Art, Value, and the Freedom Fetish

By Daniel Spaulding and Nicole Demby, 28 May 2015
Image: Joseph Beuys, ‘Kunst = KAPITAL’ (1979)

If art is a commodity, is it just a commodity, subject to the law of value? Or does art's distinctive process of production render it capable of a relative, and critical, independence? Daniel Spaulding and Nicole Demby explore the relations of art, value and their imbricated, but not necessarily identical, forms of ‘freedom’, urging us to think beyond the binary of art as either liberatory and subversive or uncritical captive of capital


A Clarification on Art and Value

Daniel Spaulding


The relation between art and value is the Bermuda Triangle of contemporary art theory. My remarks introduce a few basic propositions about this relation in order to clear the ground for debate.


There is an impulse among many critics, art historians, and the like to assimilate artworks to the status of commodities. In other words, the basic critical maneuver of a certain school of art interpretation is to reveal the identity of artworks and commodities, and then to trade on the evident scandal of this fact to stimulate outrage, knowing disillusionment, et cetera. The reverse of this is the claim that artworks are, at least to an extent, immune to commodification and hence that they resist capitalism. Both of these positions essentially misconstrue the status of artworks in a capitalist mode of production.


It is first necessary to insist that the production of artworks is not subject to the law of value. Artistic labor is not mediated in the same way as labor in most other sectors of capitalist production. (By artistic labor I mean, in a generic sense, any labor that goes into the making of things socially recognised as art; this would certainly include art’s immaterial manifestations.) In particular, artistic labor is not subject to the rationality of socially necessary labor time. Most commodities are exchanged in such a way that a presumed equivalence exists between them on the basis of the time needed, on average, to produce them. This equivalence is validated in the market and in turn enforces continual development of the means of production. If a given capitalist succeeds in producing a given commodity more efficiently than before (whether due to technical/organisational advances or intensified exploitation of workers), this will lower the socially necessary labor time required to produce that commodity. Other producers must then either adopt the new, more efficient means of production or else find themselves driven from the market because they are unable to lower their prices sufficiently to compete. The vast majority of commodities in the world today are produced and exchanged under these conditions: they are beholden to the value relation, which is the relation that allows commodities to exchange on the basis of the equivalent socially necessary labor time embodied in them (with the caveat that this is not a matter of a substance – value – that workers impart to the commodity in the labor process, but is rather a kind of regularity in the flux of exchange that is validated post facto, and is indeed made possible, by the use of money as a general equivalent in the marketplace). The value relation also implies that labor, under these specifically capitalist conditions, possesses a dual character: it is at once the concrete labor that goes into the making of particular things, and also the abstract labor that exchanges as equivalent in the market. In its abstract form, labor is social: it is equivalent, and thus exchangeable, with any other labor when it takes the form of the commodity. It should be clear that this notion of social labour has nothing whatsoever to do with that labor’s concrete character. Networking at art openings, let us say, is not more “social than making a widget; in fact it is quite specifically not social labor in this sense, because, to this day, no capitalist has yet extracted a single hour of surplus abstract standing-around-in-a-gallery time. Such labor may be necessary for the art world to reproduce itself, but it is not directly productive of surplus value.


Value is a specific social relation that causes the products of labor to appear and to exchange as equivalents; it is not an all-penetrating miasma. Value enjoins its own rationality upon both the production and exchange of commodities, and this rationality in turn is what I have called the law of value, the law that drives forward the technical and organisational development of capitalist production as it manifests in phenomena such as automation, labor discipline, and so forth.


