The concept of value is entirely peculiar to the most modern economy, since it is the most abstract expression of capital itself and of the production resting on it. In the concept of value, its secret is betrayed (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 776)

Questions surrounding the ‘value’ of art have been launched into public conversation in recent years. Museums and art galleries have been interrogated for their role in financial speculation, not to mention outright money laundering, while the chasm between the price and perceived value of artworks has been opened up to comical extents via the non-fungible token (NFT) phenomenon. In the music industry, the fixed price of MP3s and physical music media has been relativized by ongoing crises in the production and distribution of vinyl records and the industry’s reshaping at the hands of major streaming platforms, forcing musicians to reconsider the relationship between their output and the market. Meanwhile, periodic strikes and labor agitation in the film industry point to the subsumption of labor within its production apparatus and the dire position of workers on set, as major studios increasingly agglomerate into sector-spanning monopolies.

In response to these rolling crises, a reconsideration of the ontological foundations, ideological mediations and speculative gestures present in art’s relationship to value is necessary. What follows is not a totalizing intellectual history of art and the value-form, but rather a path through some of its contemporary theorizations, which we hope will provide readers with ways to think through the heterogeneous commodity-forms present in the creative industries today.[1]

Through this reading list, and the short blurbs that follow each entry, we seek to clarify the processes by which value regulates the production, circulation and consumption of art. As will become evident, art, as a speculative and often non-use-value, problematizes the abstracting and obfuscatory role of the value-form. The art object, whether it be a painting, a stage performance or a song, is neither pure commodity nor is it entirely autonomous from the forces and relations of production. Thus, rather than solely emphasizing the effects of value – commodity fetishism, reification, financialization, assetization, etc. – the texts below begin with these processes of abstraction and continue on to the potential emancipatory gestures present in artistic production and the art object itself. Art here, following Dave Beech, has an exceptional relationship to the capitalist mode of production, and it is the job of the critic to clarify it.

Overview of Value

We begin with a number of overviews to value-theoretical approaches to Marx, which will introduce readers to the various strands of 20th century thought that re-centre the value form as the primary object of concern in any analysis of capital. These include the Neue Marx-Lektüre (New Reading of Marx) that arises in the mid-60s in Germany, the communization hypotheses of Gilles Dauvé, Jacques Camatte and Théorie Communiste that emerge in France in the 1970s and the understanding of ‘form determination’ and systematic dialectics taken up by a number of thinkers in the Anglosphere from the 90s onwards.

Frederick Harry Pitts 'Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx' (2017)

In a capacious engagement with heterodox readings of Marx, Pitts in turn critiques and draws from post-operaismo theories of value, labor and productivity. With a basis in the New Reading of Marx (NRM) and Open Marxism, value is posited as congealed abstract labor, rather than concrete practical human activity, while money is posed as the universal mediator that brings the aforementioned abstract labor into existence. Crucially, Pitts develops a theory of value’s imbrication in the creative industries, nodding to the central role of advertising, branding and graphic design in giving ‘form’ to value. This movement, akin to the congealing force of transportation infrastructure, can be understood as the “emotional moving of people to buy goods engaged in by advertising and branding.”

Endnotes Collective ‘Communisation and Value-Form Theory’ (2010)

A dual history of communization and the rise of value-theoretical approaches to Marx, using one to contextualize the other. Usefully lays out an argument for understanding value as a relation, rather than a substance, shaping the content of that which it enframes. At the political level, this focus on value – rather than labor – as the primary ‘social mediation’ enables a movement away from political formations reliant on the state or the affirmation of labor in relation to capital, and instead points towards a more thoroughly utopian world in which value ceases to shape social life.

Christopher J. Arthur ‘The spectral ontology of value’ (2001)

In a dense, philosophical rendering of the value-form, Arthur points to how capital abstracts and absents use-values. This ʻontological inversionʼ, which Arthur draws from both Marx’s own metaphysical inversion and Hegel’s positing of ideal forms of thought, is intended to articulate the historical specificity of the capitalist mode of production and its pure forms of exchange. Invoking the ʻghostly objectivityʼ of value, Arthur meticulously shows the material abstractions at play in exchange and, therefore, the subsumption of use-values to its pure form.

Value and Aesthetics

With this basis – of value as an objective relation premised in exchange – we can now turn to the specifics of art’s uneven interpellation with the capitalist mode of production. Herein, value is posed in terms of its mirroring, contradictory role in modernist art, the powerful (real) abstractions exhibited in contemporary aesthetics and the overlapping intellectual histories of classical, neo-classical and Marxist treatments of artistic production. In a departure from past treatments that either model the art object (and the artist) as totally subsumed in the capitalist mode of production or as an autonomous entity outside of the relations of production, we instead seek to clarify how exactly value does, or does not, mediate artistic production, circulation and consumption.

