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Art's economic exceptionalism


In Mute magazine, Josefine Wikström reviews the book Art and Value: Art’s Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics by Dave Beech. Contrary to much theoretical conventional wisdom about the economic position of art, Beech argues that art is not just another commodity, but rather one that defies certain fundamental laws of capitalist accumulation. Here’s an excerpt from Wikström’s review:

The quality of Beech’s analysis lies instead in how he places these insights alongside classical, neoclassical and not least Marxist and post-Marxist arguments about art’s commodification or subsumption. His critique of what he terms the, ‘political and economic theory of post-Fordism’ (by which he groups Italian post-Marxists such as Negri, Paulo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi) doesn’t confront their standpoints on artistic labour conceptually, for example by demonstrating how Negri’s influential expanded concept of production rests on the idea that capitalism contains its own limits. Beech does however point out the very obvious but relevant problems in their work, for example, the argument they make that the productivity of labour is tied to its quality against which Beech rightly argues that: ‘the quality or type of labour does not in itself determine its relation to the mode of production.’ (p.323) Addressing the ontologisation of so called immaterial, cognitive or creative labour, made by the above mentioned thinkers, Beech rightly argues that ‘[i]ntellectual, symbolic, affective and cultural labour is wage labour or not according to the social relations of production.’ (p.323) By confronting categories – often used within these theories as well as extended to and popularised in the context of contemporary art – such as ‘precarity’, ‘productive consumption’ and ‘real subsumption’, Beech, convincingly and clearly demonstrates how, although ‘[a]rtists on average struggle to make a living […] are creative labourers whose personality is performed in a virtuoso display’ and ‘tend to continue with their work, in some way when they leave their studio’ (p.342), artistic production – seen economically – is exceptional in that the labour involved isn’t productive in the same way as, for example, so called creative and precarious wage labourers’ labour working for a wage at a call centre or a supermarket is productive.

Image: Exhibition view of KP Brehmer, Real Capital Production.