My Bed by Tracy Emin My Bed by Tracy Emin. Photo: Andy Hay / Flickr / cropped from original / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

While some laud conceptual art as radical, its tendency is to reproduce in culture the extremities of a finance dominated capitalism, argues Tony McKenna

The modern art produced by the Young British Artists movement has, for the last few decades, sustained bitter controversy. The movement itself seems to polarise commentators in a vivid opposition. There are those who think an unmade bed or a shark pickled in formaldehyde are creations which only someone with more money than sense could regard as genuine art. And there are those who believe they are significant works in their own right, subject to ridicule precisely because they are radical, visionary and different. They are designed ‘to make you think’, as the defenders of such conceptual art will often have it.   

The Marxist analysis of the commodity form proves extremely useful in regard to this particular debate. Marx identified the two-fold nature of the commodity: its use and exchange components. The use value of an object is immanent in the process which has called it into being. In the very moment a carpenter has finished screwing in the final leg, the chair at once exhibits a use value for the simple fact it can now be sat upon. The use value is, therefore, actual.

Exchange value operates in a somewhat different fashion. The exchange value, according to Marx, does not subsist in the immediacy of the chair, and its physical properties. Instead the exchange value can only be realised through the process of exchange in the sphere of circulation. The use value is actual and immediately given, inexorably bound up with the creative process which has yielded the product. However, the exchange value exists as potentiality: it can only ‘become’ in and through a specific set of market conditions which confer upon the product a metaphysical reality, i.e. that of the price it can command.

If we gaze upon Van Gogh’s Starry Night, we at once experience it as an aesthetic use value. To put it simply, we are moved by it. We are moved because the Dutch master poured not only colours and shapes onto the canvas but also his very being. We know, of course, that this painting was eventually commoditised. You can, for instance, buy cheap reproductions in many museum gift shops across the globe. When each is sold, each has its exchange value realised: in the movement from potentiality to actuality, the exchange value is allowed to ‘become’.

Distinguishing the concrete and the relational

In his essay The Legitimacy of Modern Art, Marxist art historian, John Molyneux, attempted to argue in favour of conceptual works of art like Emin’s My Bed or Andre’s Bricks, or Duchamp’s Fountain (a urinal). However, what is most interesting is the logic which underpins Molyneux’s position. He argues that the artist’s work consists not in creating the object itself, but in realising ‘how a particular intervention such as exhibiting a urinal or line of bricks could make a meaningful point or raise significant questions.’ 

For Molyneux, it is the point at which the object enters into a specific set of social relations (an art gallery populated with spectators) which is important here. In order to back up his point, Molyneux quotes from Marx’s Capital: ‘A negro is a negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations.’ Likewise, says Molyneux, ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface … only become [my emphasis T.M] art in certain social relations.’ In other words, according to Molyneux, the art object behaves according to the logic of exchange value. It becomes art when it is situated in ‘certain social relations’. Before that it merely exists as ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface’.

And this is the source of Molyneux’s theoretical confusion. The fact of the body is a natural thing; it derives its personality, its humanity, from the set of social relations it enters into, which allow for the realisation of ‘myself’ as a philosopher or a builder or artist or slave. This was Marx’s point when discussing the slave. 

In contrast, the ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface, arrangements of words on a paper, sequences of sounds in the air etc.’ are not naturally given in the way the body is. They are things which have already been socially constituted as writing or painting or speaking or singing.

Starry Night, for instance, already embodies the human essence of the artist Van Gogh and the set of social relations his art mediates. It is not that on discovering the painting in some dank basement, it would simply present as ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface’, whereas once we see it in the Louvre, it suddenly realises itself as art. Rather, Starry Night contains its aesthetic use value immanently as a finished fact, irrespective of the ‘social conditions’ in which the work is presented. It moves us whether we encounter it in a gallery or in a basement.

This is not the case with something like Duchamp’s urinal. Its use value as an art object is not immanent in the process of its creation. If we encountered it in a public bathroom we would not recognise it as art. Rather, its ‘use-value’ as an ‘art object’ must ‘become’, i.e. can be realised as art only when placed in the context of an exhibition. It is the placement of this object in this specific social context which, according to Molyneux, means it ‘becomes art’.