Daniel Spaulding ‘Value-form and Avant-garde’ (2014)

Modernist art is considered in tandem with the value-form with a specific nod to the former’s contradictions in relation to the latter’s ‘properly utopian content’. That ‘utopian content’, that which is lacking in capitalist modernity, is identified in both value and the avant-garde. Spaulding writes that “modernist art could be described as something like the moment of value’s self-reflexivity,” both a projection into socialist futurity and an embodiment of art’s alienated essence in the commodity-form. As such, artists ranging from Picasso to Dada to Soviet Productivism sought to negate signification, attacking art’s perceived autonomy in the process. But in these negatory gestures, they were unable to realize a horizon beyond both value and capitalist modernity.

Sianne Ngai, ‘Visceral Abstractions’ (2015)

Poetic apprehension of the movements of value, which employs the notion of ‘catachresis’ – a term for the incorrect or ‘abusive’ use of a familiar word in an unfamiliar context – as found in the poetry of Rob Halperin and in Marx’s critical writings on abstraction. Halperin and Marx show how under capitalism, abstractions like value congeal in the concrete arena of the social, both shaped by and shaping individuals’ actions.

Alberto Toscano, ‘Materialism without matter: abstraction, absence and social form’ (2014)

Beginning with a Marxist critique of so-called ‘new materialisms’, Toscano – whose The Open Secret of Real Abstraction (2008) is often credited with re-introducing the concept of ‘real abstraction’ to contemporary Marxist thought – explores the possibilities for a formal apprehension of capitalist abstractions. Such a method is aesthetic in nature, interested as it is in the representation of abstract objects, as well as their concrete effects. Through a turn to Louis Althusser’s reading of the Italian painter Luigi Cremonini, Toscano then provides us with a way to think artistic production and the critique of political economy together: art can ‘reveal’ what capitalism makes invisible.

Dave Beech 'Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics' (2015)

In Art and Value, Beech puts forward a meticulous analysis of classical, neoclassical and Marxist economic approaches to art to then show how these analyses fall flat in explaining art’s exceptional relationship to the capitalist mode of production. By placing art in relation to capital, rather than narrow Marxian heuristics like commodity fetishism, reification and the culture industries, Beech seeks to articulate the particularities of how “art is bound up with capitalism but does not conform to the capitalist mode of commodity production” (p. 28). Perhaps most importantly, Beech attempts to mark out the development of the art-capital relation through its pre-capitalist, industrial, welfare and neoliberal iterations.

Speculative Values

Lastly, we turn our attention to speculative approaches to value with particular sensitivity to the contradictory, and potentially emancipatory, valences held within its form. Conceptual art is the primary object of analysis, posited as an ideal mode for understanding the vagaries and contradictions of the post-2008 art and financial markets. We take our lead from Marina Vishmidt’s extensive investigation of financial and aesthetic speculation, wherein art’s traditional autonomy is inverted and instead understood as a structure of feeling reflective of emergent dynamics in both finance and artistic production. Whereas artistic labor has largely receded from view to this point, except when analyzed in concordance with the value relation, the latent potential for sumptuous artistic gestures and new social forms reemerges. Can art, then, be reclaimed from its role in passive contemplation? What does artistic production outside the bounds of commodity production look, sound and feel like? Would it resemble Marx’s “free activity” or the rendering obsolete of art into the milieu of “everyday life”?

Marina Vishmidt 'Speculation as a Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital' (2018)

An in-depth exploration of the role of speculation – understood here both in its financialised and politico-theoretical uses – to contemporary economic and artistic production. If art has historically been counterposed to labor as an activity that is not productive of value, then in an economic system increasingly premised on speculation over and above production, what might the circumstances of art’s creation and circulation tell us about the historical specificity of our current economic system?

Suhail Malik, Andrea Phillips ‘Tainted Love: Art's Ethos and Capitalization’ (2012)

Using love as a heuristic to understand the peculiarities of the art market, a space that is both financialised and stochastic. Art embodies the ‘truth’ of finance in and through its failure to be situated within a transparent, efficient market, but instead indexes the ways in which prices are set in advance, through ‘capitalisation’ a combination of institutional weight, speculation and ‘love’ on the part of the buyer. Art, in this rendering, reveals the underlying power networks intrinsic to capitalized markets, showing that all economy is political economy, and provides us with an early view into the art market of the 2010s: a space for spiraling prices increasingly unmoored from the real economy of production.

Paul Mattick Jr. 'Art in its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics' (2003)

In a compelling set of essays that function as both theory and intellectual history, Mattick Jr. posits a ‘historical criticism’ of art as a category of modernity. The very attributes often perceived as fixed – autonomy, creativity, historical provenance – are rigorously interrogated as contingent and recognized as an element of a complex social totality. Art is then probed through the co-constitutive lenses of content, form and ideology. In this, Mattick Jr. discusses art’s antinomic relationship with commerce, the value of art to the ruling class and properly utopian discourses on art beyond commodity production.

  1. An earnest rendering of value cannot begin anywhere but the “Commodities and Money” chapter of Marx’s Capital, while past critiques from Isaak Illich Rubin, Hans-Georg Backhaus and Moishe Postone further explicate value’s congealing role in the dialectic of capital (see here and here for value-form specific reading lists).