the faulty assumption, symptomatic of a capitalist worldview, that rare or historic objects bear intrinsic value. Beech's analysis of art's value-form is critical to unpacking the double ontological condition of art as both an object of collective symbolic value and as a hoard of monetary value, since the two operate in mutually exclusive spheres, yet function to constitute one another. The book can help us understand the capitalist sleight of hand that allows art to flicker between two forms of being, making profit appear as value, and value appear as significance (and vice versa), the toggling between the two facilitating the transfer of commonly-held symbolic value in support of the individual accumulation of wealth.
Art and Value,
reviewed by Nizan
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Dave Beech,
Art and Value: Art’s Economic
Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical
and Marxist Economics
Reviewed by Nizan Shaked
Dr. Nizan Shaked is professor of
contemporary art history, museum and
curatorial studies, at California State
University Long Beach. She is author of
The Synthetic Proposition: Conceptualism
and the Political Referent in Contemporary
(Manchester University Press, 2017), and is
currently working on
Museums, the Public, and the Value
of Art: The Political Economy of Art Collections,
forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic
Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical,
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Art and Value, reviewed by Nizan Shaked | Historical Materialism
1 of 29 12/12/17, 7:55 AM
Neoclassical and Marxist Economics
reveals the
irreconcilable differences between the Marxist
economic definition of the term ‘value’ and its other
uses in relation to the art object. It corrects the faulty
assumption that rare or historical objects bear intrinsic
value, symptomatic of capitalist worldview. Beech’s
analysis of art’s value-form is critical to unpacking the
double ontological condition of art as both an object of
collective symbolic value and a hoard of monetary
value, since the two operate in mutually exclusive
spheres, yet function to constitute one another. The
book can help us understand the capitalist sleight of
hand that allows art to flicker between two forms of
being, making profit appear as value, and value appear
as significance (and vice versa), the toggling between
the two facilitating the transfer of commonly held
symbolic value in support of the individual
accumulation of wealth.
A long-awaited turn from the melancholic or moralistic
tone taken in most accounts of art and the market,
and Value
by Dave Beech is a systematic examination of
art’s economic status in relation to the capitalist mode
of production, circulation and consumption. Mapping
art’s position as exceptional to that of the standard
capitalist commodity, Beech examines piece-by-piece
art’s anomaly at every stage of capital’s transformation,
from the labour relations of its production and entry
into the circuit of merchant capital, to its behaviour as
an asset in financial capital. Until recently direct
economic inquiry was considered vulgar (as Beech
reminds us in the seventh chapter ‘On the Absence of a
Marxist Economics of Art’), and Western Marxism
largely integrated Weberian Sociology to form a
cultural analysis of art’s relationship to the market,
developing terms such as ‘reification, culture industry,
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commodification, Ideological State Apparatuses,
spectacle and cultural capital’ (p. 221). Determining
that art has been incorporated and/or commodified,
key thinkers that developed the terms above such as
György Lukács, who described the effects of capitalism
on the culture and psychological wellbeing of subjects;
Theodor Adorno, who, together with Max Horkheimer,
theorised the systematisation and rationalisation of
culture as a form of mass consumption; Louis
Althusser, who analysed the relation of politics and
culture; Guy Debord, who developed the concept of
spectacle; or Pierre Bourdieu, whose sociology of art
institutions identified how cultural predispositions
help sustain class stratification—all sidestepped the
basic economic description of the mechanisms that
organise art under capitalism, and assessed the
consequences instead. These approaches have become
staples for theorising art’s social roles, as artists
negotiated or attempted to negate the coercive powers
of capitalism. However, in the vast majority of cases,
Beech shows, the application of Marxist theory to art
theory and history is done by ways of homology. His
work is therefore a major contribution to addressing
this gap as he positions art in terms of: ‘the labour
theory of value, labour power, surplus value, formal
and real subsumption, self-accumulation, relative
surplus value, and so on’ (pp. 226-7). Beech’s entry
point into the question, and the structural set up of the
book, reveal the complexity of a field that on the one
hand is deeply concerned with politics as theme and
context, and on the other hand is an arena where
political battles play out.
Using the three volumes of
, the
, and
Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy
, Beech
argues that art is not a typical capitalist commodity
since the labour of artists has not been subject to
abstraction. Artists do not sell their labour power but
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rather a product for which they own the means of
production; they do not work for a capitalist giving the
latter their surplus labour over and above the time
needed for their sustainment; no capital is advanced for
art’s production; the means of art-making have not
been organised to maximise profit (at least not on a
social scale); and the prices of art bear no relation to the
cost of their production. So, we must ask, if art is
exceptional to the capitalist mode of commodity
production, why use these terms of analysis at all?
The answer is twofold. Firstly, since the world order is
dominated by capitalism, we would be remiss to forego
a close analysis of art’s movement through the system,
and secondly, without a sound understanding of the
economic forms of the art object our further inquiry
into the political implication of its social functions
would be impeded. Beech’s book is a first step in a
wholly new mode of describing art and its institutions.
Given the scope of the undertaking, it is
understandable why Beech does not address the
broader implications of art’s exceptionalism (his
advocacy for the public funding of the arts ultimately
argued on the basis of those historical and cultural
claims that form the context of his economic analysis).
