Art, Unproductive Labour and Singularity

The distinction between productive and unproductive labour was derived by Marx from Adam Smith. Smith’s theory was flawed, although we should credit him for making the politically loaded point that the ‘sovereign’ and “all the officers of justice and war who serve under him, the whole army and navy, are unproductive labourers”. Smith’s definition of unproductive labour still stands today: labour not exchanged with capital but directly exchanged with revenue.

There is no such thing as productive or unproductive labour in itself. Making material things is no more productive than providing services, information or fulfilling the reproduction of the means of production. Alfred Marshall, the grandfather of Neoclassical economics, argued that the distinction between productive and unproductive labour was a mistake, since even ‘services’ produce utility (satisfaction) for the consumer that purchases it. Marshall, thus, did not understand the distinction that Smith had made. The difference between productive and unproductive labour is the difference between labour that produces profits and labour that consumes revenue.

Smith’s illustration of the contrasting ways in which the capitalist paid two kinds of wages, one to the workers in a business enterprise, and the other to domestic servants in their homes, retains its clarity. In Marxist terms, the former was productive because it produced surplus-labour and the latter unproductive because it did not.

If we retain our focus on artistic labour, rather than its products, the test of Smith’s definition of unproductive labour provides clear results, I think. Is artistic labour exchanged with capital or directly exchanged with revenue? Since artists are not wage-labourers employed by capitalists, but own their means of production as well as the products that they produce, we are forced to conclude that artistic labour is unproductive labour even if certain capitalists, such as gallerists, dealers and later in the process, investors, earn a profit from trade in the products of artistic labour.

This shows up yet another abnormality in artistic production. Whereas most luxury goods are produced within the capitalist mode of production with productive labour, artistic products, which are not produced with productive labour and are not ‘produced as commodities’, nevertheless are luxury goods. Normally, productive labour produces products that are sold as luxury goods, while unproductive labour – services of various kinds – is the luxury good itself. Art is unusual: unproductive labour that is not a luxury in itself but produces luxuries without first producing commodities.

Negri is right that “art is the anti-market to the extent that it opposes the multitude of singularity to uniqueness reduced to a price”. We can put this into classic Marxist language very easily. Art is concrete labour, not abstract labour. To speak of art as concrete labour is not to fall into speculative philosophical aesthetic  notions of particularity in Schelling and Adorno, for instance, or one of the ‘pseudo-singularities’ to which Alberto Toscano alerts us (“The Sensuous Religion of the Multitude”, Third Text, Volume 23, Issue 4, July 2009, p.380). That is to say, “the non-dialectical transubstantiation of the postmodern, crystallised in the notion of singularity, which leaves the most questions pending in Negri”, has to be avoided not because of the singularity in it, but because of the speculative abstraction of singularity in it. Here, ironically, particularity is abstracted from the economic conditions that determine it, as if art’s particularity belonged to it as a quality rather than a social relation. Insofar as art is the production of ‘social use-values’ without commodification, the particularity of artworks is nothing but their non-economic value. The materiality and specificity of art is nothing but the fact that is is not reducible to the equivalence of exchange.

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About dbfreee

an artist in the Freee art collective. Teaches at Chelsea. Writes regularly for Art Monthly.
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