Project: Art as Commodity

Commodification of the Art or Cultural object:

The OCA handbook introduces the idea that art or any creative output is commodified by the capitalist structure, which cannot instead value it for properties such as beauty, intellect and spiritualism. Various modern artists have produced art which is more difficult to commodify in this way (Haveland, 2009:28)


Text:  The Fetishism of Commodities and the secret thereof.

The following represents a paraphrasing from Marx’s Das Kapital (1867).


Marx begins by saying that commodities are more complicated than they first appear. Yes, they are made by man to be used and perform functions, and are the products of man’s work, which is easily understood. They are fashioned in materials, and remain clearly those materials when finished (the wooden table is an example given). Marx states however, that when they are considered as commodities, they are changed ‘into something transcendent’, and that somehow in relation to all other commodities it takes on new meaning and import (Marx,1867).

This opening paragraph is quite dramatic; the text is a little imprecise and unclear (and for today’s reader, overly complicated).I have found that this style is very characteristic of some writings from our required text ‘Art in Theory 1900-2000’. Take for example Lenin’s essay on the freedom of the proletariat press ‘Party Organization and Party literature’(Lenin, 2003: 138-141) which is written in rather long and complicated sentences, which can be difficult to grasp. However, some writings seem to be written in a much clearer style, for example ‘from Expressionism’ by Hermann Bahr (2003:116-121), or ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill’ by Hans Prinzhorn ( 2003:116-124).

Marx says that the commodity holds a mystery not because it has a value in its use, nor through characteristics of the way it was made (however complicated a process) because

  • this is ultimately made by an ordinary human being, and
  • the amount of effort/time expended in the making does not necessarily make it good quality
  • When man works at anything this work has a social function

This final point seems a little oddly made in the paragraph. I wonder whether Marx underestimates the power in a human being here, in order to advance his own argument. What about the mystery and power shown in the production of a Beethoven piano sonata for example?

Marx seems to think it obvious that the mystery within the commodity takes the form of the commodity itself, and that in all sorts of labour the product is essentially equal between one worker and the next (though this is refuted by his previous statements about time/effort and quality above!), and that the product of effort x time worked gives the value of the commodity, and the social relationship of the workers is seen not between themselves, but through the product. The mystery in a commodity is, to Marx, the idea of a social relationship, between the man and the object, that is revealed or contained (hidden or obvious is not made clear initially though it is developed later), by that object. He makes the analogy with viewing an object. A viewed object (analogous to the commodity) is sensed to be outside the eye (seen as a commodity form), but, there are elements of it which have been transferred imperceptibly into the organism’s being. This happens when light rays enter the eye and are transferred into chemical impulses which are interpreted by the brain. He admits that this analogy is not completely adequate, because through vision something does physically transfer (the light), whereas the social relationship perceived within a commodity is in no way physically transferred or physically within the object. In order to overcome this weakness he introduces the idea, fundamental to religion, of the physical materialisation of immaterial things. In this same way the social relationship of man to the commodity is made physical within the commodity itself. This he calls the Fetishism of the commodity.

Within Marx’s argument here, I see a parallel with the idea of the difference between the perceived and the identified (or introjected) discussed by Fenichel (1999: 331), who believes that looking is not just passively perceiving, but may involve a more physical sampling of the objects. Perhaps in this sense the social relationship within a commodity can be sampled by the viewer? Fenichel does however counter that Freud views all acts of seeing as, ultimately, the archaic way of seeing; the physical introjection (Freud, cited in Fenichel, 1999:331). It seems to me that the action of making a commodity may also be thought in terms of having a social function (ideology?) interpellated upon it, through the chain of Ideological State Apparatuses, practices, rituals, and finally acts, suggested by Althusser (1999: 317-323).

Marx continues, the producers of commodities work either alone, or as groups, but separated from other commodity producers. If the relationship of these people to the commodity is in effect contained within the commodity, the only way that the different social relationships of the groups can be summated from individuals or individual groups into the total relationship of people to the objects in society is through the act of exchange of these commodities. In fact only through exchange of the commodities can there be a true reflection of the relationship of labour between one person and another; or in other words, those relations are ‘material relations between persons and social relations between things’.