It remains for others to apply his findings, and perhaps
clarify and sharpen those few instances where the
writing, and the materials chosen for discussion,
meander and return without clear resolution. That said,
the study is thorough and profound and should be
applied to a series of interlocking fields that include art
economics, the politics of art’s funding, institutional
analysis, the study of collecting and museums,
discussion of aesthetic judgment and the discipline of
art history.
The first part of the book is an intellectual history of
art’s anomalies, providing arguments for debating neo-
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classical and conservative outlooks that see art as
‘nothing but’ a regular commodity whose value can be
measured by empirical tools, an activity that requires
no special support or state funding. Framing his
discussion in the distinction between classical,
neoclassical, and Marxist economics, Beech sets the
ground for dialogue with policy-makers in the field, the
majority of which do not subscribe to Marxist world-
views. Dedicated to a rigorous analysis based in a
primary reading of Marx, the second part provides us
with a toolkit of defined categories that we can now
apply towards debates within the critical, professional,
and academic field commonly referred to as the ‘art
world,’ and which is vast if you include its markets and
audiences. Whether we agree with all of Beech’s
formulations or not, what is clear is that a baseline
from which to work has been set.
The art world speaks predominantly in liberal terms,
which in many ways is a different language, such that
common words like ‘value,’ ‘abstraction,’ or ‘productive’
are employed in a disparate sense from their proper
Marxist definitions. Value, price, or worth may be used
in various interchangeable combinations as do money,
wealth, capital, surplus, revenue, and profit. A cause for
confusion in intellectual and academic circles, it is also
a reflection of the continued blindness to some
fundamental realities that structure our current
existence. As some basic assumptions have gone
unchecked, the assimilation of Leftist art history into
the system can carry on without interrupting the
operation of the liberal institution, where for example
Marxist cultural criticism or formalist analysis are fuel
for research and development. Likewise, protest actions
quickly find their place under the thematic rubric of
political art.
Beech’s assertion that art has no intrinsic value,
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anathema to the liberal mind, is one of two
interconnected myths to be dispelled: that money is
productive of value, and that things (land, rare objects,
precious stones) have inherent value to them: ‘[i]f we
know from where added value derives, then we will not
be fooled into thinking, for instance, that banks, money
markets and commodity markets are wealth creators’
(p. 258). Making art does not contribute surplus value
to the economy either—‘artworks have no value
(average labour time) since they cannot be reproduced
and therefore it is impossible for surplus value to be
created in their production’ (p. 263).
In her review for
, Josefine Wikström notes that,
for those versed in the historical specificity of Marx’s
critique of political economy, Beech’s argument is not
new, reiterating that:
Categories like ‘productive’ and ‘abstract
labour’ are in Marx’s work relational, or
perhaps better put, ‘social.’ Whether labour
is productive or not is dependent on its
relation to wage labour and the production
of surplus value. This is why art production,
like other marginal forms of production,
only produce surplus value relatively and
marginally compared with other sectors.
They are, in that sense, not really
But in liberal language the terms value or production
have the function of judgment. It is difficult, if not
impossible, to convince the vast majority of the art
world that art has no value, or that when we claim that
art ‘generates the economy’ what it in effect does is
distribute value produced elsewhere through extreme
exploitation. This review is written in the throes of a
massive cultural phenomenon, the release of yet
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another Star Wars film, whose creator (George Lucas)
was famously made wealthy by choosing future
merchandising rights over an immediate increase in fee
at the dawn of his career success. For the vast majority
of art world participants it will be impossible to
conceptualise that the making of an endless stream of
Star Wars merchandising objects, produced by scores
of labourers toiling in what I can only assume are
inhumane conditions, contribute to the aggregate of
value while the making of art does not, or that
(presumably) unskilled workers are productive of value,
while artists are not. By showing that only labour that
produces surplus value for the capitalist is productive,
Beech’s book provides us with the vocabulary and
rhetorical equations to analyse and demonstrate to a
broader art audience how things work.
With formal subsumption, the first phase of capitalism,
the effect of which: ‘is not profiting from the labour of
others, which had always existed, but the ownership
and control of production itself,’ (p. 249) the surplus for
the productive capitalist is derived from the
productivity of wage labour on a social scale. Then,
with the next stage of real subsumption, the process of
labour is systematically reorganised to ‘increase the
proportion of unpaid labour and decrease the
proportion of paid labour’ (p. 251). Artmaking is not
waged labour and therefore cannot be subsumed under
capital. Beech specifically insists that: ‘[a]s soon as we
posit subsumption in general rather the subsumption
of labour by capital then, it appears to me, the
mechanism by which capital takes hold of society is
lost’ (p. 17). In addition: ‘[s]ince capitalist production is
the production of surplus value, we need to attend to
labour primarily in its capacity as the source of surplus
value for capital’, Beech tells us (p. 243). However, ‘[t]he
formal subsumption of artistic labour – executed by
assistants rather than artists is feasible’ (p. 255).
