Read The Fetishism of Commodity by Marx and make notes:

  • Can you see ways in which this helps to understand the art market?
  • Does the article above go any way to explain the sort of work made by artists such as Jeff Koons
  • Find some examples of Jeff Koons and read up on his work
  • Find a couple of similar artists who work in similar ways to Koons

When I first sat down to read the essay by Marx on Fetishism of Commodities I was somewhat daunted by the language which is dense and fairly antiquated but thankfully I came across Nick Herriman’s YouTube video which explained it in a way that was much more accessible. I also found Ron Strickland’s YouTube video very helpful. So, thank you, Nick Herriman and Ron Strickland.

I have to say, like most people with no money to speak of, it is a mystery to me how some objects can end up being valued quite so highly as they are. However, the person I was married to in fact earned his living by selling rare books to people with a great deal of money for prices that are hard to imagine spending unless you exist in those circles – which most of us don’t. So it has been interesting for me to see how Marx looks at the difference between use value and commodity value. According to Marx, objects can become more valuable as the commodity value is variable, but use value never is. His example is a table, which is a utilitarian thing that will always be a table. But an expensive, hand crafted table made of certain highly prized wood might have a commodity value that is much higher than a basic plastic one from Ikea. In fact it would seem that sometimes the more useless something is, the higher its commodity value.

And, in the case of my ex-husband’s wares, the books might be so fragile you wouldn’t dare even hold them for too long, never mind read them. They are just for owning and collecting and looking at. And feeling jolly rich as you do. Those objects are therefore endowed with properties that are almost supernatural and I can only guess and surmise what owning a collection of such objects might do for a person. I’m being slightly unfair because actually, as well as dealing in 20th century literature he also buys and sells photography books. And providing they were in a good enough state to handle I would dearly love to own a few original photography books I can think of. Would it be more exciting to own an original of The Americans rather than the £20 version I ordered online (I have to say, I’m not sure it would be that exciting for me and instead I would just feel sick at the amount of money spent...) And my imaginary high value book might be even more valuable because it may have been owned by the photographer’s friend or loved one, or even signed by the man himself. So something of their spirits and the spirits of the time will have become imbued in the pages. How funny that my staunchly anti-religious ex should be so acutely aware of the value of these objects and so, so good at selling them on. Commodities are endowed with something ‘mystical’ and quasi-religious, or in Marx’s words, with “theological niceties”[1].

Before I discuss Koons’ work, I think I need to look at more level and everyday examples of fetishised commodities. Because of course, it is not only the super rich who buy into believing that by owning one object rather than another the ‘supernatural’ quality of the more valuable object reflects back on them. I look around and see Ugg Boots for instance, useless for walking through the rain and very easily ruined if worn when cooking, making a cup of tea or playing with young children because the suede is so easily damaged. They are very warm though as they were originally designed to be slippers and yet they, or the cheap copies, are pretty much a uniform for mums across the UK and elsewhere during the winter.  The marketing executives have done an amazing job of encouraging the fetishisation of these boots and despite a recent decline in popularity they are still being sold with quite high frequency at over £150 a pair.

Chelsea tractors (I won’t pick on just one brand) are bloody useless for driving round London, as they are far too big for the narrow streets. In fact I know of a women who couldn’t park hers at the supermarket because it was too big for her to manoeuvre so had to drive home without any of the food, quite useful stuff after all, that she had gone there to buy. Yet, large cars, based on 4x4s more suited for the countryside, and for the muddy and hilly tracks found there, fill the streets of SW18 where I live. They are really expensive to run and I often hear people complaining about the cost of the tires that need to be replaced at MOTS, along with the parts, and the petrol they require to go. Yet they are such definitive status symbols amongst the equivalent of the “bourgeoisie” that it is easy for me to understand why people buy into it. I recall hearing someone on Radio4 discuss how the Chelsea tractor is similar to chariots driven in Roman times by the rich but rarely used for their original purpose. They too were status symbols. Endowed with some quality that the owners hoped would reflect back on to them and make them feel and be more powerful.  Which such objects invariably do.

But according to Marx and others it’s a fallacy. And the effects of feeling more powerful based on owning objects are not without cost. Oliver James in his book, Afluenza, discusses how owning all this stuff and not comprehending how commodification of these objects is based on fantasy contributes to society’s ever increasing problems with depression, anxiety and a general lack of contentment[2]. James Carse in Finite and Infinite games, my 20 year old copy worth very little I would imagine if I still owned it – (I’ve had to download the digital version) – refers to ‘prizes’, the rampant collection of which ultimately bind the ‘players’ vying for these prizes to a life that is limiting, unfulfilling and potentially rather empty.

