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essay by John A Walker about art works as commodities

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ARTWORKS AS COMMODITIESJOHN A. WALKER (Copyright, 2009)

John A. Walker, Not for Sale, (1975). Oil on canvas. Donated to Wolverhampton Art Gallery. (This painting demands to be a commodity but the title insists it is not for sale - it can only be given away.) ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------So much nonsense and confusion surrounds the idea of art as a commodity, it may be worthwhile attempting a clarification. To many people, art's otherworldliness - its aesthetic, spiritual or transcendent qualities - seem in painful contradiction with its appearance in the marketplace. To them the conjunction art: money, art: business seems sordid and offensive. As a result, strange incongruities of thought arise: works of art are described as 'priceless' despite the fact that whenever they are offered for sale in auction rooms they fetch prices. It is generally assumed that when artists make art they are motivated by the highest ideals (inner

necessity, self expression, the desire to comment politically, etc), hence they are not expected to admit 'I did it for the money'. Nonetheless, artists have to eat and therefore making money from art may be one reasonable motive for producing it. Also, it is perfectly possible for an artist to have several motives some primary, some secondary, some idealistic, some mercenary. Such motivations are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the mere fact that an artist makes art for money is no indication that the resulting work is of no artistic or intellectual value: the aesthetic quality of a work is not determined by the motives of its maker. By the same token, poor quality art may be the result of high, sincere motives. Since the idea of artistic independence has been so crucial to modernism, it may be worth considering how certain of the founding fathers were able to maintain their integrity and independence. Czanne did not have to please a patron, a public, a dealer or a market, he was under no compulsion to make art for a living because once he inherited his father's money and land he gained financial independence for life. Van Gogh was similarly protected from market forces by the subsidy his brother Theo supplied. Manet and Degas were also affluent. The majority of artists are not so fortunate, they need money in order to practice art at all. Many artists take part-time or full-time employment in order to fund their art activities but this obviously limits the time they can devote to art. Others rely upon a variety of different sorts of income - grants, temporary appointments, residencies, commissions, and so forth - in order to eke out a precarious living. Only a small proportion of artists are successful enough to live from the sale of their work. Most of the artworks produced by professional artists within the context of the

Western economic system become commodities once they leave the artist's studio and are sold to collectors and museums via the dealer/private art gallery system of marketing and distribution. Generally speaking, artists own their means of production (tools, materials, equipment, etc), so in this respect they resemble small, independent manufacturers supplying luxury goods (premium products) to a specialist market. They and their assistants expend mental and physical labour to transform cheap materials (mostly) into higher value goods. (In 2007-2008 certain British artists - Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn - used expensive materials such as diamonds and gold to make art in order to increase its financial value at a time when currencies and stocks and shares were losing value.)

Mark Quinn with gold sculpture of fashion model Kate Moss, 2008. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Higher value is also achieved via the labour of critics, press agents, dealers, museum curators, collectors and auction houses plus the mass media who consolidate the reputation or brand of the artist. (Turning them into art stars or

celebrities.) In those cases where artists receive regular payments from dealers in return for all their output, their economic circumstances approximate more to the condition of wage-labourers (that is, workers who sell their labour-power for a certain number of hours to employers in return for a wage), It is time to define what we mean by 'commodity'. According to the account given by Marx in the first chapter of Das Kapital, commodities have a double aspect: first, they are articles of utility: physical objects existing outside of us possessing properties which satisfy human wants or needs of some sort; in short, they have usevalues; and second, they are depositories of value, that is, they can be exchanged for other commodities considered to be of equal value, or they can be exchanged for money; in short, they have exchange-values. Marx argued that the exchange-value of commodities has a purely social reality and derives from the human labour expended in their production. While all the products of human labour have usevalues, only in particular historical epochs do these products become commodities with exchange-value in terms of money. One such historical epoch is, of course, the era of bourgeois society, capitalism and the market economy. To say that works of art have use-values conflicts with a common clich about art, namely, that it is useless, a non-commercial, uneconomic activity. In my view, the received wisdom that art is useless is a myth, because it overlooks the various decorative, symbolic, ideological, political, religious functions which art serves. The idea that art is non-commercial is also a myth. The power of this myth to persist in the face of an international market in contemporary art is perhaps due in part to the non-correlation between aesthetic and monetary values: that is, there is no

necessary connection - a work of art with a high or low aesthetic value may be worth millions or it may not; both values can also vary historically and from social group to social group. In spite of the difficulties of explaining how works of art are assigned their aesthetic and monetary values, it is clear from the above that art in our present society is an economic, commercial activity. Before the development of a market in fine art objects, artists were retained by royalty and the aristocracy; often they were treated as superior household servants. Alternatively, artists were commissioned - by the Church, Kings, Princes, rich merchants, guilds, and so forth - to undertake specific tasks: a tomb sculpture, a ceiling decoration, a portrait, an altarpiece. Since the majority of such works were executed for particular patrons who wanted to possess and use the works in question, and for particular places (that is, fixed, physical settings), the resulting objects did not become commodities offered for sale in an open market, bought and sold again and again over the years for the purpose of profit. This type of transaction still persists today: a community mural is a case in point. There are other kinds of artistic activity which also resist or sidestep commodification, Performance art, for example. (For instance, the 1960s autodestructive art events of Gustav Metzger, an artist who has managed to avoid his work becoming a commodity throughout a long career.) Since in the case of a performance there is no physical object to be sold, the perfomer is usually paid a fee. When a performance is repeated night after night - as in the theatre - actors are paid a regular wage for the duration of the play's run. In this instance their economic situation vis-a-vis the theatre management is clearly an

employee/employer relationship and if the employer reaps a profit from the proceeds of ticket sales to the public, then exploitation of the actor's labour-power in the classic Marxist sense takes place. Let us now return to the topic of artworks as commodities. While the vast majority of artists prefer to exclude issues of money and business from the substance of their work, a few have addressed the commodity issue. Andy Warhol is one artist who felt no guilt or scruples about the commercial aspects of art. In the early 1960s, along with soup cans, his iconography encompassed dollar bills. Thus images of money became worth money. And since the bills depicted were of low denominations, their 'face value' inflated as Warhol's prices rose.

Andy Warhol, 200 one dollar bills, (1962). Copyright Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol/ARS New York; Silkscreen on canvas. Warhol prints money. At

Sothebys auction house in New York in November 2009 this painting was sold for $43.8 million. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Later Warhol was to declare in his autobiography: Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist ... Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art ... making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." (1 ) Warhol's lengthy, professional career testified to his ability to diversify across a range of media, to exploit publicity and to market his products in ways that many a businessman must have envied. Warhol is anathema to many critics on the left because his work appears to capitulate to the forces of commodification, industrialization, standardization and stereotyping. And there is a large measure of truth in these charges, but at least his work raises these issues, whereas the humanist figure and landscape painters (e.g. Frank Auerbach) praised by the same critics (e.g. Peter Fuller) ignore them altogether.

Julian Opie, Cash This, (1983). Oil paint on Steel. Private Collection. Photo copyright Julian Opie and Lisson Gallery. --------------------------------------------------------------------------