Producers therefore work for two reasons. Firstly to satisfy the need of society for the useful things it needs (for the good of society), and also through exchange , to satisfy the needs of the producers, who’s labour is of equal worth to the labour of all others. Marx proposes that this idea amounts to the equalization of unequal job roles, which for the worker can only be appreciated through the abstract idea of the equal ‘value’ of the exchanged commodities (in terms of labour invested), additional to their particular utility. This is a very difficult paragraph to grasp, and seems to be both a little unclear, and a little repetitious. It is very prosaic and seems to be written with one eye on dramatic effect, rather than a thoroughly efficient communication of an idea.

At this stage of my reading I was also a little confused as to the words Marx was using and defining, and several questions were surfacing in my mind. Does Marx believe that value is more important than the utility? Did his use of the word ‘value’ equate to what we think of as the price of an article? If value is a summary of the formula effort X duration of the labour used to make it, this term already seems likely to be not wholly related to price in our non-ideal society. And how does the argument relate to wages? The corresponding idea is presumably that all labour is worth the same, given the same effort and duration. Perhaps I needed to read more of the chapter to clarify some of these points, and perhaps some would only be addressed by other chapters of the book.

Value, Marx continues, converts each product into a ‘social hieroglyphic’, which allows us to infer, and equalise between commodities, all the many different types of labours which produced them. He states that it was recently scientifically discovered (although there is no citation or reference) that the value of a commodity is simply the physical capacity of it to reflect the labour given to its production. He believes that this is a sign of development of human society, though he counters that people still judge a man’s labour by what it is he produces and how it is produced.

We now move onto a very practical argument about how we decide how much of one commodity should be exchanged for another. Marx says that this is often taken for granted within a system. This is admirably reinforced by a small personal mental exercise; my belief say, that 35 p is cheap for a can of coke, but £1.20 is expensive. These two items are very different (one is a sweet liquid having some nutrients, whereas the other is an inert metal having no utility other than for exchange).The system of exchange can be fluid though- as the amount and proportions of every commodity needed may vary due to a great many factors outside the producer’s control. For example, the many different production processes take place in relative isolation from one another (limiting communication of requirements presumably). In addition to this however, the value of commodity is also ruled by the labour time needed to make it. Thus both the requirement for and the value of the commodity (in terms of labour) are both factors which influence the proportions of commodities exchanged. This part of the argument seems to introduce the idea that equal value of labour is influenced by the factor which economists would call supply and demand.

The next paragraph begins in a very difficult style, which obscures Marx’s ideas and views. The sentences are very long, very rambling, and he attempts to define ideas and terms such as price and value. He view seems to be that the social element integral to the production of commodities is well developed historically, and that we therefore seem to concentrate now instead on the price of goods. This ignores and conceals the well developed society structured concept of value within a commodity, which Marx seems to suggest is a bad thing.   An example is given which uses a comparison between coats, boots, linen and gold, but which does not completely clarify the ideas in the paragraph. This could be due to a rather old style of language used, or perhaps a loss in translation of the work.

The next example of Robinson Crusoe seems much clearer. Because he is alone (no other labour force to complicate), and because he is on an island (where prior development has not occurred), and because it’s critical for him to determine the correct proportion of resources needed, his process of having an inventory of useful things which he owns (commodities such as stored fish, kept goats, etc…), and how many hours he expended on them (their true Marxist value), is the more obvious as a measure of value.

Marx next discusses an intermediate stage of society- a medieval one involving serf and lords. Once again the argument is a little unclear to me (is there a lost comma somewhere too, which changes the sense of a sentence?), but he appears to say that there is enough interaction of goods and services for the relationship between working society and labour expended to be visible and perceivable (there are lots of examples of goods for services and payment in kind). The social structure of work is not seen only in the final finished product.

The apotheosis of this argument would seem to me to be that if men labour on only one commodity or one job (not several), it tends towards the system whereby social relations and value is defined only by exchange –when commodities are traded. Is this why some stressed modern workers escape the rat race of one repetitive job, paid in money, to live a more visible subsistence lifestyle where the social aspect of work is more obvious?

The next example clarifies further still, and is labelled ‘common or directly associated labour’ (Marx, 1867). A peasant family is discussed, which is virtually self sufficient, each member labouring, and the amount of labour done, and any division in labour types is a reflection of the family society as well as external conditions such as weather and the seasons. This type of system produces objects of utility, which are used and highlight family structure. They are not commodities in the sense defined at the beginning of the piece.

