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Eikonomia: Notes on Economy and the Labor of Art


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Much has been said about the dangerous impact of a superficial, lifestyle-based, money-oriented culture: it has often been invoked as the explanation for why people become passive, docile, and easy to manipulate irrespective of how disadvantageous their economic conditions are. Following the illustrative critique of two eminent proponents of this criticism, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the culture of our times is endangered by the uncontrollable expansion of the culture industry into higher artistic production—manipulating the masses into passivity and cultivating false needs. “Art” that produces standardized cultural goods reflects a peculiar type of aestheticization of the everyday world: a dream-like immersion into mass-produced commodities. This immersion is equivalent to the adoption of behavioral stereotypes and tastes linked to a continuously advertised petit-bourgeois phantasmagoria, and also reflects the advanced commodification of social life.

Furthermore, this conviction has had an enormous impact on the current understanding of art as derivative of a monopolized market which functions on the same terms as the general financial market, a view that experts in art business share. What is at stake in the contemporary art field, according to so many of its critics, is that the art market, as formed in the nineteenth century, was replaced by art business in the mid-1980s, not only reflecting the fact that contemporary art has become a serious signifier of wealth, but also making visible the devastating influence of neoliberal financial doctrines and uncontrollable fiscal policies formulated by pirate capitalists and corporate lobbyists on an art system that now runs on the basis of speculation and self-promotion.

But is art’s relation to money so transparent that it can be seen solely as an heroic struggle of art against its subjection to commodification, an attempt to assert its aesthetic autonomy? The implied dialectic of the autonomy of art, a central concept in Adorno’s critique, refers to a complex condition that can only be understood through a more dialectical critique. As Peter Osborne observes, the integration of autonomous art into the culture industry is “a new systemic functionalization of autonomy itself—a new affirmative culture”—that promotes “art’s uselessness” for its own sake. Ultimately, the self-legislated “laws of form” in pure art—autonomous meaning production by the work—are an illusion. “Works of art are thus autonomous to the extent to which they produce the illusion of their autonomy. Art is self-conscious illusion.”

Let us concentrate on this point, as it allows for a further meditation on the connection between the art system, post-capitalist economic power, and official, mainstream politics. Considering how politics work, we witness first that the systemic “functionalization of autonomy” observed by Osborne can also be seen as the grounding force of the post-democratic forms of hyper-capitalism. In other words, it appears that contemporary art’s usefulness offers to contemporary politics a model of moral justification, as art, in itself, becomes synonymous with the absolute autonomization and aestheticization of both commercial pragmatism and political functionality. Art does not expose its uselessness for its own sake, but rather reflects the uselessness of neoliberal administration and, by extension, of a post-capitalist market.

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