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Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics (Boston: Brill, 2015)

Review of Art and Value by Dr. Nizan Shaked

Originally published: Historical Materialism by Nizan Shaked (December 2017)

Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics (Boston: Brill, 2015)

A long-awaited turn from the melancholic or moralistic tone taken in most accounts of art and the market, Art 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, 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 Capital, the Grundrisse, and the 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 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-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, 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).1

In her review for Mute, 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 subsumed.2

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 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). 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 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 why these procedures were set apart – and thus allowed to survive – in the midst of capital’s thoroughgoing transformation of the forces and relations of production.3

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.4 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 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.5

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 transformed.

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 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 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’.6 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 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 artwork.

In her article Fetishism and the Public/Private Divide Ann 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’.7 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, 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 constituency.

Asking how art stores wealth, Beech shows that it can resemble Marx’s notion of the hoard, which is ‘potential money capital’.8 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 … 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.9

‘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.10 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.11 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’.12 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.

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 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 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 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.13

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.14 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 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 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’.15 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 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.16 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’.17 He faults Beech for failing to: ‘acknowledge that capitalism itself appears increasingly “exceptional” to the labour theory of value’.18 In contrast, I would 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.19 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 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 survive.20 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 clarifies:

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 [Ding]’ and connects it to the social relation in which a labour is performed. The concept thereby reveals its relativity or its particularity [Standpunktbezogenheit]. 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’ (Capital, 644).21

Beech’s analysis of art as an exception to the commodity is a description of art’s place in the value chain in relation 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 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.

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 Art (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.




  1. 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 objects.
  2. Wikström 2015.
  3. Bernes and Spaulding 2016, p. 54.
  4. 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.
  5. Velthuis 2013.
  6. Graw 2010, p. 29.
  7. Davis 2012, p. 48.
  8. As quoted by Beech: Marx 1959, p. 210.
  9. Krauss 1990, pp. 16-17, n.19.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Krauss 1990, p.10.
  13. Dolan 2014. Money was pooled from the state, the institution’s donors and trustees, as well as a string of regional foundations
  14. O’Donnell 2014.
  15. Harrison p. 15.
  16. Lou Reed and John Cale, “Trouble with Classicists,” in Songs for Drella (1990), satirises typologies of art personae and their concomitant artistic styles. Drella, a compound of Dracula and Cinderella, was Warhol’s nickname.
  17. Lütticken p. 111.
  18. Lütticken p. 113.
  19. 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.
  20. Here, again, John Smith’s study is grounded and convincing.
  21. Haug 2009, p. 179.
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