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Indeed, Beech pays special attention to the question of
studio assistants, one of several sets of labour relations,
processes, and transformations that the art object
undergoes and which he unpacks stage by stage. Do
studio assistants contribute surplus labour to the artist
rendering her a capitalist, or does their work
contribute to revenue or profit? After close
examination his answer is tentatively no, characterising
artists that are owners-producers and that employ
assistants using Marx’s notion of ‘transitional stage’ (p.
256). The issue here seems unresolved, as the various
examples and lines of reasoning that Beech gives in
different sections can contradict one another, but given
the meticulous steps he takes to demonstrate his
rhetorical moves, those can contribute to the debates
around what constitutes productive or unproductive
labour, especially when it comes to the creative trades.
Nevertheless, some possible questions are left
unanswered. Can modes of commodity production that
are not capitalist, but reside within capitalism, produce
and introduce value into the system? Should art be
theoretically relegated to the realm of distribution
alone? For example, what about the issue of
transportation, which Marx considers to be productive
labour? An artwork’s worth is significantly enhanced
when it is loaned out for exhibitions, a process that
entails it be moved by art handlers and transport
labour. Does this movement invest it with value? Does
art’s travel add to the general aggregate of value?
In their review of Beech’s book Jasper Bernes and
Daniel Spaulding argue that the fact that artistic labour
cannot be subsumed to capital is rooted in a historical
anomaly. Admitting that historical analysis may be too
much to ask of an already substantial undertaking they
nevertheless ask:
All the same it would have been useful to
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dedicate more attention to the specific
cultural, institutional, and/or technical
barriers to capitalist investment in the
production of fine art, and thus also to be
more specific about how the fine arts differ
from ‘culture industry’ sectors, such as film
production, that are in fact prey to real
subsumption, as well as from borderline
cases such as theater or the publishing
industry, in which enterprises may be
organised along either capitalist or non-
capitalist lines. It is tempting to say that
there is something about the material
qualities of artistic procedures that makes
them resistant to subsumption. But if so,
this begs the question of
procedures were set apart and thus
allowed to survive – in the midst of capital’s
thoroughgoing transformation of the forces
and relations of production.
For Beech the answer resides not on the level of art’s
production, but circulation. I would also argue that it is
not, as Bernes and Spaulding argue ‘the material
qualities of artistic procedures that makes them
resistant to subsumption’, but rather the agreement,
which so many societies seem to share, to collect these
objects and hold them as common patrimony, which
necessitates that they continue to function as unique.
The other answer is that capitalism has set its eyes not
on art’s production, but on its mysterious potential for
extreme monetary appreciation during circulation
(which also relies on sustaining the status of the object
as unique), and capitalism has finally, after attempting
for over one hundred years to corral this potential,
figured out how to liquidate art, albeit not to the point
where it is as liquid as stocks or bonds. Much work lies
ahead to define the way art is similar or different from
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items such as assets, real estate, rare objects or
materials, or various types of luxury goods, and how it
relates, on the one hand to its artisanal origins, and on
the other, to the practice of collecting, or to
the collection
as a unified category. Beech’s groundwork will facilitate
such inquiries.
Because the social order has morphed to fit the forms
of capitalism, even relations that are not subsumed to
capital orbit in its gravitational scheme. Art, Beech
argues convincingly, bypasses production capital,
entering capitalism at the stage of merchant capital, but
here too in an exceptional way. The gallerist is not a
regular merchant capitalist, in that she does not
normally extend funds in advance, he explains. Also, he
continues, since art prices are not regulated by supply
and demand in a conventional sense, or by a relation to
their cost of production, they may seem erratic.
Nevertheless, sociologies of art prices have shown that
there are in fact very specific underlying dynamics
regulating prices on the primary market, and it is in
such cases that Beech’s theoretical clarifications should
be brought to bear on the methods of study to yield
analytical insight beyond robust description.
Here we begin to glean the stakes of art’s exceptional
condition, for as art enters the circuit of capital at the
stage of merchant capital the form of its value is
This sort of metamorphosis is at the heart of the
circulation process of exchange in capitalism. Money
turns into capital, commodity capital turns into money
capital, commodities turn into use values, labour turns
into value, products are turned into raw materials, raw
materials are turned into commodities, capital is
realised in the consumption of use values, products are
used up in the production of exchange values, and so
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on and so forth. Not only do products and values move
around, circulate, flow and pass from hand to hand, in
doing so they change from one kind of economic being
to another. (p. 271.)
‘The alchemist is the gallery owner,’ Beech tells us: ‘[a]s
well as converting artworks into commodities,
therefore, the gallerist also converts art into capital’ (p.
272). Neither merchant capitalists nor their retail
workers add value to the object, but by their activities
can transform art into several forms, depending on ‘the
social circulation through which it passes’ (p. 272).
Beech distinguishes between the consumption of art
for accumulation, further circulation, or for use. He
walks us through several examples of how the art
object functions differently for owners versus
observers, or investments buyers versus passion
collectors. This is followed later by a convincing
analysis of the object itself, where he details how art is
exceptional to several typologies of objects such as
Veblen, public, merit, or luxury good, pending on the
method by which they are defined, extending
arguments that can be very useful for the defence of
public funding for the arts and for maintaining the
division of the public and private uses of art.