A community of free living individuals is cited next. Here the work is similar to the Robinson Crusoe example, but on a many-person scale. Everyone undertakes work (it is not clear how much each is working in the ‘many small jobs’ model) or the ‘one job, repeated’ model), buteveryone works, and the amount of time worked is dependent on a. The need for the community for different amounts of useful products-for subsistence, and b. The amount worked by different people, in relation to their take-home of the overall subsistence. Once again the social relationships within the workplace are clear and simple.

The product/social working economy is now compared to the commodity style economy. The social economy style is associated with the East (not West), and with more primitive cultures as compared to sophisticated ones. It is associated with the worship of nature, and certain religious characteristics (but within religious sects- Christianity/Protestantism tends towards the commodity style), and also with the subjection of people (in some form of slavery presumably), and with a relatively low production rate. In the primitive cultures the system changes from social to commodity style as these communities then begin to dissolve. This discussion of religion finishes with a confusing sentence. Marx seems to suggest that return to religion would be the best way to ensure visible and obvious social relations between labour (the primitive way). However he actually says

‘’The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature’’.


The explanation could be as follows.   Although these social relations are found in religious societies as a rule, he hopes that religion can be destroyed (Marx was anti-religion), leaving its beneficial characteristic- ie. ‘perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature’(Marx,1867).

The commodity model cannot rid itself of the problem of unclear social relations between workers unless it has time over which to develop, workers who are free, and have a way of influencing the system.

After setting up the terms of the argument, and discussing the two extremes of production, Marx now begins the process of criticising the system. Perhaps this is a good illustration of a dialectical argument. He criticises the economic status quo who say that nature has a part to play in exchange value of commodities. This he believes misunderstands the fetishism of the commodity – that it reflects the labour needed to make it- and has nothing to do with nature. Also, although the fetishism within the monetary system was easily seen working behind early incarnations of bourgoise societies, it is much less obvious within the modern developed economy. In the modern world the value of gold and silver are seen as inherently and mystically high (and so too the earth- with respect to property rights) but the value of labour (underpinning everything) is not considered high!

As a final thought he says that ‘exchange value is the property of things, use value is a property of man’. And that the use value is a value found over and above the material properties itself, whilst the exchange value is only realised through exchange (Marx,1867).

Marx’s last few ideas do not completely clarify the difference between use value and exchange value. More questions surfaced in my mind. Does a loaf of bread have use value and exchange value to a starving man? Is a diamond not useful to a man s subsistence? Does it have use /exchange value? Has a £5 note use value / exchange value?

I believe that societies and economies have changed massively in the 150 years since Marx wrote this. We live in a digital and technological age, and materials now are not thought of as they would have been then. Perhaps the need to reclassify some of the materials here may contribute a little to how we understand the argument (we have new uses for many- take diamond, which now has utility (as a hard substance) as well as a mystical value of sparkliness and beauty).

Having read this piece, I am not sure fundamentally whether Marx believes that exchange value is everything? He must believe in the latter because it values PEOPLE via their work. But surely anti-capitalists such as Marx (Das Kapital is a critique of Capitalism) would say that the inherent beauty in say a diamond, or an idea, is intrinsically good?




In your blog………….

Can you see ways in which this may help us to understand the art market?

Broadly speaking there seems to me to be two art markets in the world. Publicly it is dominated by the celebrity and big money art market, with huge (some would say obscene) prices paid for artworks. On the other hand normal citizens can either buy modestly priced art which they like to look at, and place in their home, or go to see it at a museum or gallery.

Of course art markets have changed over the centuries. In medaevil times the main buyer of art was the church, and this continued into the renaissance period. Large art commissions would have been very expensive, but would have reflected the labour and materials used to produce them (their value and price were fairly similar); there was no hyper inflated art market, and few people used art for their own private use.

During the rise of the middle classes in the 17th C, feudal society began to make way for an increasingly merchant based society. Ordinary people (not royal or holy, though bourgoise) began to buy pictures to enjoy in their own homes (especially in Holland, where the genre of Still Life, and realism were very popular). These objects were increasingly bought and sold as commodities as were other signs of increasing wealth- access to foreign luxury goods and foods for example.   This Dutch art market would have been similar to today’s lesser art market in the UK/globally. There was no hyperinflation, and the objects were bought mainly for their utility – they were beautiful and interesting. Some famous examples of hyperinflation of commodities did occur in these times- such as the rise and collapse of the Dutch Tulip market, and the British ‘South Sea bubble’; but the art market reflected the value of the art and no more.

