When an economist says a “work of art often arrives on the market because of one of the famous ‘three D’s’ (divorce, death, or debt)”_ it is clear that cultural economics places its emphasis on consumption and the secondary market. From a Marxist point of view this is very curious. That is to say, it is utterly absurd for a product to ‘arrive’ on the market without being produced or works arriving on the market not from its producers but its consumers. From a mainstream economic point of view this is a no-brainer: they are following the money. The labour theory of value, on the contrary, puts the emphasis of economic analysis on the contribution of ‘living labour’. As such, a Marxist economic analysis of art cannot begin with the arrival of the artwork for resale on the secondary market. Imagine an economics of the automobile industry based entirely on the second-had car market. No explanation of car production, factory work, technology, management, assembly workers’ wages and so forth would be required for such an economic analysis. Simply, data of sales and fluctuating prices on a global scale would suffice, alongside the analysis of the behaviour of dealers, salespersons and buyers. The price of cars, we would no doubt discover, is entirely determined by issues such as the rarity of a particular make and model and the subjective preferences of consumers. This is how cultural economics deals with art. Even if we could press the economist to start the economic analysis of art with its arrival for sale on the primary market, we would have arrived too late. No Marxist could knowingly subscribe to such a belated economic analysis. Artworks themselves cannot be a given, as it is for mainstream economics, but must be identified as the object of economic analysis.
Let’s begin to redress this situation by spelling out precisely what Marx’s labour theory of value sets out to explain. Andrew Kliman tells us, “Marx’s value theory … pertains exclusively to commodity production, that is, to cases in which goods and services are ‘produced for the purpose of being exchanged’, or equivalently, produced as commodities.”_ This is important for a Marxist economic analysis of art because, as he goes on to say, “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.”_ If art is produced as a commodity, that is to say produced for the purpose of being exchanged, then it is the kind of product that Marxist economics explains. If art is not produced as a commodity, but rather to satisfy aeshetic and cultural needs and wants, then it is not. This may sound too simplistic. Couldn’t a product be produced both for exchange and to satisfy the needs and wants of those who purchase it? All commodity production imagines itself to be both, but as soon as exchange is brought into production, then something fundamental changes. “A key reason for distinguishing between commodity production and non-commodity production”, Kliman explains, “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.”_
So, a loaf of bread is not a commodity if it is baked for personal consumption by oneself or one’s family or friends. This loaf does not enter circulation, is not exchanged and is not made for the market. What would change if this domestic 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). Not only is the quantity increased, but 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 because the loaf is being produced for others, as a business, for money, and therefore responding to consumers’ preferences.
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 for example an act of self-actualization, 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, there is a surplus to what is chosen to be circulated which is then retained by the artist.
Nevertheless, it would be naive to think that artists do not increase their production when there is a buoyant market for their. 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. Just as baking has not been commodified once and for all, but we need to examine its economics case by case, art cannot be commodified once and for all. 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. Even in the case of those artworks which are produced for the art market, there is a notable abnormality in the relationship between its production and its value. We can look at the general case of art’s apparent commodification by asking whether, as Kliman puts it, “their costs of production become significant determinants of their prices”.
Following the labour theory of value, we would expect to determine whether art is produced as a commodity from an analysis of artistic production, not by examining the behaviour of its consumers or its systems of distribution and display. The labour theory of value, which explains how value is produced within capitalism, states that labour is the source of value. This value is then broken down into three types: the transfer of value, absolute surplus value and relative surplus value. Machines, for instance, transfer their value to the product; labour-power produces absolute surplus-value, that is to say, value on top of the wages paid for it. Relative surplus-value is produced by the division of labour, automation and so forth, which through increases in productivity and efficiency do not produce value in itself but increases the proportion of surplus-labour in relation to wages. If we find that art production does not correspond to the model of commodity production, then no matter how art is subsequently brought into the circulation systems of capitalism, art is not converted into a commodity in its consumption. This cannot be overstated. Let’s turn now, then, to a question that neither Marxists nor mainstream economists have provided a satisfactory answer: how are the prices of artworks set?
The labour theory of value proceeds from the value of labour, so we need to ask whether the prices of artworks are determined by the value of the labour in their production. Artworks can be inordinately expensive, reaching prices in the tens of millions, and increasing numbers of artists are completely tied up with the market, producing works in numbers for sale. Do we regard the artist, in such cases, as the equivalent of the proletariat, producing value through labour, albeit highly valued labour (if not always highly skilled in the usual sense)? Or, should we regard the artist as occupying the place of the capitalist, such as when commercially successful artists make artworks specifically for sale, advancing capital to pay the wages of assistants from which great sums are made as profit both by the artist and the dealer?
We can test the question of the price of artworks as determined or not by the cost of labour in production by observing the means of production. In capitalist commodity production two common measures are based on the fact that value is produced by labour. First, capitalists increase absolute surplus-labour (and thereby surplus-value) by attempting to extend the working day, the working week, the numbers of days worked in the year, and the number of years worked in a worker’s life. Second, relative surplus-value is increased through the use of technology and supervision, which play an effective part in driving down labour costs through the division of labour, deskilling and increasing productivity. These two factors are not established as economic determinants in artistic production simply by observing that artists get their assistants to work long hours or that they produce works in greater quantities by dividing the labour up among their assistants. The key question is whether the prices that artworks fetch are determined by such efficiencies. If the price of an artwork is set by the labour that goes into it, then we would expect two processes to be evident. First, that the means of production of art would be constantly revolutionized. And second, that prices of artworks would vary according to the average labour that goes into producing them. Neither is evident. First, art’s means of production have not been constantly revolutionized; its relations of production have not been socialized; technological developments are not implemented to increase productivity; producers still own their means of production. Art prices are not determined by ‘socially necessary labour-time’. Second, when the price of an artist’s work goes up, this is not because the labour producing it has gone up, that the assistants have managed to have their wages increased, or their hours reduced. Also, when the price of an artist’s work drops, this is not due to the efficiencies of competitors in the market who have managed to get their production costs down. No, the prices of artworks do not fluctuate according to the cost of labour, technological efficiencies and the like.
Of course, assistants are wage-labourers. But this, in itself, is not proof that artists employ them as capitalists in order to generate surplus-value from them. If assistants do not produce surplus-value then they are to be regarded as luxuries, like domestic servants in the nineteenth century.