Art and Value

Interview with Dave Beech


A version of this interview appeared in French at 

1°) What is the current state of debates around the issues of a marxist approach of artistic production ? Are there different or dominant intellectual currents that can be identified ? On what aspects relate the most important disagreements ?

Marxism has an excellent record of engaging seriously with art and culture. Mostly, however, Marxism, like the rest of aesthetic philosophy, art history and art criticism, has focused its attention on the artwork itself, the experience of artworks and art’s discursive framings rather than artistic production. When Marxists and other leftists have approached artistic production, however, they have done so unfortunately according to one of two misperceived paradigms. Either artistic production is considered to be work or work-like, or it is considered to be the negation of work in an idealised conception of art as nonalienated labour. These two models of thinking are still dominant today among theorists, activists and campaigners. The heyday of the idea that the artist represents a future condition in which work and pleasure will be reconciled has long passed but there are still traces of this in the anti-work movement in which people will be liberated from work and will therefore engage more in cultural activities among other things. At the same time, there is a lot of political work being done today to guarantee wages for cultural work not only by artists but also interns, assistants and art teachers. What all of this lacks, which I have tried to put right in my book Art and Value, is a specific economic analysis of artistic production.


2°) In your book Art and Value. Art's Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics (Brill, 2015), you point at the limits of marxist theory concerning the economic analysis of art within capitalism. What are the limits, inconceived dimensions or impasses in current Marxist theory of artistic production ?

My book is in two parts. In the first part I survey the historical record of economics in its discussion and analysis of artworks, and in the second part I begin with an assessment of the record of Marxism – particularly Western Marxism – in its theory of art’s commodification and similar conceptions of art’s incorporation by capitalism, but the rest of the second part of the book is an attempt to reconstruct a Marxist economic analysis of art. In the first part I raise a string of objections to the way that mainstream economics has normalised artistic production as commodity production or focused exclusively on the sale and resale of works of art rather than analysing the economic circumstances under which artworks are produced. So, it is not just the limits of Marxist theory that concerns me in the book, but the failure of mainstream economists and Marxists alike to develop an economics of art based on the specific analysis of the exceptional condition of artistic production. The absence of a Marxist economics of art is only part of this much broader neglect.


3°) What is your own contribution to this Marxist theory ? In other words, what do you propose in your book in order to provide a way out of the current theoretical impasse ? How do you renew the discussion about art's production and specific economy within capitalist system ?

I have confronted the Marxist theory of art’s commodification and related theories of art’s incorporation in the culture industry and art’s participation in the Spectacle. My chief claim is that the various theories of art’s capture by capitalism ought to be proved through economic analysis rather than merely asserted theoretically, assumed as a corollary of the argument that capitalism has subsumed all life, or derived from a sociological analysis of the art as a luxury market. Of course, I’ve also provided the outlines of what I think is an adequate economic analysis of art that focuses on art’s mode of production rather than focusing exclusively on transactions within the art market. While the art market appears to be a typical capitalist operation, an analysis of artistic labour suggests a graphically different assessment of the relationship between art and capitalism. The principle feature of art as a mode of production is that artists have not been converted into wage-labourers as is necessary for the capitalist mode of production.

Western Marxism has since the 1930s has been characterised by factional debate, but one thing that has gone almost completely unchallenged is the thesis that art has been commodified. The art market is a very substantial global trading operation and so, if you measure commodification by the presence of markets in certain goods, then the argument for art’s commodification appears to be a safe bet. Once this is established it is a short step to more expansive theories of reification, culture industry, spectacle, real subsumption and so forth, in which it is not only the objects of cultural production that are commodified but also the subjects who experience them. However, I argue that Marx’s analysis of the transition to capitalist commodity production does not turn on the transformation of modes of distribution, circulation and consumption but to the social relations of production. Moishe Postone, Michael Heinrich and Peter Hudis make this argument better than I do but my contribution to Marxist theory on this score, I would say, is that I not only apply the theory of capitalist production to artistic production but demonstrate that, despite the buying and selling of artworks, artistic production was never fully converted to capitalist commodity production and therefore artworks are not, strictly speaking, commodities at all in the capitalist sense.


4°) You have some disagreements with Christian Fuchs' theories about digital labour and digital cultural commodities[1], and among other things, maybe, the concept of « prosumer ». Can you explain where and why does Christian Fuchs committ erroneous analyses according to you ?

Christian Fuchs, drawing liberally on Marxist value theory, claims that the value of digital products is produced by prosumers through ‘surplus watching time’. This position has been criticised by Jakob Rigi who argues, through a rival version of Marxist value theory, that income generated from digital products is rent drawn from monopoly goods since the value of digital products ‘tends towards zero’. Rigi distinguishes between what Marx calls individual value and real value or social value with the terms production and reproduction. While there is nothing wrong with this theoretically it leads to an error in Rigi’s analysis of digital products because he misapplies this distinction to the temporal sequence of the labour-time required to produce the product and labour-time required to copy or download a file or programme. When Rigi talks about the digital reproduction of information products he refers only to the replication of the product rather than reproducing the product through an equivalent set of labour processes. He implies that the ontology of information rather than their specific social relations somehow determines their economic character. By conflating reproduction with replication and therefore production with the distributive act of downloading digital material, Rigi fails to distinguish between newly minted information and screen shots of once up-to-date information that has a diminishing relevance and value.