This specific rationality – this specific social relation – is not operative in the production and circulation of artworks, though it is, assuredly, the background against which their exceptionality stands out. An example may clarify why this is so. Let us assume that the cost of the materials for a given painting is negligible and hence that we are only concerned with the value (supposedly) added by the artist’s labor. This painting takes, say, twenty hours to produce. If one then invents a way to produce the same kind of painting in ten hours instead, this does not necessarily mean that the value of the painting drops by half, as would be the case with most commodities. If someone were to find a way to make Gerhard Richter-type paintings twice as efficiently as the artist himself, this will not necessarily force Richter to sell his own works for half as much in order to compete, because what they actually sell for has little to no relation to their production time to begin with. There is no socially necessary labor time at stake here. There is only a set of more or less incommensurable monopoly rights. Gerhard Richter’s paintings sell for as much as they do not because they require an extraordinary investment of capital and/or labor, but because the artist possesses a monopoly on his own name. When collectors buy his work they are not paying for a commodity that might as well have been produced by anyone else (and thus, potentially, for cheaper); they are paying for the right to possess an object that bears the name Gerhard Richter. Hence the artwork behaves much like a luxury commodity, the cost of which is deducted from profits (the revenue of the capitalist class) rather than from wages. Of course in practice there are certain distortions to the schema, for instance when customer loyalty is able to maintain a price difference between a brand-name product and its generic competitor. Nonetheless the difference between the two modes is pronounced – and nowhere more so than in the case of the art market, where the difference in price between works by relatively anonymous (or emerging) artists and those by blue-chip figures is astronomically out of proportion to either labor time or prices of production.


Because the pricing of artworks is a matter of unique monopoly privileges rather than the equivalency of abstract labor (as mediated in the value-form of the commodity), the law of value is not operative in their production. There is no general social pressure to rationalise and make more efficient the production of paintings, sculptures, and so forth. Of course it may be true that individual artists feel such pressures – they may hire assistants or even organise their studios along quasi-industrial lines in response. However this does not change the fact that at the level of society as a whole there is no such thing as socially necessary artistic labor time. Although artworks circulate in the same general economy and are exchanged for the same general equivalent – money – as any other commodities, there is in their case a fundamental break between the sphere of production and the sphere of circulation, a break that simply does not exist in sectors where the law of value imposes its authority in the form of constant rationalisation. (Though it is true that such breaks inevitably appear, at a general social level, in the normal course of capitalist development: this is what is known as a crisis, an inability to maintain the link between production and circulation, or in other words, between the exploitation of labor labor and the realisation of profits. Because of this, one could perhaps describe art as crisis at a standstill.)


The sphere of art production can therefore be defined as dependent on the market but not subsumed to capitalist production (though even here there are wrinkles, because patronage rather than market relations remain far more common in the art world than in other productive sectors). There is, in short, no real subsumption of art to capital.


In capitalist society, the boundary of the category of art itself is, to a large extent, drawn along this line: things that escape the law of value are, or potentially can be designated as, art, whereas things that obey capitalist rationalisation are more unambiguously commodities, even if a great deal of aesthetic consideration goes into them. This is why a painting by a named and known artist is not the same as a painting in a bin at IKEA: the former is not subsumed to capitalist production, whereas the latter is subsumed not only formally but in a real sense, that is, its production process has been reorganised by capital in order to better suit its own imperatives, rather than simply being appropriated from a different mode of production (an artisanal mode, for example). The division between art and non-art does not derive from medium or technique – photography, for example, shows up on either side of the ledger – although it is certainly true that art sometimes preserves techniques, such as oil painting, that have otherwise been left stranded by the development of society’s productive forces.


I do not intend to grant any special privilege to artworks vis-à-vis other cultural products, such as films, that are produced in a way that is really subsumed to capital; in fact the entire question of whether commercial arts (or, on the other side, crafts) count as art is otiose in the present context, since I am only describing a logic that has long since been validated by the very existence of the art world as a separated sphere. There is no judgment of aesthetic superiority at stake here. There is, however, an important conceptual distinction to be made. By the same measure, I want to emphasise that there is nothing inherently subversive about art’s status under capitalism. Art is autonomous in the sense that it has its own forms of self-mediation: in the capitalist era these have included the discourse of art-in-general, or art as a category independent from any of its particular material manifestations (Duchamp is perhaps the first to accede to this generic level); the discourse of medium (art’s self-mediation on the grounds of its physical substrate); the discourse of utopianism, or art as the prefiguration of a more just social order; or the discourse of expression, or the mediation of form by deep psychic necessity. The self-mediating autonomy of art proceeds, however, under the sign of more general patterns of social reproduction, which are determined by the form of value. Almost all of us, in other words – artists included – must abide by the rules of capitalist exchange in order to survive, that is, in order to sell our own labor power and to buy the products that keep us alive. The special sphere of artistic production is as much within capitalism as any other and does not in itself have any particular political efficacy; it is, simply, one of the possibilities that capitalism provides for (indeed the emergence of art as such is profoundly linked to the separation of spheres initiated by the advent of capitalism; art is not recognisable as a separate– autonomous, self-consistent – practice until it is set apart from a different logic, namely that of the capital relation). There is nothing politically interesting about art per se; what is interesting is what art does and what can be done with it.