I suppose there is a balance to be had. I’ve not finished the wonderful Edward O Wilson’s The Conquest of the World yet, but reading about our extremely sophisticated social evolutionary path makes me wonder how we might avoid commodification, and social strata where some of us live at the bottom and some, a relative few, live at the very top. Whoever we are in this world, it is hard to escape the trap of buying into a belief system where some objects or services enable us to somehow transcend the ordinary.

As Ron Strickland says in his YouTube Video, some commodities are abstract: such as a gym membership. For me a gym membership has for the last few months been one of the most expensive useless things I pay for. For me that monthly payment buys me something endowed with far more than an unused exercise space. It is one of the last vestiges of my failed marriage, one that I have clung to (not quite needlessly to begin with as I used it in the months following the end of our relationship quite a lot.) However, almost three years down the line and I hardly use it all. But I have been really reluctant to release it. Tied up in my membership is the belief that I belonged in some small way to a local tribe, that my children belonged to it too, and that meant they would somehow have a better chance of succeeding later in life.

In my mind I know I somehow equated my children’s future happiness and success with being able to swim in a clean, heated pool; one where only others that were able and prepared to pay for it also could. It’s ridiculous. (In the few days since writing this passage and now, as I edit it, I have indeed cancelled that membership – although this morning I read about cockroaches in one of the local council run pools, so I’ll certainly be giving that one a miss!)

Not only that, by clinging on I am aware I have found it difficult to relinquish the abstract commodification of my actual marriage. As I write this it seems to me that the commodity value of physical objects as well as abstract ones is complex as it taps into a range of emotions and emotively charged phenomena that relate to our fantasies, perceptions of self, and realities. Although it is true that our realties are constructed by and within the societies in which we exist, that doesn’t mean they aren’t genuine. It’s like an operating system on a Mac or PC. You can’t use a computer without a system in place. We must have one in order to access the world and for it to access us. How it looks depends how/where/what informs its existence. But the fact that is socially constructed doesn’t diminish its actuality.

One of the things Marx says in his essay that was hard for me to get my head around was how workers who make the goods are far removed from the consumer who eventually buys it, which through the process of industrial commodification, alienates people, which is not good for society or for individuals.

Additionally the work they do is abstracted. Someone might build a small part but never see it added to the whole. There can be no sense of satisfaction in the work. The object – its separate parts made by several people and later joined together by another person – is subsequently bought by the consumer; someone who can ignore the fact that it was made by anyone at all. This process dehumanises people and relations, and allows consumers to buy things, for instance, that are made in far-flung places by young children who earn very little money without becoming overly concerned. Once this process of dehumanisation has become the norm, it is not long before people are dehumanised entirely and turned into commodities themselves, even when they’re living under the same roof as each-other. I once overheard a women refer to another women who worked for her as “my Philippino”. Here it seems to me she had converted her employee into a commodity, one with use value and commodity value as far as I can make out.

How does this relate to the art market?

The art market is a strange and alien world where vast sums of money are spent on objects. Marx’s theory of commodification and fetishising commodities seems a really useful way of thinking about it. Although I can’t help but feel that, like all of these subjects I’ve been discussing, it’s complex.

As John Berger discusses in Ways of Seeing the “visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve; originally this preserve was magical or sacred. … Later the preserve of art became a social one. It entered the culture of the ruling class, whilst physically it was set apart and isolated in their palaces and houses.”[3] Then Berger goes on to explain that since image reproductions are now ubiquitous they are essentially as common as the words we hear every day. Which I suppose puts pressure on the group who sit at the top of our society to find ways to set themselves apart.

Berger says, in light of mass reproduction, the authority of art has been diminished.[4] However, at the same time the authority of the commodity does seem to have expanded exponentially. In our secular, commodity driven world we no longer build cathedrals or palaces and fill those with art, at least not at the rate they were built in times gone by. Nowadays we build vast shopping malls such as Westside in Shepherd’s Bush, where as well as shopping you can also see a little bit of art but not too much because mainly it’s about the buying of stuff. Fewer people go to church on a Sunday; instead Westside Shopping Centre is packed with shoppers, and it’s hell.

So the top group must rise above all of that and can do so by transferring the authority that art once held before mass image reproduction, as suggested by Berger, into the commodity value of the art only they have the means to buy. It’s not the art that has the authority. It’s the cost of it. We in our society are worshipers of the markets and relative authority is found in that relationship – how much something costs.

But the cost of something isn’t always equal to the value of it.  Many, many people are prepared to spend quite a lot of ‘normal’ money on their Ugg Boots at Westside Shopping Centre on a Sunday afternoon and their willingness to part with £150 (or more for the long ones!) means the commodity value is quickly eroded. Don’t get me wrong, I love a pair of Uggs and would have three pairs in different colours if I could. But the more people like me there are who are prepared to buy them, the less kudos they have, i.e. their commodity value continues to diminish. This is because the relationships between the classes are manifested in the objects themselves.