Fuchs argues that the consumption of digital material is a form of work that produces value. Fuchs should be credited for redirecting the debate on social media from the terms set by Bell in the theory of post-industrial society which gives emphasis to information as a product that Bell alleges cannot be accounted for within the Marxist labour theory of value. Fuchs is right to persist with an analysis of the mode of production rather than being distracted by changes to the morphology of the product. Fuchs’ Marxist analysis of social media is guided by Dallas Smythe’s theory that the audience for advertising on radio and TV should be reconceived as workers who produce surplus value for media companies who sell the so-called ‘audience commodity’ to advertisers. In Michael Lebowitz’s original critique of Smythe and his followers, this ‘Marxist-sounding communications theory’ was shown to be a misperception of the process by which advertisers seek to reduce its costs of circulation and reduce circulation time in order to increase revenue. The viewers and listeners of advertising, Lebowitz argued, might ‘shut their eyes during the ads’ since ‘all that matters is that they buy’. Consumers ‘do their part by buying’, he said. I think a Marxist economic analysis of digital culture vindicates Lebowitz rather than Smythe and Fuchs.

From a political point of view, Fuchs aligns the consumer of digital information to the campaign for the recognition of non-wage labour such as domestic work as indispensable to capitalism. What he calls ‘wage labour fetishism’, he says, excludes non-wage labour ‘from the category of exploitation’. Here, in a word, is Fuch’s entire argument. Fuch’s goes to great lengths to demonstrate that he is a competent scholar of Marx, but this shift from value production to exploitation is either a misreading of Marxism or an exit from Marxism that Fuchs presents as a Marxist analysis. In effect, Fuchs loosens the connection between exploitation generally and economic exploitation specifically in Marxism (ie that portion of value produced by wage labour that is expropriated by the capitalist) in order to insist that the activity of the consumer is economically exploited by advertisers, Web 2.0 companies and so on. Fuchs transfigures consumption into production not by demonstrating that updating your profile on Facebook produces value but merely that profits are made in platform capitalism and therefore the consumer, who neither makes a profit nor receives a wage, must be exploited. One of the problems with such a thesis, of course, is that the exploitation of the producers of commodities advertised online (eg Chinese factory workers) and the exploitation of the digital workers employed by the Web 2.0 company (eg Indian call centre workers) is diminished or banished completely in a political and economic analysis of the exploitation of consumers targeted for their disposable wealth. If consumers are exploited, then it follows that the richer they are and the more leisure time they have the more they are exploited. Capitalism does not exploit consumers, it realises its returns on the investment of capital through their purchases.


5°) You are currently writing a book entitled Art and Labour. What will be your perspectives, your approach of this wide question ? What are the main hypotheses you tend to demonstrate in this book ?

My new book traces the historical emergence of the category of art and its distinctive mode of production. Art in general, as distinct from the several distinct arts of painting, sculpture and music, emerges historically at exactly the same time as the category of labour in general. Marx wrote: Labour seems like a simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ’labour’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction. My book is an historical reconstruction of the passage from the arts to art in general within the more general transition from feudalism to capitalism. The artist does not belong to the more typical transition from the artisan to the worker but the transition from artisan to artist takes place at the same time and under the same changing conditions. In the first part of the book I trace the transition from the artisan to the artist, from the workshop to the studio, from antiquarianism to art history and the passage from the guild to the academy to the studio and exhibition condition. In the second part of the book I examine the various ways in which art and labour have been conceived within political thought from Utopian Socialism to Anti-Work.

Rather than asserting that the definitive shift from the artisan to the artist took place during the Renaissance, despite the survival of the apprenticeship system long after it, I trace several specific historical transitions. I scrutinise the argument that the modern concept of art is formed in the seventeenth century with the Academies of Painting and Sculpture and the corresponding category of the several distinct Fine Arts and I construct an alternative trajectory in which the Fine Arts were elevated towards the liberal arts and above the mechanical arts but remaining within the hierarchical regime of the arts that corresponded to the guild system. Art’s antagonism to capitalism is rooted historically in the academic elevation of the Fine Arts according to a hierarchy of practices in which manual work was shunned, an animosity which, it must be said, is not extinct today. The academy system drove a lasting wedge between art and the artisanal traditions of handicraft, workshop training and direct commerce with the consumers of works of art but did so on the basis of an aristocratic model of patronage that by the end of the eighteenth century was dissolved. Art, I argue, extends the social detachment of the Fine Arts on the basis of the industrialisation and semi-industrialisation of the various tasks such as manufacturing paint and brushes that had previously been produced within the workshop. The critical relationship between art and capitalism is formed, therefore, by a process in which all those elements of artistic production that can be commodified, mechanised, industrialised and manufactured by wage-labour appear to be external to art as such because they are supplied by companies who sell artists their raw materials. As such, Art & Labour extends and qualifies my argument for art’s economic exceptional in Art & Value.


6°) You are a theoretician but also an artist. How the issues you raise in your intellectual productions affect your individual and collective artistic practice ? And conversely, how your own artistic practice influences your theoretical thinking of art ?

In some sense the theoretical work comes out of a perception that the established theories of art and capitalism do not apply to the way that I work and the way that other artists work. As a Marxist I have read a lot of theory that argued boldly that art has been commodified in capitalism and that the artworld is essentially a section of the luxury trade. I’ve also read a lot about how all attempts at critique in art are easily or inevitably recuperated by the market, the state or big business. None of this seemed to be well evidenced or relevant to a great swathe of independent and critical artistic production. At first I had the impression that commodification theory only applied to a minority of artists who make a living from making art through commercial galleries, but my economic analysis drew a more decisive line between art and the capitalist mode of production that includes even those artists who sell their works through galleries. It is not that capitalism has left art alone but that the art market is anomalous in certain key respects. My artworks, as part of the Freee art collective, are often freely distributed to the public or operate through some non-market processes of the public sphere. We don’t really make artworks, we have a set of formats and tools for experimenting with the construction of publics. This is because we are not interested in customers or audiences. We’re interested primarily in reconfiguring how art can operate socially.



[1]That you exposed during the 2017 Historical Materialism Conference in London.