Accumulatively these analyses demonstrate the various
permutations of monetary and symbolic value arising
from differing social configurations that serve
divergent political agendas. Since art does not perish by
consumption it can metamorphose between forms such
as use value, or financial asset. It is the ability of the
artwork to be transformed into various economic
beings that arguably makes it such an attractive
collectible, and such a curious object for investment.
Art is never just one or the other.
Isabel Graw (whom Beech does not cite) uses Pierre
Bourdieu’s definition of symbolic value’ as distinct
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from market value. Based on case studies and
evaluation of the art media, hers is a cultural history of
the contemporary art market in the context of celebrity
culture. Graw argues correctly that art historians,
critics, and curators (with the recent addition of
lifestyle and fashion magazines), all contribute to
generating art’s symbolic value. However, there is a
fundamental difference, Graw claims (but does not
scientifically prove), between art and other objects:
‘[a]dmittedly, other commodities, especially branded
goods, are increasingly defined by symbolic value. But a
designer item like a pair of Dior sunglasses would not
be expected to produce “truth” or “epistemological
insight” as does a work of art’.
The commonly held
belief that objects carry meaning or knowledge has two
major sets of histories: that of art and artists and that of
collecting and collections. They overlap but are not the
same. Contemporary art relies on their convergence for
its symbolic status, as well as on its ability to circulate
in the market.
Herein lies a foundational and especially significant
juncture, and which is also unique to our historical
moment. The convergence of an unprecedented surge
in the magnitude of the art market (an all-time record
of 51 billion in 2014, 7 per cent more than in 2013,
according to the TEFAF Art Market Report, compiled
by Dr. Clare McAndrew), the fact that contemporary
art is now the major category for the market (Sotheby’s
since 2007 and Christie’s since 2012), the museum
boom (more museums have opened world-wide in the
first fifteen years of the twenty-first century than the
entire nineteenth and twentieth centuries combined),
and the financialisation of the art object (one can now
borrow sums as low as $250,000 against art assessed at
double that sum), pose acute ethical problems for
museums and non-profit institutions. The ways in
which the monetary worth of art has been corralled
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and leveraged since the 1970s, and most specifically the
development of art-credit systems in the 1980s, exploit
art’s exceptional status. What matters here is the
manipulation of art’s public form for private gain,
greatly exacerbated by the conditions stated above,
through the increasing reliance of public institutions
on private and corporate donations of money and
In her article
Fetishism and the Public/Private Divide
E. Davis shows how the apparent division of society
into state and market facilitates the illusion that money
and commodities have intrinsic value, legitimising
private claim to surplus value. The state issues currency
against debt, supporting private growth through public
taxation: “‘national wealth’ serves to provide liquidity
for private financial markets and to underwrite private
credit to firms for the purposes of private profit. This is
a form of exploitation of the public for private gain, on
a systemic level, by means of the financial system’.
Art institution structure is derived from a similar logic.
The metamorphosing double helix of the art object’s
value can traverse freely through the threshold of
publically supported museums and private wealth. I am
referring here as ‘public’ also to those private museums
that benefit from massive tax reductions and other
subsidies, and of course to the various private-public
partnership configurations that form the legalfiduciary
structure of most American museums, increasingly
spreading in the U.K., Europe, and internationally.
There is much work to be done on these issues that
reside between disciplines and methods, but without a
thorough theory of art’s value , our options so far been
have been limited.
The analysis of art’s value transmutations can help us
prove at what points art should be considered for its
symbolic qualities versus it’s monetary measures,
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distinguishing when decisions on behalf of the public
should be made by mutual systems (expert opinion,
peer review, or a combination thereof—another area
ripe for debate, the principle being that democratic
processes be upheld), and how to locate and prevent the
intervention of private interest in the public domain.
There are long-term implications for our ability to
understand art’s value, when we will have the
opportunity to imagine a way that institutions can truly
be common. Until then, under a liberal world-order,
these understandings should clarify some of the
immediate shortcomings of the current state of public
institutions, and the ways in which their crude
definitions of value’s appearance serve to mask the
motion between symbolic and monetary, thus affording
the continual flow of wealth towards the money-power
Asking how art stores wealth, Beech shows that it can
resemble Marx’s notion of the hoard, which is
‘potential money capital’.
But this Beech claims is not
capital, as it lacks liquidity. Although Beech later
analyses art and finance capital, like many other writers
he underestimates the potential liquidity of art when he
argues that: ‘[w]orks in a given collection can be valued
as an asset even when the owner has no intension of
selling, and such works are, potentially, commodity
capital, but capital permanently withdrawn from
circulation, is not capital except in name’ (p. 273). Two
major case studies stand in mind in this respect.
The potential for the monetisation of publically held
collections has already been activated in 1990. As
Rosalind Krauss warns:
In August 1990, the Guggenheim Museum,
through the agency of The Trust for
Cultural Resources of The City of New York
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issued $55 million of tax-exempt bonds
to J. P. Morgan Securities (who will
presumably remarket them to the public).
This money is to be used for the museum's
physical expansion in New York City.
‘The collateral for these bonds is curious’, Krauss notes,
as presumably none of the foundation’s assets, the
museum’s endowment, or the private assets of the
trustees could have functioned as guarantee.