Through our objects we are able to recognise and apply status. The mystical quasi-religious aspect to commodities is perhaps at its most potent when thinking about high value art objects (or arms – but that’s another story).

I think it is important to say here that our genetic history seems to dictate that we must have social hierarchies in order to function. In Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth, he discusses how groups evolve from egalitarian groups where “Leadership status is granted individuals on the basis of intelligence and bravery” and “Important decisions are made during communal feasts, festivals, and religious celebrations”.[5] The next stage are Chiefdoms or rank societies “where an elite stratum who upon their death are replaced by members of their family or at least those of an equivalent hereditary rank.”[6] And states are “the final step up in the cultural evolution”.[7] The complexity of a state is such that it cannot function without ‘hierarchical control’[8]&[9].

I think that hierarchical control is maintained in a variety of ways. Laws are made, institutions are in place; ideology is interpellated through various structures of state. However, the human beings at the very top are also able to maintain status and power by being surrounded, as well as protected from realties lower down the status chain, with very high value commodities that may or may not have high use value. The commodities are bestowed with mysticism and quasi-religious power, which in fact is rendered a reality by our belief in that power.

I keep thinking about Galleries and the amounts they are able to pay to secure works of art. They must compete with the super rich but since they are undoubtedly a function of structures of state, it is in the dominant ruling class’s interest to facilitate ownership of high value commodities.   I guess they are another example of secular alternatives to cathedrals, more highbrow versions though. As I mentioned earlier, John Berger discusses how art has lost its authority but money’s authority has grown and so the museums must engage in that.

Years ago nothing was open on Sundays except the churches. Today people flock to the shops or somewhere they can experience something cultural. Tate Modern, for example, is generally packed on a Sunday with families enjoying a day out looking at art that is so highly priced the only place they could ever see it in the ‘flesh’ rather than as a cheap reproductive image is in a gallery. In fact, Tate Modern is hailed as an example of how Britain should be in an article in The Telegraph. Alain de Botton, (whose writings I like very much) says, “The building as a whole, from its signage to its toilets, its recessed strip-lights to its restaurants, has become an advertisement for what Britain should be like.” [10] Surely it was cathedrals and churches that used to be the bricks and mortar icons of idealism, whereas today it’s the Tate Modern, a gallery filled with extremely high commodity value objects that are “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”[11].

Which brings me to Jeff Koons.

Had I written about it immediately after looking at Jeff Koons last week I might have ranted on about it being tasteless, not to mention cynical in the extreme. I feel awful saying this as there is another human being out there, still alive, who might be sent this by his PR company so I want to be objective.  I don’t like much of what I do either if that is any consolation (which it probably isn’t).  By waiting a few days and thinking about it I hoped to be more objective – reading it back I see I have failed.  Nevertheless…

There is something worth thinking about as a student looking at art and visual imagery in Koons’s work. Something about it reminds me of Restoration theatre where everything was incredibly extravagant and overly indulgent, a response to the previous Puritan ban on theatre. Wikipedia says of Restoration comedy that it was notoriously sexually explicit[12], which of course Koons’ images of himself and his ex wife having sex are too. I suppose in a similar way that Restoration comedy was a social ‘unzipping’ of humanity’s urges due to previous repression, Koons’ work is also an ‘unzipping’ of sorts although the reasons behind that may be very different.

Briefly, Koons studied art before becoming a broker. He made and lost money, had to live with his parents again, moved out, then set up as an artist (not necessarily in that precise order) and presumably carried over many of the skills he’d learned as a broker into his new venture.

The late writer and art critic, Robert Hughes, in his television documentary, American Visions talks about the boom in the 80s, which of course was not limited to the art world, especially in the US (thanks in part to Reagan’s trebling of state debt during his time as President). He mentions Andy Warhol being the patron saint of the commercialisation of art, when he called art “by it’s proper name”, i.e. a business.

Koons does something, in the early stages of his career at any rate, which is seemingly quite clever. He takes everyday objects, signs of modern life, objects that are pretty useful actually in the case of Hoovers and renders them useless by putting them in a Perspex box. Warhol did something similar too, famously with his cans of soup. It looks like it could be a really interesting commentary on the whole commodification angle that Marx has been talking about. And when you read the things Koons says about his work it is hard to avoid being seduced by his academic references. But I feel I need to be really careful about being taken in by his rhetoric. After all, whilst I know there are no original ideas anymore and one can’t criticise an artist for being influenced by another practitioner, I can’t help thinking that Koons’ slightly misses the point of Duchamp’s wit, irony and deep intelligence or Warhols sardonic, dry humour.  But, although I’m not one hundred per cent sold on the Hoover works, I can see some merit there. They’re interesting and make me think further about how objects are valued.

