Art and the Strike

There is a fundamental problem with the idea of an Art Strike. Art production is not wage-labour. Normally when workers go on strike the capitalist (or company) who pays their wages loses labour-power and therefore surplus-labour, surplus-value and profit. This is why striking is effective. It uses the latent economic power of labour against those who wield power over labour on a daily basis. And it is because strike action is an effective economic instrument of struggle that the state is often brought in to crush strikes.

No capitalist or firm loses out on labour-power, surplus-labour or profit when artists go on strike. It is not an effective economic instrument of struggle. Gregory Sholette adjusts the idea of a strike (not using the word ‘strike’ but describing the financially successful members of the artworld as dependent on the labour of the least successful in a way that deliberately echoes the class relations of capitalism) in the case of art in order to give it a different economic force. Consider, he says, “the impact on the availability and cost of art supplies if hobbyists, Sunday Painters and “failed” artists stopped producing work. Should the demand for art supplies suddenly become limited to the small group of successful artists, inevitably the cost of canvas, pigments, and brushes would skyrocket.” I’ll let the casual remarks about failure and success pass. Ok, so if artists stopped making art this would have an impact on the retailers of art materials and equipment. And if artists stopped visiting galleries and museums this would hit attendances and income for those venues that charge an entrance fee. Fair enough, but this is not a strike at all; it is a consumer boycott. These two kinds of economic instrument are worlds apart!

A similar case has been made recently by Art Against Cuts. Again, falling short of calling for an art strike (which I hope demonstrates the accuracy of their economic analysis of artistic labour), they have called for artists and other cultural workers and administrators ‘to suspend all cultural programming/work’ to coincide with the strike on June 30th by teachers, lecturers and other public sector workers. Putting the word ‘programming’ before ‘work’ gets on my pips, but I’ll leave it aside. I don’t think we need to go over the question of the economics of suspending cultural production. The point that I think needs addressing here is the politics of suspending cultural work. Now, insofar as the aim of this suspension is to call as many artists, designers, curators, administrators and others to march alongside the unions and students in defense of education and public services, then I am completely in accord with Arts Against Cuts. If you think you have to convince people to suspend cultural work to get them to march, then maybe that is expedient. However, the idea of suspending cultural work is in error, it seems to me. Let me explain.

If culture is affirmative, docile and complicit, then there is certainly a strong case for suspending cultural production at times, or under social circumstances, that are intolerable. If art supports the state, and the state is rotten, then why not suspend artistic production altogether and indefinitely? There are some nihilists, anarchists and ultra-leftists who make this kind of argument all the time, and it has a ring of truth about it. However, if art, or some of it at least, is disaffirmative, activist, politicized and resistant, then there is a compelling case to maintain cultural production, especially at times or under those conditions that are intolerable. Such culture is among those genuine forces that we have to combat the state, the market and their ideologies. If you suspend all cultural works, and those cultural works are among the modes through which resistance, opposition, rebellion, critique, alternative thinking and alternative practices are imagined and realized, then that suspension can only lead to a weakening of the resistance to capitalism and a strengthening of the enemy.

Do not suspend all cultural work. March! But while marching, continue your cultural and intellectual development. Why not have a discussion about Marx and the economics of wage-labour on the march?  Plan an exhibition of new work on the march! Create a performance en route! Write poetry and read it out to the passersby as you march! March, but march with cultural work, not against it!

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Art and Commodification (part 2)

The word ‘commodification’ was coined by Critical Theorists around the Frankfurt School in relation to art. It is one of a very small number of economic terms devised to explain developments in art, the others being Culture Industry and Spectacle (if I’ve missed any out, please let me know!). However, I think a Marxist economic analysis of art does not confirm the theory of art’s commodification. Let me explain.