Art as exchange or use

Molyneux’s theoretical confusion, therefore, lies in the fact that he understands art more generally not according to the logic of use value, but according to that of exchange value: ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface, arrangements of words on paper, sequences of sounds in the air etc., only become [my emphasis T.M] art in certain social relations.’ In actual fact, however, it is only conceptual art which tends to behave this way. Emin’s My Bed, for instance, has an aesthetic ‘value’ which can only be realised through this type of ‘becoming’. When she got out of her bed, it was not art, but when it appeared on the floor of a gallery exhibition, it at once ‘became’ so. 

This type of conceptual art would, I think, have been alien to those living in pre-capitalist societies. Imagine if, at the height of the Renaissance, if it was not the statue of David that was presented at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, but instead a large slab of stone from which a statue might have been carved. Or perhaps several slabs of stone arrayed side by side. One can imagine the surprised and dumb-struck expressions of the Florentines who had gathered to witness the great unveiling. 

One might even imagine those expressions of surprise would deepen, had Michelangelo stepped forward and announced: ‘it may not be art as you know it, but it’s definitely going to make you think.’ And it almost goes without saying that Renaissance art would have been poorer as a result. 

Such societies, however, were still largely determined by the prerogatives of use rather than exchange. In late capitalism one might make the argument that use value is to a large degree subordinated to exchange value; that exchange value becomes ever more abstracted from the use value of ‘actual things’, and more and more seems to develop an independent and fetishized existence.        

Art mirrors capitalism

One of the fundamental features of the 2007-08 economic crisis, for example, was the predominance of exchange over use, in as much as it was a crisis of finance over and against industry. Fewer manufactured goods were being produced in proportion to the creation of financial incentives such as subprime mortgages, the packages which combined these, and the subsequent speculation on such packages; all of which, in tandem, set the basis for a financial bubble.

The use value of a chair for most consumers consists in its ability to be sat upon (though, of course, it has other plausible use values: firewood, for instance). In contrast, when someone purchases a ‘package’ of subprime mortgage loans, the use value for the buyer consists in the product’s ‘ability’ to make him or her more money. In other words the use value here appears as something which accords explicitly with exchange and the reproduction of capital.  

Hence profit is accumulated from the packaging of mortgages, and the insurance on those packages, instead of the ‘use value’ which is created by the labour activity required to build houses. Consequently, no ‘new’ commodities are being generated. No new value is being created. Such financial packages are, therefore, examples of what Marx would come to refer to as ‘fictitious capital’.

Likewise, in the sphere of conceptual art, the meaning of art is increasingly abstracted from the process by which the artist creates the object through his or her artistic labour. Just like the financial speculator who does not invest in the productive activity of actually building houses, but finds those houses readymade, so too does the conceptual artist (more often than not) find the object of his or her art already given: the urinal, the selection of bricks, the dead shark or the dishevelled bed. The art activity involves rearranging or relocating what is already there, rather than creating something qualitatively new.  

Consequently the ‘art object’ behaves according to the logic of exchange; its aesthetic value is no longer bound to the productive labour which created it (use value). Rather it attains its ‘aesthetic value’ when it enters into a specific set of social conditions, i.e. when it appears in a gallery.

Hegel says somewhere that ‘essence must appear.’ Conceptual art is one appearance, at the point of culture, of the way in which the fundamental conflict between use and exchange has played out at the level of social being in its historical unfolding. The way in which industrial capital has been overwhelmed by financial capital, the way productive capital has more and more ceded to fictitious capital, and the way the logic of exchange value has come to dominate that of use value.  

For this reason, what should in many ways be little more than a spectacle or a curiosity can appear to art historians such as Molyneux as genuine examples of great art. This is precisely because the forms and structures of social existence themselves have been reformed and reformulated by the warping power of exchange value and the ghostly process of capital reproduction.

In 2008, Damien Hirst sold at auction not one work or even several ‘pieces’, but an entire exhibition. He was the first artist to do this, and his ‘product’ secured him a cool £111 million. Only a few days after, the US bank Lehman Brothers went bankrupt as the world financial crisis began to ramp up.  

There is no obvious connection between the two events but there is an underlying one. The ascension of the Young British Artists movement to its zenith and the crash of 2007-08 both represented a moment of late capitalism in terminal crisis. For what, ultimately, does an unmade bed signify? Disarray perhaps. A skull studded with diamonds? Decadence. A shark pickled in formaldehyde? Death.

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Tony McKenna

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Counterpunch, Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include; Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan); The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press); a first novel – The Dying Light (New Haven Publishing) Angels and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives (Zero Books), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art (Zero Books) and The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury). He can be reached on Twitter at @MckennaTony

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