Beyond projecting the museum’s ability to pay, a
further probe leads Krauss to deduce that, since ‘certain
works’ from the foundation’s holdings have sale
prohibitions or restrictions, the rest of the museum’s
“assets” in effect functioned as collateral. Placed in
scare-quotes for a good reason, “assets” referred to the
collection, which, held in the public trust should never
have played part in such a high-risk venture.
Dropping this bomb in a footnote, Krauss is one of the
first art historians to show how the aesthetic claims
artists make for their work relate, not only to the
ideological infrastructure of the institution, but to the
future forms of capital. She demonstrates that when
Minimalist artists substituted the disembodied
opticality of abstract painting with a phenomenological
encounter with the work in space, they contradicted
their own intended critique: ‘immediacy was always
potentially undermined—infected, we could say—with
its opposite’.
Sounding Fredric Jameson, she
highlights how, Minimalist artists, in their attempt to
negate the ethos of previous art movements, eventually
rendered the imaginary structures of the next stage of
capitalism. Minimalist artists cast the subject of
industrial capitalism as the subject of mass culture.
Krauss admitted that her connections were tentative,
yet twenty-five years after the fact we should now
continue in two interconnected modes, along the lines
of art history and museum studies.
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Following Krauss’ linking of aesthetics to institutional
politics, I will cursorily tie Beech’s analysis of the social
relation of art’s making (such as the question of studio
assistants) with current strategies of serial artistic
production. There exists today a body of market artists
that in sophisticated, yet cynical, ways have collapsed
two distinct logics of artmaking that ran through the
twentieth century and that formed the backbone of the
avant-garde: the conceptually-based strand that
spawned serial work, and the expressive mode reliant
on the unique gesture of the artist’s hand. The
distinction is significant, as artworks correspond with
divergent historical paradigms and as such with their
contemporaneous philosophical implications.
Hybridising paradigm empties the artistic gesture of its
significance. We now see studio practices where unique
works are being serially produced in cottage industry
capacity, artisanal in character but claiming, and being
allowed to sustain, the status of unique works of art,
and as such fetch extremely high prices on the primary
market. Here, I am not referring to serial mechanical
production (photography and other print works,
casting, etc.), but to the serial production of hand-made
works, where one can see systematic production of, for
example, unique paintings. As the contemporary art
market favours signature works, some of these
practices see colossal success. Part of a well-oiled
machine of art’s education, the aesthetic claims made
by such artists, or the critics and historians hired to
make claims on their behalf, are always well grounded
in academic and critical terms, and even if those are
nothing but intellectual gymnastics, it may be
impossible to distinguish the latter from any ‘true’
analysis. If left to the judgment of the market, this
conflation of paradigms poses no problem for us, let
herd mentality fill collections with meaningless art.
However, as museums have dramatically turned to
acquisitioning works by very young living artists, we
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need to urgently pose to our public institutions
questions of criteria and judgment. It is alarming to
observe artworks produced in this mode are
accessioned into museum collections, while verified
artists (artists who have made significant contributions
to the field, for whom exhibition records, independent
bibliographies, or evidence of influence on other artists
exist) are sitting on studios-full of historical work. The
question of art’s value can now aid us in challenging
this phenomenon, if we base our retort, on the one
hand, on the fact that the economic infrastructure of
art has changed in the 1980s (and as such, for example,
relying for pedigree on neo-avant-gardist artistic
discourse is moot), and on the other, in answering the
question of how serial production and its labour
relations are being employed. This will take us one step
beyond the liberal claim, which in fact should hold but
is also eroding, that the market should be barred from
directly influencing public museums and vice versa.
Here we can tentatively pose the argument that
museums should not purchase the work of young
artists but rather pay wages for display, after all, it
mostly takes great many years to be able to properly
assess the contribution of an artist to the field, and
hence what humanity should collectively guard for
posterity. In any case it is clear that we should work to
actively limit the influence of the market on our
common collections, and several pragmatic solutions
can be posed on this account.
Marxist economics have a direct relationship to
aesthetics, extending the best argument for the defence
of judgment outside of the market. We are not naïve to
assert that autonomous judgment is possible, but the
point is to regulate separation. There are plenty of
areas where the so-called freedom of the market or
populism are methods of choice, so let us preserve the
option for one mode of cultural engagement that at the
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very least aims to be outside of the consumer-
sovereignty ratings machine. The problem with
collecting contemporary art for the public in the bubble
market is that art has exchange value before it has
symbolic value, and that exchange value determines
symbolic value, while historically it was the other way
around. If the market is allowed to determine what is
deemed important and therefore valuable, we have a
judgment system that compromises the future promise
of our common collections, as it is based on a conflict
of interest that should be posing a legal problem even
for the liberal system.
The fetishistic conflation of state (public) and market
(private), as Davis describes, is historically specific to
the structure of the nation-state. In his excellent
account of the British Art Council and its Keynesian
origins Beech traces the development of the notion of
artistic independence, the art market, and the
bourgeois institution, concluding that: ‘[t]he art market
is a prerequisite for its apparent opposite, the public
funding of art’ (p.139). The rise of the modern museum
is part and parcel of this process, and Beech is correct
to assume that: ‘a public collection is not permitted
to sell of its stock of artwork’ (p. 274). Nevertheless, we
see, with our second case, the creative ways in which
ostensibly out of reach commons have been
manipulated to cover for the depleted public sector.