Marx didn’t use the term ‘commodification’ but he distinguished very clearly between products and commodities. Everything that is made is a product, but only when something is made for exchange is it a commodity. The ‘for’ is extremely important here, but it is not merely in the good intentions of the producer. Whether something is made for exchange or not will be evident in changes to production. I’ll explain exactly the kind of changes in a second. Let me first underline this distinction and its importance. Andrew Kliman, in his book “Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital'”, provides a very clear overview of the central concern of commodification:

“if the products have been produced for a different purpose, that of satisfying the producers’ and others’ needs and wants, they have not been produced as commodities … A key reason for distinguishing between commodity production and non-commodity production is that prices or rates of exchange are determined differently in the two cases. When things are not produced as commodities, the rates at which they exchange may depend exclusively upon the demand for them, or upon normative considerations, or … upon customary rules. It is only when products are produced for the purpose of being exchanged that their costs of production become significant determinants of their prices.” (p.20)

So, a loaf of bread is not a commodity if it is baked for personal consumption, by oneself or one’s family, housemates and so on. (I would go further, but I can see how others might dispute this: even if one baked such a loaf and then a neighbour came round and said they were in desperate need of some bread and they paid you for the loaf you were going to eat yourself, then the loaf does not become a commodity – it is not made into a commodity in the act of purchasing it, but in the way that it is produced – either for exchange or for use). The loaf for use does not enter circulation, is not exchanged and is not made for the market. What would change if this private baker decides to start a business baking and selling bread? First, the quantity of loaves would increase. This is why Marx emphasizes two connected changes to use in the production of commodities: that commodities have a ‘social use value’ (ie that they are made for others to consume) and that they are made not for the producer’s use (ie the commercial baker, even a small artisan baker, will bake far more bread than they could possibly consume themselves).

Right from the start, then, we can see that commodity production, that is to say, in our example, baking bread as a commodity for exchange, is palpably different from baking bread outside of exchange. Not only is the quantity increased, but this increase in quantity transforms the quality of use-value in the product in two ways. Commodification requires production to be determined by the needs and wants of others. The commercial baker, now baking bread for others, needs to bake the bread ‘demanded’ by the consumers, to match their ‘preferences’ and so on. This is a qualitative difference between use-value and social use-value: it is not just a question of others consuming the same loaf, or of multiple others consuming the same loaf in larger quantities; it is also a question of the likes, tastes and preferences of others being taken into account in the production of loaves as commodities. This is because the loaf is no longer being made for the producer (according to their own likes etc) but as a business, for money, and therefore responding to the preferences indicated by the market.

In terms of quantity, artists make more products than they need to consume (to display in their home etc) but not necessarily more than they can ‘use’ productively ie when the production of a product is itself a rewarding act (eg a learning experience, is a process that transforms the producer and so on), then it is not at all clear that it is possible to produce more than you can ‘use’. What’s more, artists produce a very small proportion of the art that they actually ‘consume’ (by viewing rather than purchasing) in the works of others. Also, art production is unusual in relation to quantity insofar as artists typically produce more work than they can sell or exhibit, producing works experimentally and speculatively and allowing themselves to make mistakes, subsequently holding the inferior or adventurous ones back. In classic economics we would expect something like the opposite, in which a producer who produces more products than they can use, takes the surplus to market. In art, their is a surplus to what is chosen to be circulated which is then retained by the artist.

Having said that, it would be naive to think that artists do not increase their production when there is a buoyant market for their work (eg when collectors are put on a waiting list). Here, the increase in quantity is a direct result of market demand. As such, we might say that this increase is a sign of commodification, or at least partial commodification. Full commodification would require the ‘social use value’ of the product to be determined in its quality by the market – by the needs, wants and preferences of the consumers. So, if an artist makes more works than they usually would but continues to make them without regard for the tastes and so forth of their collectors, then the products have not been commodified, even if the production has been accelerated because of the market demand. If artists increase and decrease production according to demand and alter the production of their work according to the preferences of the market (eg halting production of this version of their work and expanding production of that version of their work), then, it seems to me they must be in the business of producing commodities.

At the same time, of course, we must insist that if artists do not increase and decrease production according to demand and do not alter the production of their work according to the preferences of the market, then they are demonstrably not in the business of producing commodities. It is kind of simple, really. Just as baking has not been commodified once and for all, but we need to distinguish, case by case, whether a loaf was produced for use or exchange, art has not been commodified once and for all. Bread baked for use does not taste any different from bread baked for exchange (although the changes in quality to meet the market need can also be changes in response to the economics of production and circulation – eg cheaper raw materials, preservatives etc – that are not simply responding to the preferences of consumers). Similarly, you cannot tell whether, in this case or that case, an artwork is a commodity just by looking at it or listening to it, or reading it. We need to look at whether the artwork was made for exchange and whether the qualities of the artwork have been altered by the preferences of the market. There is no shortcut to this kind of economic examination, no general rule, no standard economics of art in the age of consumerism, or the changing economic status of the artwork in the society of the spectacle.