It seems that the lesser art market today is still based on utility (that a person likes to look at the art), much as in 17th C Holland. The greater market is based on the idea of a commodity for exchange-its utility is less important some would say – it is a way of making money through buying and selling art, through its exchange as a commodity. It also seems clear that within the lesser art market, the value of works of art are somewhat similar to their price (a painting which took several days may be bought for a few hundred pounds), whereas the celebrity market is made up of art whose value (the labour expended by the famous artist who made it) is much smaller than its price (the desire for man to own it and the amount of things which he will exchange for it).

Most art transactions on the news are of Monet’s, Van Gogh’s, Turner’s, etc and are all about fame, high quality (Marx does not define value in terms of quality of labour), and huge prices. Last week I heard a radio programme discussing the impending auction of Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen- for circa £ 5-10 million. Yes, some of the art is purchased for museums, but much is privately owned by companies or individuals , and if viewed by fewer people it’s combined utility (as a beautiful/spiritual object) must be diminished-compare a million people who see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre with a hypothetical billionaire who has a famous Picasso in his living room. However note also that extreme Modernist artists have always been dismissive of the type of classical, traditional art which filled the museums of their day; they thought it useless. The Futurists declared that ‘all forms of imitation must be despised, all forms of originality glorified’ (Boccionie,,2003: 150), and Malevich that ‘only with the disappearance of a habit of mind which sees in pictures little corners of nature, madonnas and shameless Venuses, shall we witness a pure work of living art’ and that more Modernist ‘intuitive creation has no utilitarian purpose’   (Malevich, 2003: 173).

These famous art works (which in the 21st Century now include the extremely Modernist, and Post-modern) are all about price and nothing about value. The price here is determined by supply and demand, and is vast multiples of its value. These artworks have a mystical price, similar to the mystical price of gold and silver which underpins economies (Marx,1867). These prices are a use value characteristic of men, but no part of the value characteristic of them as objects (Marx,1867).

In times past artists were often considered producers or craftsman; think of the builders of an Egyptian pyramid, or the many artists involved in a single painting produced in a Renaissance workshop such as Verrocchio’s, where Leanardo Da Vinci was apprenticed. In contrast art produced in the Western, Classical/Romantic/Modernist ‘developed’ societies of the last few hundred years, is made by tose considered ‘genius’ and celebrities of their day (or if not theirs- certainly ours).

The earlier artistic objects were produced in a way that the social relationships between the artists involved were clear, and were not concealed within the final work. The art of the lone genius (one thinks of Beethoven in music, and Jackson Pollock in modern art) had no corresponding visible production structure. These latter products would be considered as displaying the fetishism of commodity, and of lower value (in terms of labour hours) than the former ones (Marx,1867).

Several attempts have been made to restore both the social element of labour within art production, and the relevance of art to the masses, increasing the utility of art within an increasingly developing society. One example was the Arts and Crafts movement, led in the in the UK led by William Morris and John Ruskin (Gropius, 2003: 310). The Post-modernist movement also reacted against the idea of a single handed genius as the sole producer of works of art. They produced art which mitigated against the idea of a unique work of art with some mystic function. Artists like Andy Warhol (who started work as a Graphic artist- using art to Sell products), wanted to increase the element of the machine in art production using techniques such as Screen Printing whereby many similar products could be produced, differing only in small ways. He believed that ‘somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me’ (Warhol, 2003: 748).


Does the article go any way towards explaining the sort of work made by artists such as Jeff Koons?

Koons art has explored several ideas, subjects, and genres. He often references previous artists and styles, but using his own style- bringing together many different ideas within the same object. He frequently references ideas such as advertising, mass media, pop culture, and post-modernism/minimalism. He is overtly popular and disliked the abstract nature of modern art.