In 2013 when the city of Detroit, once the industrial
heart of the US, filed for bankruptcy, a heated debate
erupted around the fate of the outstanding art
collection it had amassed during its golden years.
Assessed in the billions, the Detroit Institute of Arts
(DIA) boasts major historical works by Tintoretto,
Breugel the Elder, and van Gogh, to name a few. The
irony of what came to be called “The Grand Bargain, is
that the city monetised its art collection, and in some
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ways sold it to itself:
In the end, the grand bargain called for preserving the
collection in Detroit by transferring ownership of it to
the nonprofit already running the museum for the
equivalent of $816 million. […] The deal provided cash
to help win support of major creditors and spin off the
museum to a nonprofit outside the reach of the city and
its creditors.
Although the state-appointed emergency manager and
his advisors demanded that DIA sell some of its
artworks to pay the city’s debt, in effect, as institution
officials argued, the collection was not an asset but a
cultural treasure held in the public trust.
Run since
1998 by the foundation to which it was transferred, the
collection should have never been available for sale. Yet,
since eventually the case was not tested in court, no
precedent was set. The precarious status of such
commons now looms large as the potential to exploit
art’s exceptional status to cover up for crumbling
economic infrastructure extends far beyond the debt of
one city.
The monetisation of art exploits art’s double ontology
for its symbolic and monetary value. Beech takes us in
the right direction, pointing out that the use value of
art can be independent from its consumption as
exchange value. Following Beech we can say that in the
case of Detroit the collection is being consumed twice.
If we are to ask why not, Beech’s formulation can show
us that if it is, since these transactions do not produce
value but rather syphon it from the exploitation of
abstract labour, they should be prohibited, not just
ethically, but by law, as they double dip into art’s
monetary potential while the latter is sequestered, in
the public trust, to be consumed for its symbolic value.
In her account Krauss noted some specific conflicts of
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19 of 29 12/12/17, 7:55 AM
interest and listed some of the private firms that stood
to gain enormously from the Guggenheim’s
transactions. This was also true in the case of Detroit’s
bankruptcy. Beech’s study helps us make the case that
not only should the division between the private and
the public uses of art be regulated as a matter of course,
but also demonstrates the machinations and
implications of value’s transformation in relation to art.
The problem is that this type of Marxist thinking is at
odds with the immediate goals of arts administrators,
who work in defence of public institutions where the
only means of survival within the system of capitalism
is to argue for more government funding on the basis
that art adds to the economy, or, barring other options,
rely on the philanthropy of the wealthy, which are
increasingly allowed by cash-strapped institutions to
promote their own cultural agenda. Introducing into
the discourse a surgical Marxist definition of value in
precise terms should rearrange the game board. As
Beech proves that art does not inject value into the
economy and that art is part of the secondary system
that distributes value produced elsewhere, he offers a
wholly different vocabulary from that which is
employed in numerous studies by governmental and
non-governmental advocacy groups that follow
standard liberal logic and tend to find that arts generate
and catalyse the economy, without distinguishing
between production of value and its distribution. So far
the major argument for the advocacy for arts education
and funding has relied on a very generalised concept of
value, as did the entire discourse.
Art has always had the potential to realise as exchange
value, and this potential had philosophical, ideological,
and therefore political implications. The force Beech
designates as ‘money power’ (p. 279), a nexus of
influence and coercion yielded through the consumer
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power of collectors, is a dynamic that predates
capitalism and functions independent of it. Activated
through political means, Beech argues that it cannot be
resisted by criticising the market and instead claims
that: ‘[i]n art, at the moment, this is left to individual
artists (supported or hampered by their dealers), to
either fend off money power or succumb to it’ (p. 279).
My disagreement with Beech here is profound. Firstly,
this is precisely the point to be taken up collectively,
and not by individual artists. The notion that individual
artists can resist the Tsunami-sized force of money-
power, drove conceptual and institution-critique
practices, but also marked the pathos of their failure, as
Charles Harrison wrote: ‘[i]t was quixotic though to
hope, as many did, that perturbations in the economic
base would be achieved by superstructural artistic
tinkering. That ideas can move mountains has been a
recurrent fantasy in twentieth-century art’.
Secondly, since ‘money power’ forces exude major
influence on public institutions, the battleground is not
the individual artwork, but the commons. In this
respect art too is exceptional. Music, theater, literature,
film, fashion, and most other cultural production, get
collected and displayed only incidentally—art does not.
What makes art different from other forms of creative
work or enterprise is the fact that there is a whole
system of museum and exhibition institutions that
function to collect, display, and preserve it for
posterity. Art’s special status is dependent upon these
institutions whose very existence is dependent upon
rarity and uniqueness. That art retains its status in a
‘transitional stage’ is a condition sustained by these
institutions. At the present moment the museum is a
part of the system where metamorphoses occur
between symbolic and monetary value. The public
consumes art through this apparatus. It is remarkable
that an institution dedicated to the collective display of
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knowledge and meaning, in effect functions to conceal
social realities.
