Art and Value

Tate Modern Launch The Damien Hirst Retrospective

Review of Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics

by Jasper Bernes and Daniel Spaulding, RP 195 (Jan/Feb 2016) 

Dave Beech’s fundamental claim is that art is not a standard commodity. Art is, rather, ‘exceptional’, in the sense that its production, circulation and consumption follow patterns that are aberrant from the perspective of capital accumulation. The authors of the present review are in complete agreement with this claim. Indeed, after reading the book, we find it hard to imagine how anyone could not be. It suffices to observe – as Beech does, at length – that works of art are not produced as a result of the outlay of capital, that artists are not wage-labourers, and that the market price of art commodities is not established through competition as it is with other commodities. The case for art’s exceptional status vis-à-vis typical commodity production therefore seems open and shut. Alas, the (art) world is not so simple. Confusion reigns on this point, even – or especially – among Marxists.

Beech’s accomplishment is to have irrefutably demonstrated artistic production’s difference from capitalist production, and to have done so in a text that is distinguished by a higher level of erudition than anything heretofore published on the topic. Art and Value is the definitive retort to congeries of speculation on the commodity character of art – a morass, to be sure, in which a basic handle on the critique of political economy goes a long way towards clearing the air. This is terrain where even specialists lose their way. Consider a 2012 article in the online journal nonsite.org by the literary scholar Nicholas Brown, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Real Subsumption under Capital’. The title gives the game away, of course. And the first sentence makes it explicit: ‘Whatever previous ages might have fancied, we are wise enough to know that the work of art is a commodity like any other.’

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