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.