The task remains to explain in simple and convincing
terms to a liberal audience how it is that art not only
does not generate surplus value, but rather that in
circulation its monetary appreciation syphons from the
system as a whole. This idea, central to the Marxian
conception of value, requires the understanding of a
total system in operation, in which circulation does not
add to the general aggregate of value. The biggest
contribution of
Art and Value
is that it breaks apart
every step and turn of art’s transformation, from its
making to its movement through private and public
circuits, giving us an atomic formulation by asking
what types of social relations have been set up in terms
of the capitalist mode of production.
In his recent article ‘The Coming Exception: Art and
the Crisis of Value’, Sven Lütticken names his retort of
Art and Value
: ‘The trouble with classicists’, referencing
Beech’s direct reliance on Marx for his theoretical
analysis/ Presumably Lütticken is also playing on a title
of a song about Andy Warhol, the artist who named his
studio ‘the factory’ and coyly employed reproducible
art techniques to make singular objects.
Citing the
recent proliferation of writing on the matter of art and
value, and providing some concise summaries of
critical perspectives on Marxist critiques of value and
various artistic practices that take on this question,
Lütticken speculates about art’s exceptional status with
the hypothesis that: ‘debates occur at a moment when
the “culturalization of the economy and the
economization of culture suggest that this
exceptionality may be becoming a thing of the past’.
He faults Beech for failing to: ‘acknowledge that
capitalism itself appears increasingly “exceptional” to
the labour theory of value’.
In contrast, I would
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argue that adhering to Marx is precisely the strength of
Beech’s analysis, because it is not the law of value that
has been altered by globalisation, financialisation, or a
shift to service-based industries, but its effects and
their magnitude. The design and marketing operations
on the North/West end that makes an object like the
iPhone sell for an exorbitant price is not because of an
addition of value, but a swelling of a stage in the value
chain that necessitates super-exploitation of labour on
the South/East side of the globe.
The task now is to
identify where and how the constellations of social
relations function, and accurately describe their place
within a total system. The difference between Beech’s
formulation and the other theories of value
summarised by Lütticken (with a focus on autonomists
the Krisis group: the former believing that labour itself
has been transformed, and the latter that value has
become an automated subject) is in the ways in which
they conceive of and describe capitalist totality, and
how they distinguish between productive and
unproductive labour.
The trouble with the term ‘classicist’ is that it implies
something of the past, ignoring the fact that some
foundational Marxist definitions are still in operation.
Value is not added by the ‘creative’ industries be them
advertisement, marketing, social media participation,
etc.—the point is that no matter how large the
consequent markup, the sectors that encourage
consumption only participate in the distribution of
value. A marginal cost at that time, Marx would have
classified advertising as faux-frais, yet, this does not
mean that the principle of incidentals has changed, just
the quantities and extent. That advertising is a multi-
billion dollar business does not move the production of
value from labour to circulation, it just means that this
creative industry participates in the amplification of
price markup, exacerbating the reliance of capitalist
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societies on superexploitation.
It does not follow that workers in cultural industries
are not exploited, it just means that extracting surplus
from production has to be intensified, for capitalism to
It also does not mean that the armies of
women working in unwaged reproductive and care
capacities are not exploited, it just means that they do
not add value into the total system in the process, even
if they are essential to keeping it intact. The problem
with the term ‘value’, is that it is often perceived in its
qualitative referencing capacity: as if ‘adding value’ is a
positive event. Instrumentalising and subsuming
multiple societal structures, capitalism is exploitative
on several levels, but it is not the case that exploitation
and the addition of value are the same, as Haug
In explicating the differentiation between productive
and unproductive labour adopted by Smith, Marx
separates the concept of the productive from its
relation to the ‘external thing [
]’ and connects it to
the social relation in which a labour is performed. The
concept thereby reveals its relativity or its particularity
]. That which, from the
standpoint of capital, is productive because it forms
surplus-value is not necessarily so from the standpoint
of the preservation of life, and vice-versa. In capitalism,
therefore, he states emphatically, it is not good fortune,
but rather, ‘a misfortune’ ‘to be a productive worker’
, 644).
Beech’s analysis of art as an exception to the
commodity is a description of art’s place in the value
chain in
to the commodity as the basic unit of
capitalism; it doesn’t concern artists and intellectual
workers as subjects of capitalism, or art as an
imaginative mode of emancipation. He does not fall
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into the utopian trap of imagining that intellectual
work can add value to an object (or that intellectual
work can somehow be equated with labour), that artists
can undermine the divisions of labour, that the
distinction between labour and leisure have collapsed,
or that art can be valorised.
Ideas such as the collapse of the distinction between
labour and leisure conflate the term ‘work’ and ‘labour’,
just as thinking that art can be valorised conflate value
with price. Value is never fully autonomous. Even if
there is a great gap between profits and wages value
will not be autonomous, in the capitalist system the
former will always bear a link to labour. Profit is
ultimately always dependent on the extraction of
surplus value from abstracted labour, even if this
extraction is hidden from our purview. By rendering
art’s place in the system Beech gives us a blueprint with
which to describe, not art’s (modernist autonomy), but
its (very contemporary) symbolic and monetary
dependency on a constellation of social relations.
