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Is art really a commodity like any other?


In the current issue of Radical Philosophy, Jasper Bernes and Daniel Spaulding review the book Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics by Dave Beech. Bernes and Spaulding praise Beech for convincingly arguing, contrary to much twentieth-century Marxist writing on art, that art is not just another commodity. However, Bernes and Spaulding faults Beech for inadequately explaining why art is exceptional in this way. An excerpt:

For Beech, a Marxist account of art’s exceptionalism means testing art’s economics against a series of normative categories found in the pages of Capital (such as wage-labour, commodity, real subsumption, capital), rather than developing a full exposition of the dynamic of a capitalist economy as it interacts (or fails to) with exceptional art economies. For example, although Beech discusses the luxury status of art commodities and the fact that they are paid for out of revenue earned from the exploitation of labour, he misses the opportunity to think systematically about the relationship between art and accumulation. Given that the money spent on art is money withheld from reinvestment in surplus-value-generating sectors of the economy, does art consumption act as a drag on accumulation? Or, alternatively, does it provide an outlet for surplus value unable to be invested profitably, for instance, in conditions of overaccumulation? This lack of a focus on dynamics means that Beech can argue, convincingly, that art is exceptional, but he can’t really tell us why. What is missing is an emphasis on the very competitive forces that are at the heart of the classical theory of art’s exceptionalism, and which Beech apparently abjures for not being sufficiently production-centric. Yet capitalism involves a particular kind of production, a production for market, in which market prices and competition from other producers compel capitalists to engage in continuous cost-cutting practices – extending and intensifying and mechanizing labour – as a matter of survival. As capital – and with it labour – is moved from line of production to line of production, seeking out the best rate of return, a continual process of heightened exploitation is enforced. None of these dynamics is operative in the case of art economics, since each artist is effectively a self-contained line of production, incapable of being undersold by anyone else. No one can produce Gerhard Richter paintings except Gerhard Richter or his proxies. Even if one of Richter’s assistants were to produce a painting that is identical to an authentic Richter, she would not be able to sell it under her own name for anything approaching Richter’s prices (as Beech himself notes in an illuminating discussion of artists’ assistants). The right to produce and sell ‘a Richter’ is Richter’s alone. This is not a natural feature of art, but rather a historical one: it depends on notions of authorship and the uniqueness of the artwork that have emerged only in the last few centuries. Beech seems to take it as a priori that art (or more accurately, artistic labour) cannot be subsumed to capital. True enough, in practice. However, this fact is not an explanation of art’s exceptional status, but is rather the historical anomaly that remains to be explained. It is this historical work that Beech is unable or unwilling to do.


it’s an asset, duh…


The thing that artworks and assets have in common is that they both appreciate in value over time. Not all artworks appreciate in value in this way. And when they do, it is not due to the same processes and mechanisms as assets. Actually, art operates like an asset for investors although not a particular good one (art is used for diversification not for its strong performance as an asset) but it is an exceptional asset. Assets are different from commodities insofar as they are not goods or products themselves but are typically certificates, bonds, shares and so on. Artworks are the products themselves not certificates. Also, assets yield income whereas artworks don’t. The owners of artworks do not receive an income from owning it.


But if the stated objective of the book is to show that art is exceptional, how can you fault it for not achieving an objective, which it did not stipulate i.e. show why art is exceptional, which may well require a new work altogether, since it is a different project. Also to suggest that art’s exceptional status is not conditioned by its historical journey anomalous or otherwise, seems odd…


commodities (the normative and generally accepted economic definition) are kinds of assets that are fungible, that is, they have a high level of standardization so that one object can be replaced for like; they are, in theory, interchangeable goods and services, by definition. Assets more generally are real property that should, in theory, have positive value (if its negative, its called a liability, and yes, art can be a liability :wink: ) and could be exchanged for cash, however, they do not automatically bare liquid cash flow, and cannot be exchanged for like, ie, a typical asset such as a house does not present income/profit except at point of sale and not as a matter of simple ownership over time. Likewise, one cannot simply trade one house for the next, evenly. That said, positive value could be leveraged into, in the case of a house, a loan. Like loans, certificates, bonds, shares, options, etc., are, when owned, an asset class normally refereed to as ‘financial instruments’, which on occasion have things like dividends (income) as part of the contractual agreements related to the interest and other rules defined by the instrument itself–this is not standardized. If you are managing a larger portfolio, that does include some artworks (which is the scale they are ostensibly talking about here with multimillion dollar paintings) holding some liabilities could make sense to offset things like taxes on other assets, instruments, etc…. depending on how good your account and lawyer is. You are correct, art is an exceptional asset of its own class, however, expensive artworks exist in an unregulated market which basically allows for various forms of manipulation… often, but not limited to, repackaging the potential liquid value of the work ‘if it were sold’ (mark to market accounting, usually twined with price-fixing). This is not the sin qua non of why prices go up, but there are some very tangible incentives for how high roller art can function as a part of or as a mechanism for what is called private wealth management…which also includes things like tax sheltering and laundering—which is the real pickle, at present, how fancy do you want accounting to be? The question of authorship deals with brands and trademarks in general as well, and the question is not only if a Richter has a ‘stamp’ on it…even like Richters are not evenly exchangeable, ie, they don’t qualify as commodities even when official. If we’re on the lower-end of the scale, it’s just a ‘good’ usually called a ‘collectable’.


I think we are in some agreement that artworks are neither standard commodities nor standard assets. The obvious fact that artworks are exchanged through a market for money does not mean that they operate as commodities in the way that other goods do, and their crazy prices are a clue to their economic exceptionalism. Similarly, just because artworks are included within investment portfolios does not prove that they simply are assets or that they are best understood economically as assets. They are anomalous assets at the very least. What I would dispute, however, is that authorship is best understood in terms of brands and trademarks. This is perhaps a powerful metaphor but it is not an accurate economic analysis of how artists’ names are attached to the products of their studios. At the lower end of the scale, actually, artists’ names are still attached to their products.