Art’s Economic Exceptionalism

By Josefine Wikström, 12 November 2015
Image: KP Brehmer, Real Capital Production, 1974

Whilst left critiques habitually relate art to capitalist commodification, few do this on strictly economic grounds, let alone cogently. Josefine Wikström argues that finally we do have a book that fulfills exactly this task


In his 1978 seminars on Karl Marx’s Grundrisse Antonio Negri famously constructed an expanded concept of ‘production.’ Not restricted to Marx’s understanding of it as a specific historical mode through which capital reproduces itself, production, in Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, comes to mean something more akin to a creative productive force of life in general. Transposed onto the context of art in his later writings, art – like life in general – is understood to be as subsumed as all living labour under capitalist production. Within a different tradition of Marxism, György Lukács, in the 1920s placed art and cultural production under the sign of ‘reification’ to emphasise its commodified character within capitalist production. In diametrically opposite ways and for different conceptual and political reasons, both Negri and Lukács’ understandings of art rest on its complicity with ‘capitalist society’ (Lukács) or its inseparability from ‘life’ (Negri) and therefore upon its entanglement with categories such as ‘commodification’ and ‘subsumption’.


In his new book, Art and Value: Art’s Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics, Dave Beech, opposes both these positions by arguing that art, at its base, is economically exceptional. Art, Beech contends, is not as subsumed to capitalist production as other areas and is not a commodity like all others within a capitalist society. Too often, Beech argues, art’s subsumption to the value-form and processes of commodification – are simply taken for granted rather than being economically investigated. This, he explains, does not just go for post-Marxism in its melancholic Frankfurt School version or in its Italian vitalist form, but also for neoclassical, or so called ‘cultural’, economics. The latter, by rationalising market forces makes ‘economic exceptionalism [..] nothing but the result of internal inconsistencies within classical price theory.’ (p.104) The task is then to ask ‘in what ways precisely art is subjected to or remains free from economic rationality and how exactly art enters or resists commodification.’ (p.10)


Beech argues for art’s exceptionalism by tracing the relationship between the idea of ‘exceptionalism’ – a modern term, but a concept which ‘was developed as early as the eighteenth century’ (p.22) to describe products and processes of production which don’t abide to the general laws of capitalist production – and art in the context of classical, neoclassical and Marxists economics. Adam Smith, like other classical economists of his time, set out to ‘establish economic laws, in part, by showing what is exempt from them, and art is one of the key exceptions.’(p.64) Art, similarly to products like rare wine and antique goods, does not follow the general laws of economic production, mainly because it cannot be reproduced in the same way as other commodities. As a result, ‘prices cannot be regulated by the variation of supply in relation to demand.’ (p.89)

KP Brehmer, Real Capital Production, 1974


If Smith, Ricardo and other classical economists, understood art and other unique goods to be economically exceptional because of their incapacity to reproduce themselves according to the general theory of labour, neoclassical economists rationalise – or even ‘hegemonise’ or ‘ontologise’ – market mechanisms. As a result, art and culture – like anything else – is situated within the immanence of the market functioning like any other commodity. The main reason being that the ‘neoclassical doctrine rejects exceptionalism in the same breath ‘that it rejects the labour theory of value.’ (p.99)


Beech’s main critique of neoclassical and later, neoliberal and so called cultural economists is their incapacity to provide real arguments against the labour theory of value. Through detailed readings of mainstream economics on art and culture, Beech confronts arguments made by economists such as George Stigler and Gary Becker, who contend that the consumption of artworks should be seen as a form of productive consumption.


If listening to music, visiting art galleries, reading literature, attending the theatre and so on increases time spent on such activities, not just increasing its productivity or reducing its cost, then Stigler and Becker construct their alternative economic account without explaining the key issue that triggered the debate.’ (p.113)


Effectively, Beech demonstrates how neoclassical categories such as ‘marginal utility’, ‘human capital’ and ‘consumer sovereignty’ – through which neoclassical economics have attempted to argue against art’s exceptionalism – do not stand, when actually tested. Beech also rightly argues that ‘cultural’ or neoliberal economics, by turning everything economic is in a ‘peculiarly weak position for thinking about art’s economic exceptionalism.’ (p.181)

KP Brehmer, Trends in World Markets (Paris-Germany), 1976


Beech also demonstrates how ‘cultural economics’ in the 1980s and 1990s developed in and against Keynisian ideas of social welfare and the funding of art and culture. This is argued against the backdrop of two chapters in which Beech convincingly problematises the funding of art and its relation to the market through an account of the establishment of the Art’s Council of Great Britain – its founder and first chair being, significantly, John Maynard Keynes – in 1946, as well as parallel developments in the US in the 1960s.


What drew the attention of economics to study art on a significant scale, I would suggest, is the inauguration, implementation and growth of the state funding of the arts. Under this hegemony, the central doctrines of neoliberal economic thought become the horizon for cultural economics which sets out to ‘prove’ that the arts are normal or near normal economic activities and/or goods.(p.159)


The second half of Beech’s study is dedicated to a reading of Marx and in particular to his account of productive labour, primarily as it can be found in the three volumes of Capital and in the Grundrisse. Through a careful analysis of art’s production and circulation process Beech demonstrates the exceptionality of art production. For example, by pointing out how art production does not conform to wage labour in the same way that other forms of production do; that gallerists should be understood as merchant capitalists rather than productive capitalists; that finance capital is heavily dependent on wage labour; and that the art market – despite its speculative character – is only relatively productive.