Soon afterwards, he co-opts factories who make cheap, tacky, mass produced ornaments in Italy, to create much larger spectacular examples such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles in gold and white. Gosh – it’s hard to write objectively about that. I know the point is to challenge notions of taste, perhaps even to celebrate grotesque tackiness, to reflect it back to the world, to whom ever is looking. And to be a mirror showing an audience a reality that exists, but writ large. For me, the extraordinary cynicism that is communicated by these larger than life really quite horrible objects is evidence of something fundamentally lacking – I find it hard to find the right words here – lacking in soul, heart, warmth, humanity. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe my reaction, which may be predictable and reflective of a snobbery regarding art that Koons could be tackling, is enough to deem it ‘Art” worthy of the capital A. I’m not sure though.

Hughes, whom it must be said is very obviously horrified by the giant pussy-cat and flowers he stands in front of while talking to Koons asks him if he has ever sculpted anything, and Koons replies “no”. He adds that if it weren’t for his management of the process, whereby objects are put together in an extremely large studio by a staff of up to a hundred artists who work for him, he would have no relationship with the work at all.

And so it would seem that what’s going on here is an artist taking the Marxist model of commodification of objects and playing with the dynamics explained therein in a spectacular fashion, celebrating mass produced banality.  Because of where he is situated within the group strata, anthropologically speaking – at the very top of American social life – it comes across as a cynical joke aimed at the people who would buy the cheap original versions, a celebration of capitalism and the lifestyle it affords wealthy people, and of how money can make even the ugliest thing desirable. I couldn’t work out whether I felt that this guy was a brilliant genius who had taken an aspect of our society, capitalism and the resulting extreme wealth, and used its basic rules to create an art that mirrors and reflects that back to the people who can’t see it for what it is. Or if he’s actually simply creating things he thinks are worthy because he believes they’re interesting, beautiful (?), creative, informative and soulful, in which case he and all the institutions and companies, as well as high worth individuals who are capable of and prepared to pay for his work and I have very different taste.

For me there is little if any tension in the work. It’s brash, big, and spectacular.   Costs a lot to make and much, much more to buy. But the shiny giant balloon animals lack Kappoor’s mystery and intense beauty. And the sex pictures, Made in Heaven, lack Emin’s rage and vulnerability. Koons says to Hughes that his work is generous. By that he means it is not threatening, he says. Anyone, even a five-year old girl could look at it and receive something from it as it is so banal (he was referring to the giant cat with flowers and not Made in Heaven, I should add). But I don’t really see the point in that. I don’t really like or want banal when I look at or experience art.  At least not without anything else such as humour, wit, passion, vulnerability, revelation or intelligence to transform it.

Arnold Glimcher, a New York dealer, speaking in the 90s in American Visions, talks about how museums were very picky about who they allowed to buy the art that they showed; about whom they were willing to be associated with. He says this is because the ability to buy isn’t enough – buyers needed to be worthy of buying and owning, before being granted permission as it’s a highly valued “prize”, being able to own such an object. This for me says it all. The commodity value is so high on these objects, that they allow the owners to be exalted to godlike levels with immense authority, who sit not only at the top of society, they transcend it altogether.

 

[1] The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secrets Thereof, Capital, Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 4, Karl Marx,

[2] Oliver James, Affluenza, Vermillion, 27th December2007

[3] Page 32, Ways of Seeing, John Berger, BBC Penguin Books, 1972, printed 1987

[4] As above

[5] The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O Wilson, Kindle Edition, 29%, Published 4 May 2012

[6] As above

[7] As above, but 30%

[8] As above

[9] Each individual state seems to have its own idiosyncratic variations in the way stratum are organised. We in the UK have this peculiar appendage at the very, very top who are no longer rulers but maintain their status at the absolute pinnacle of society. Just below them are super rich celebrities from various areas of life, as well as businessmen and women who have been bestowed titles. They along with life peers, whose ancestors sat at the top of the pile (so there as if belonging to the chiefdoms Wilson discusses) are entitled to sit in the House of Lords, so have some vestiges of power. They are certainly in the main rich but their values are not the values of the dominant ruling class. It is the upper middle class who rule and construct the moral template of our society via various ideological state apparatuses. It is different in the States where the super rich are the rulers, either in business or politics, which are of course linked.

[10] Telegraph 28th April 2010 Alain de Botton

[11] The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secrets Thereof, Capital, Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 4, Karl Marx,

[12] Wikipedia – Theatre History

Quotes and my interpretation of Robert Hughes’ impressions taken from the 8th episode of American Visions introduced by Robert Hughes on YouTube

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3 thoughts on “Project 1.5: Art as a commodity

  1. Apart from Hughes’ questioning of Koons, what I remember vividly about that interview (which I’ve watched a few times) was his facial expressions, wonderful bewildered incredulity.

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