back to

e-flux conversations

Neo-Materialism, Part I: The Commodity and the Exhibition

It is perfectly understandable that the dandy, the man who is never ill at ease, would be the ideal of a society that had begun to experience a bad conscience with respect to objects. What compelled the noblest names of England, and the regent himself, to hang on every word that fell from Beau Brummell’s lips was the fact that he presented himself as the master of science that they could not do without. To men who had lost their self-possession, the dandy, who makes of elegance and the superfluous his raison d’être, teaches the possibility of a new relation to things, which goes beyond both the enjoyment of their use-value and the accumulation of their exchange value. He is the redeemer of things, the one who wipes out, with his elegance, their original sin: the commodity.

—Giorgio Agamben

In recent years, in addition to critiques of the market and of the cycles of exploitation enacted by commodity exchange, a new set of sensibilities has been introduced in critical contemporary art, dealing with the ways in which the commodity and its surrounding economy activate us. One can say that the commodity is only really true to itself as art, and thus the exhibition becomes a format that enables us to see the commodity as it is. In order to understand objects, we must first acknowledge that every artwork is first and foremost a commodity.

In his three-part essay “Art and Thingness,” Sven Lütticken examines the art object as a transient object subjected to commodification through a series of processes. Among the many virtues of the text is how Lütticken points out a shift in the object right from the start: “‘Things’ are no longer passively waiting for a concept, theory, or sovereign subject to arrange them in ordered ranks of objecthood.” To my mind, however, this impressive survey neglects to examine the commodity as an entity prior to the art object, as the thing that precedes any object, including art objects.

Read the full article here.