There is, nonetheless, a certain instability built into the modern institution of art due to its non-coincidence with the dominant mode of production. Art history has very much to do with the description of this instability. Because art is neither directly subsumed to capital, nor entirely outside of capitalist relations, a degree of mimetic elasticity has always been the hallmark of the aesthetic in the so-called modern period. These mimetic relations between art and other mechanisms of social reproduction are the substance of art history; they are constantly changing and immensely complex, and hence the extremely abstract presentation I have delivered in this text does not get us very far in the description of art as something more than a category, a box to be checked in the inventory of capitalist social forms. Real, historical artworks are, by contrast, rather intransigent things. They bear traces not only of their determination by capital – which is itself entirely historical, although it assumes a logical character that appears to be transhistorical – but also of any number of more contingent factors.


By art I therefore understand the sedimentation, in aesthetic form, of historically specific relations, one of which is art’s self-relation (autonomy). The autonomy-relation is never the only relation in play, but it is the relation that gives art its consistency as an institution of capitalist society; autonomy is a sort of collateral that allows art its exceptional relational fluidity. Art history is then the critical reconstruction of the historical dialectic between the autonomy-relation and those other social forms and relations that do not merely impinge on art, but which rather – whether negatively or positively – determine its form. All of this makes up the historically specific ontology of given artistic practices. I must of course emphasise that the mediation between aesthetic form and social form is very rarely direct; the one does not reflect the other. Aesthetic mediation is instead characterised by a degree of metaphorical and mimetic flexibility – not quite free play – that is excluded from the more strictly rationalised spheres of capitalist society (the labor process, the market, etc.). This by no means indicates that art is therefore necessarily a realm either of atavism or resistance. It is just as much a product of modern social relations as anything else. But it does obey different necessities, as I hope to have demonstrated in my remarks on value above.



Art and the Freedom Fetish: Some thoughts on art and the state after 1945

Nicole Demby



Critics and art historians have often considered the evolution of the work of art after WWII as running parallel to determinative shifts in the development of capitalism.  Spectacle, the culture industry, or the consequences for art of what Marxists would call the real subsumption of labor under capital are overlapping heuristics used to begin to understand the aesthetic effects of the artwork’s increasing contiguity with the commodity form.  Yet too often these schemas are deployed such that the critic is left to focus on the contents of the work of art on the one hand, while lamenting its general lapse into the banalising regime of commodity on the other — forced to choose between looking at artworks in bad faith or admitting them as a politically guilty pleasure.  This affective split overlooks the contingency of the symbolic forms art takes under this regime.  It elides the different moments in which art’s value appears — what Arjun Appadurai might call the stages of commoditisation — that mediate the ways in which art comes to mean at any given moment of its circulation.[1]  As a recent article, Notes on Marxist Art History, explains, the commodity relation may be the most abstract, and thus the most totalising, captur[ing] and recod[ing] other relations according to a sort of viral logic, yet this does not preclude the existence of other, less totalising relations configurations of subjects and objects not immediately governed by the logic of the value-form, and which are, as such, important for understanding the particular forms of these entities within the reality of capital-as-totality.  So we ask, how does capital act on art, and through what intermediaries?  Which subjectivities are extinguished in order that capital might assert its autonomy?[2]  What kinds of subjectivities are reinforced once it has?



The modern state is one crucial form that mediates capitalist relations even as it is also derived from them.[3]  The state aligns itself with art’s value in particular ways, reconfiguring art after its own image.  Perhaps this seems counterintuitive; thinking the connection between art and the state today with the proliferation of liberal democratic state forms, in the age of culture’s globalization, given the wane of governmental funding for the arts may feel like an anachronism.  The very question seems to beckon for something more like Art and the State, or some unrecognizable socialist transformation of both those things.[4]  And yet, by the expedient use of art as an engine of urban capital concentration, or by the national inscription of regional culture as heritage through legitimating vehicles of international recognition, the nation-state implicates art in its logic. These modes of mediation premise themselves on art construed as at once a priceless and universal good, and one subject to proprietary laws.