Bernes, Jasper and Daniel Spaulding, ‘Truly
Radical Philosophy,
(January/February 2016): 51-54, available at:
Davis, Ann E. 2012, ‘The New “Voodoo Economics”:
Fetishism and the Public/Private Divide’,
Review of
Radical Political Economics,
45(1) 42–58.
Dolan, Matthew 2014, ‘In Detroit Bankruptcy, Art Was
Key to the Deal,
The Wall Street Journal
, available at: <
Art and Value, reviewed by Nizan Shaked | Historical Materialism
25 of 29 12/12/17, 7:55 AM
Graw, Isabelle 2010,
High Price: Art Between the Market
and Celebrity Culture
, New York: Sternberg Press.
Harrison, Charles 1984, ‘The Late Sixties in London
and Elsewhere’, in
1965-1972, When Attitudes Became
, Cambridge and Edinburgh: Kettle's Yard and the
Fruitmarket, 9-16.
Haug, Wolfgang Fritz 2009, ‘Immaterial Labour’,
Historical Materialism
17 177–185.
Krauss, Rosalind 1990, ‘The Cultural Logic of the Late
Capitalist Museum’,
54 Autumn: 3-17.
Lütticken, Sven 2016, ‘The coming exception: Art and
the Crisis of Value’,
New Left Review
, 99 May-June,
O'Donnell, Nicholas 2014, ‘A Trust For The Benefit of
the Public is Not “the Public Trust”The
Deaccessioning Debate and the Detroit Institute of
The Art Law Report
, June 4th, available at: <
Smith, John 2016,
Imperialism in the Twenty-First
New York: Monthly Review Press.
Velth uis, Olav 2013,
Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of
Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art
, Princeton,
New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Wikström, Josefine 2015, ‘Art’s Economic
, 12 November, available at: <
- exceptionalism>.
Art and Value, reviewed by Nizan Shaked | Historical Materialism
26 of 29 12/12/17, 7:55 AM
To clarify: with marginal exceptions, all artists that
work in reproducible modes sell their work in limited
editions such that in effect they function as unique
Wikström 2015.
Bernes and Spaulding 2016, p. 54.
Art produced in limited editions functions as unique
on the level of circulation, since, as it exchanges hands,
each item in a series will be assessed at a different price
depending on it’s place in the sequence, previous
ownership, exhibition or sales record, and so on.
Velthuis 2013.
Graw 2010, p. 29.
Davis 2012, p. 48.
As quoted by Beech: Marx 1959, p. 210.
Krauss 1990, pp. 16-17, n.19.
Krauss 1990, p.10.
Dolan 2014. Money was pooled from the state, the
institution’s donors and trustees, as well as a string of
regional foundations
O'Donnell 2014.
Art and Value, reviewed by Nizan Shaked | Historical Materialism
27 of 29 12/12/17, 7:55 AM
Harrison p. 15.
Lou Reed and John Cale, "Trouble with Classicists,"
Songs for Drella
(1990), satirises typologies of art
personae and their concomitant artistic styles. Drella, a
compound of Dracula and Cinderella, was Warhol’s
Lütticken p. 111.
Lütticken p. 113.
With detailed empirical analysis and precise
theoretical terms John smith explains the machinations
of the value chains, commencing with analysis of three
archetypical objects: the T-shirt, the coffee cup, and the
iPhone, mapping, stage by stage, how labour (abstracted
under imperialist super exploitation) is the source
value, and not those activities that function to
distribute it and mark it up. Smith 2016.
Here, again, John Smith’s study is grounded and
Haug 2009, p. 179.
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Historical Materialism is a Marxist journal,
appearing 4 times a year, based in London.
Founded in 1997 it asserts that, not
withstanding the variety of its practical and
theoretical articulations, Marxism constitutes
the most fertile conceptual framework for
analysing social phenomena, with an eye to their
overhaul. In our selection of material we do not
favour any one tendency, tradition or variant.
Marx demanded the 'Merciless criticism of
everything that exists': for us that includes
Marxism itself.
Art and Value, reviewed by Nizan Shaked | Historical Materialism
29 of 29 12/12/17, 7:55 AM
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
‘Truly Extraordinary’
  • Bernes
‘The New “Voodoo Economics”: Fetishism and the Public/Private Divide’
  • Davis
Davis, Ann E. 2012, 'The New "Voodoo Economics": Fetishism and the Public/Private Divide', Review of Radical Political Economics, 45, 1: 42-58.
‘The Late Sixties in London and Elsewhere’
  • Harrison
Harrison, Charles 1984, 'The Late Sixties in London and Elsewhere', in 1965-1972, When Attitudes Became Form, Cambridge/Edinburgh: Kettle's Yard and The Fruitmarket Galleries.
‘In Detroit Bankruptcy, Art Was Key to the Deal’
  • Dolan
Dolan, Matthew 2014, 'In Detroit Bankruptcy, Art Was Key to the Deal', The Wall Street Journal, 7 November, available at: < -bankruptcy-art-was-key-to-the-deal-1415384308>.
‘Art’s Economic Exceptionalism’
  • Wikström
‘The Coming Exception: Art and the Crisis of Value’
  • Lütticken