Fig1. Puppy, 1992. Jeff Koons


In the puppy, the idea of elites such as dog breeders and topiarists are set against mass market ideas and images of the puppy and flowers In this work he also references the old within the new- the idea of a classical garden as art, within a modern artwork. The gigantic size of many of his works could be a reference to the increasing size and ‘sophistication’ of society and the economy. The reference to commodities within this piece is obvious- puppies and flowers are often used on greetings cards and as nick-nacks in the gift shop, as well as being an advertising staple (Andrex loo roll puppies..). The audience is undoubtedly the masses or the working class- and the elites of the established art world are not catered for in the rather kitsch work.

Fig 2, Jeff and Ilona (Made in Heaven), Jeff Koons (1990)


This sculpture is one of a set. It seems to be a mix of the new and the old. We have a scene which reminds us of ancient classical mythology pictures involving a hero, his lover, and what looks like a cupid in the background. However, he has updated the image- he is in the scene (as artist), and his wife (an ex porn star and Italian politician).   Koons has presented an artistic object which on the surface is a mythological love scene. However this is transcended by virtue of being an object made by a famous artist, with the ensuing spotlight of attention, into an object stamped with a text of the shocking contemporary issues of Italian politics and pornography.


Find some examples of Koons’ work and read up on Koons.

Jeff Koons (b 1955) works in Painting, design, and 3-D objects/sculpture. Between 1 980-86 he spent time as a commodity broker on Wall Street. His company is called Jeff Koons Productions Inc. and he works with many assistants who produce the work which he designs- he is not physically involved with their production (Graham-Dixon, 2008).


Find 2 examples of artists who work in the same way as Koons.

Fig 3 Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917(replica 1964)


Fig 4. Double Elvis, (1963) Andy Warhol,


Fig. 5 Double Hulk Elvis Origin Train Swish   (2008) by Jeff Koons


Fig. 5 is a screen print which references the famous Warhol image ‘Double Elvis’ (fig 4). Koons has updated the image, using a comic character the Incredible Hulk. The use of a big green monster to replace one of the most famous and celebrated 20th C icons seems tongue in cheek, and the use of a comic hero is populist, and lacking bourgoise sophistication.


 List of Illustrations:

Figure 1. Koons, J. Puppy (1992) [sculpture] At: on 27th November 2016)

Figure 2 , Koons, J. Made in Heaven (1989) [Sculpture] At: on 27 November 2016)

Fig 3 Duchamp, M. Fountain (1917) [sculpture] at : (accessed on 27th November 2016)

Fig. 4 Warhol, A, Double Elvis (1963) [silkscreen print] at (accessed on 27th November 2016)

Fig. 5 Koons, J. Double Hulk Elvis Origin Train Swish (2008) [screen print] on 27th November 2016)



Althusser, L (1993). ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall,,S (eds), London. SAGE Publications. p317-324

Boccione, U et al. (2003), ‘Futurist painting: technical manifesto ‘ in Harrison, C and Wood, P (eds) Art in theory 1900-2000. USA. Blackwell. pp150-154

Fenichel, O, (1993). ‘The scoptophilic instinct and identification’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans,J and Hall,S (eds), London. SAGE Publications. p327-40

Freud (no date) cited in Fenichel,, O, (1993). ‘The scoptophilic instinct and identification’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans,J and Hall,S (eds), London. SAGE Publications. Pp327-40

Graham-Dixon, A (ed.) (2008), Art: The Definitive Visual Guide, London, DK Publishing Ltd.

Gropius, W. (2003). ‘The theory and organisation of the Bauhaus’. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P (eds) Art in theory 1900-2000. USA. Blackwell. pp 310-314

Haveland, P. (2009) Visual Studies 1 Understannding Visual Culture. Barnsley : Open College of the Arts

Lenin, V. (2003) ‘Party Organisation and party Literature’ In: Harrison, C and Wood, P (eds) Art in theory 1900-2000. USA. Blackwell. pp. 138-141

Malevich, K (2003). ‘From Cubism and futurism to suprematism : The new realism in painting’. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P (eds) Art in theory 1900-2000. USA. Blackwell. pp 173-183

Marx, K. [1867], The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof , from das <;, accessed 27th November 2016

Prinzhorn, H. (2003) ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill’. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P (eds) Art in theory 1900-2000. USA. Blackwell. pp. 121-124

Warhol, A (2003). From ‘Andy warhol (1930-1987) Interview with Gene Swanson’ In: Harrison, C and Wood, P (eds) Art in theory 1900-2000. USA. Blackwell. pp 747-749