The appeal to a good beyond value constructs art as a reserve away from the immediacy of capitalist relations (sometimes taking the form of an actual, manufactured distance from these relations via institutions). It draws on art’s structural existence as a unique kind of entity apart from the economic logic of the commodity, yet tends to reformulate this provisional gap as a sanctioned zone of freedom.[5] Art becomes a realm of abstract representation in which new subjectivities can hypothetically be imagined on par with capital’s own capacity to imagine them. In the boundedness of this zone at its outer peripheries by the constraints of capitalist sociability, art acts as a container for this freedom. It is this art that resonates with the imaginary that serves as the symbolic and legal analogue to the capitalist state. Art under capitalism is a good model of the freedom that posits the subject as an abstract bundle of legal rights assuring formal equality while ignoring a material reality determined by other forms of systematic inequality.



According to Marx, the bourgeois state exists to preserve the formal equality of its citizens so that each may alienate his property equally and without impediment through acts of exchange transacted between private individuals. In The General Theory of Law and Marxism, Evgeny Pashukanis argues that the legal subject is nothing less than an elevated form emerging from this exchange imperative, a sanctification of a particular relationship of people as managers of productsthat ensures the repeated acts of acquisition and alienation necessary for the propagation of capitalism: the sphere of domination, which has assumed the form of a subjective right, is a social phenomenon which is attributed to the individual on the same basis as which value, also a social phenomenon, is attributed to an object, to a product of labour. Commodity fetishism is complemented by legal fetishism. With the increasing division of labor under capitalism and the suffusion of more and more of life by the commodity relation, this legal subjectivity becomes more and more abstract. The free and equal will of the commodity owner becomes more and more a purely social quality belonging to the individual. The legal subject becomes a mathematical point, a centre in which a certain sum of rights is concentrated.[6] 



Due to geographically unique historical conditions that have conditioned capitalism’s discrepant unfolding around the globe, the abstract imaginary of the free citizen is more dominant in some states than in others. It is most obviously weakest in non-democratic countries, complexly mitigated in postcolonial states characterized by the administration of mass populations (as Partha Chatterjee describes in The Politics of the Governed), and self-consciously strongest in the liberal democracies of America and Europe.[7] Nonetheless, this imaginary functions as an indispensable regulative myth in powerful nation states where meritocratic ideals of equal opportunity enable the continued oppression (economic and otherwise) of disposable populations, and on an international stage in which the rhetoric of liberal humanism is intimately bound up with the imperative to expand and secure markets. The praxis of governance veers everywhere from the ideal of a society composed of equal, rights bearing citizens, yet the fantasy continues to shape the liberal ideologies that compel globalization.  Likewise, while specific relationships of art and state inhere within different countries with these relations sometimes actively militating against freedom as the still very real existence of state censorship and repression makes clear the globalized spaces of the art world tend to uniformly construe art as a liberalizing force and a humanist vehicle of cultural transmission.[8]



Liberalism transmutes art into a timeless and inviolable realm of cultural expression.  This formation is related to what Peter Bürger calls the bourgeois realm of autonomous art, an aesthetic sphere for bourgeois self-understanding removed from everyday life that posits this freedom as the unchanging essence of art. In this conception, the formal progression of Western art is both teleological and divorced from history, the product of Oedipal overcoming or individual psychological reaction or the whim of genius. Similarly, the liberal state rests on the revisionist fiction of the a priori existence of inalienable, universal human rights rights that did not emerge historically so much as they were erroneously transgressed by an immature homo politicus when he failed to see the fundamental endowment of his racialised/female/landless others. Yet despite the generic connection between bourgeois art and bourgeois rights, there is not some historically fixed state that latches onto some historically fixed conception of art, but a dynamic parallelism that shifts as states and artworks themselves are reconfigured. 



With the expansion of the contemporary art world, recognizable art infrastructures have increasingly come to take a monolithic, global form: the MoMA, the MOCA, the art fair, the biennial, etc. Evoking a colonial logic that brought the ethnic and cultural character of the colonies into relief through administrative intervention (and invention), nationality as a visible category is both deconstructed and reaffirmed across these institutions (it tends to be the more market oriented ones that reentrench notions of nationhood most, often constructing national histories as a means of assisting the development of emerging markets). In a less market-mediated realm, countries vie to formalise their national heritage through international institutions such as UNESCO. These processes (which together comprise what is known as the globalisation of the art world) do not enervate the category of nation, but are party to its restructuring in exogenous, performative terms oriented toward global markets and institutions.