For anyone who has engaged with Marx’s work thoroughly – and knows that the strength of his critique of capitalism is precisely that it is a critique, i.e. that it demonstrates how capitalism is a specific and historical mode of production – Beech’s argument does not bring anything new to the table. Categories like ‘productive’ and ‘abstract labour’ are in Marx’s work relational, or perhaps better put, ‘social.’ Whether labour is productive or not is dependent on its relation to wage labour and the production of surplus value. This is why art production, like other marginal forms of production, only produce surplus value relatively and marginally compared with other sectors. They are, in that sense, not really subsumed.


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.

KP Brehmer, Soul and Feelings of a Worker, 1978-80


Beech’s focus on cultural economics’ rationalisation and attack on art as a public good and the way it fails in recognising art’s exceptionality, is politically the most important aspect of his book, not the least since policy making about art and culture is based on these theories. This approach also demonstrates a clear symbiosis between the rise of cultural theory and of cultural economics. In the former terms such as ‘meaning’, ‘sign’ and ‘referent’ even out concepts and categories like ‘art’, ‘form’ and ‘construction’. As a consequence this view simply sees ‘art’ as any form of meaning production. In the latter nothing escapes the the sphere of the ‘economic.’ As such Beech’s method is first and foremost critical – in its Kantian meaning – in that he investigates the limits of capitalist production generally and art production more specifically, rather than naturalising them under signs such as ‘the cultural’ or ‘the economic.’


But the main problem with the book is also its main achievement: its purely – almost religious – attempt to understand ‘art’ through what Beech repetitively calls ‘the economic’, i.e. whether art abides to or deviates from the capitalist mode of production. As an attack on cultural economics’ naturalisation of pricing and market laws and on the sweeping and post-structuralist-influenced arguments by Negri and others on everything’s immanent subsumption to capital, Beech’s economic fills a real gap in the literature. Where it fails, in my opinion, is in explaining how art is not merely economically but also formally exceptional and how the two are inseparable in art. The question of how art negates or mediates its relative subsumption to the law of value is never dealt with. The fact that the value-form is a social form – something that art both affirms and negates – is ignored in Beech’s account. Beech’s argument is that art is economically exceptional. And although he does not claim that art is exceptional in any other way or try to make any other argument, he runs the risk of reducing art precisely to the ‘economic’ or to the ‘cultural’ by investigating only its economic aspect. One of Marx’s fundamental contributions was that he expanded the disciplines of politics, philosophy and economics – by reading capitalist production transdisciplinarily – through concepts such as ‘mediation’, ‘social form’ and ‘practice.’ By holding on to art as only economically exceptional Beech doesn’t give an account of that ‘art’ became and still (although let’s see for how long) functions as ‘art’, not only because it placed itself inside, yet in negation to, the market, but also because it – through its form and the way it mediates itself – negates empirical reality. By ignoring how artworks formally also negate not just the market but empirical reality more broadly, Beech’s argument of art’s economic exceptionalism, also only really works if applied to Western capitalist societies. Contemporary art stands in direct debt to practices undertaken by artists in the Soviet Union such as the constructivists where the relation between art, the market and productive labour was more complex and needs to be taken into account.


By missing out on how art’s economic exceptionalism cannot be thought in separation from art’s, let’s say, ‘formal exceptionalism’, Beech, in addition, doesn’t thoroughly confront many of the Marxists theories that he rejects. Beech is completely right that most of Marxist theory on culture and art is precisely that, cultural rather than economic. Beech is right in that these theories – still blooming in art history departments today – often assert accounts of commodification of art yet this ‘assertion is never sufficiently tested through an economic analysis of the process by which art might in principle be commodified’. (p.233) It is in a way, a relief, to have it spelled out so bluntly and directly. At the same time, and similarly to the ways in which Beech’s critique of so called post-Fordist theories never gets to the bottom of important concepts like ‘production’ which these theories are based on, Beech does not closely confront, for example, Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the culture industry and how it might relate to Adorno’s later writings such as Aesthetic Theory which Beech, leaves out of his analysis. Considering that the latter was the first serious attempt to think art precisely in its modern and therefore capitalist form, this is a bit of a mystery. Although Adorno does not explicitly point towards the labour process and production of art, his argument, like Beech’s, is that, art relates to the market and to productive labour only negatively.


The pedagogical and dry tone of Beech’s argument of art’s economic exceptionality is necessary in times when art institutions and book shops flourish with sexy descriptions of how art – like life in general – apparently fully abides to the laws of capital and that all we can do is to find ways in which to ‘corrupt’, ‘overturn’ and ‘sabotage’ from within this perversion. Yet, as much as this book should be placed by the till in bookshops next to bestsellers on how to strategically become a successful artist, Beech’s purely economic approach to art, downplaying the way in which contemporary art mediates itself, sometimes stands in the way of the otherwise important arguments it makes.




Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics, Boston: Brill, 2015.


Josefine Wikström is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University. In her thesis, supervised by professor Peter Osborne, she investigates the concept of performance within contemporary art and from the standpoint of concepts of labour in Marx, Adorno and other thinkers. Josefine Wikström teaches at DOCH, Goldsmiths University and Kingston University. She also writes for Afterall, MAY Revue, Frieze, Philosophy and Photography and Performance Research Journal