This congruity of form regulating difference of content is related to a legal regime in which official cultural recognition is often a substitute for economic justice.  The nation state can incorporate more and more divergent content, which it renders functionally subservient to the forms of its own appearance, reconfiguring dissent under the guise of the nation’s self-understanding of its freedom.  This is evident in myriad different ways from instances of cultural appropriation as disparate as the French state’s nationalisation of Guy Debord’s archives (on the grounds that the works of this contemporary French thinker represents a national treasure), or countries’ valorization of the cultures of indigenous peoples whose land they simultaneously appropriate to instances in the legal realm of formal recognition.  In both realms, states affirm histories of oppression and diaspora in which they were often primary or complicit actors, recuperating these histories as testaments to their own liberal tolerance. 



What would it mean to see art not despite, but also without denying, these dynamic affiliations and recodings? Such nuanced vision would be capable of holding multiple registers of value in sight at once, and would beg us to situate our own investment or disinvestment in art without lapsing into a binary whereby art is either subversive and liberatory, or deviously captured beyond critical consideration. At the very least, in a moment when freedom of speech is being affirmed with renewed vigor, we should not unqualifiedly assume art’s capacity to speak truth to power, to question our cherished cultural norms and what we hold “sacred",  but must instead consider the persistence of this ideal, and be vigilant in parsing its relationships to contemporary modalities of power. [9]


An earlier version of this essay appeared in the catalogue for Irregular Rendition, an exhibition at the Giampietro Galllery (New Haven, Connecticut) curated by Lucy Hunter as part of ‘The Legal Medium’ conference at the Yale Law School




[1] Arjun Appadurai, 'Introduction: commodities and the politics of value', in The Social Life of Things; Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge, 1986, pp. 3-63.

[2] Night Workers, “Notes on Marxist Art History”, Third Rail Quarterly 3 (2014): 36-39, accessed January 3, 2015,

[3] The nature of this derivation was debated extensively by German neo-Marxists in the 1970s.  See State and Capital: A Marxist Debate, ed. John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, London: Edward Arnold, 1978.

[4] …the dream of which died nearly a century ago with the rise of Stalin to power, or perhaps even earlier, with the Soviet state’s adoption of the New Economic Policy. 

[5] As Peter Bürger explains, ‘in the strict meaning of the term, "autonomy" is thus an ideological category that joins an element of truth (the apartness of art from the praxis of life) and an element of untruth (the hypostatization of this fact, which is a result of historical development as the ‘essence; of art).’ Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.46

[6] Evgeny Bronislavovich Pashukanis, The General Theory of Law and Marxism, trans. Barbara Einhorn, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2002, p.39

[7] Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed

[8] Two high profile cases of repression that have made sparked protest from the international art community in the past few years are Ai Weiwei’s detention in China and, more recently, Tanya Bruguera’s in Cuba. In very recent events, last week police closed down the functioning mosque artist Christoph Büchel had created in the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, suggesting the degree to which Islam is perceived as an inadmissible threat to liberal values (one seen as immediately imperiling nationhood in the form of immigration and extremism).  A few weeks ago, two well-known artists whose work has been popular in UAE art circuits, Walid Raad and Ashok Sukumaran, were banned from entering that country, a denial undoubtedly resulting from their public activism against the exploitative labor conditions affecting workers contracted to construct the Guggenheim and NYU’s Abu Dhabi outposts.  Such acts of intolerance betray the circumscribed and abstract nature of the freedom inherent in the art world’s culture of liberalism. A statement from Gulf Labor, an activist group of which Sukumaran and also recently banned NYU professor Andrew Ross are a part, reads: “We ask how, under such conditions, can the Guggenheim and institutions like NYU, the Louvre and the British Museum, still claim or imagine that they are advancing ‘knowledge and the understanding of culture through the arts,’ in the Gulf.” (

[9] These quotes are from the press for the 32nd Social Research conference at the New School, February 2015.  The conference was entitled 'The Fear of Art' and featured Ai Weiwei as its keynote speaker. 


Daniel Spaulding <daniel.spaulding AT yale DOT edu> is a doctoral candidate in the Department of the History of Art at Yale


Nicole Demby <nicoledemby AT gmail DOT com> is a PhD student in the History of Art Department at Yale