In antiquity, artists were known by name, but were considered little better than skilled laborers — in stark contrast to the public prestige afforded to their works. The same held true in the feudal period, when the value of religious artwork took on a transcendent role as the position of the artist took an proportionally inverse dive. By the time of the early Renaissance, the artists were “equals of the petite bourgeois craftsmen”1, although their growing economic independence from the system feudal courts and guilds, which once regulated and in some sense stabilized artistic production, resulted in extreme poverty for many working in the plastic arts.2

Both the medievals and the ancients lacked a concept of intellectual property, which developed from the Renaissance recognition of originality and artistic genius — a recognition that was not merely the result of technical developments within the arts, but that was made possible by concentrations of private wealth (for it was the proto-bourgeois humanists who underwrote the individuality of the artists) and the disintegration of the feudal conditions of production elsewhere in cultural and economic life.

The auction, which now occupies a central role in the art industry, gained popularity as an instrument of sale when it was used to liquidate art objects after the French Revolution (the auction’s other favorite commodity being slaves), although its development was roughly parallel with the Renaissance art trade itself, with the first public art auctions appearing in Paris and London during the middle of the 16th century.3

The second institution central to the modern art trade, the public art gallery, emerged several decades before the Revolution,4 and its predecessor — the private collection — had existed since the late feudal period. The patrimonial aspect of the private collection became, as with many things, nationalized, with the centralized state bureaucracy taking the place of the merchant patron and feudal lord.

The development (or re-development, in the case of the auction, which was used heavily by the Romans to liquidate plunder) of these financial instruments, in addition to the extension of property rights to works of genius, ran parallel with the development of capitalism, and was not at any point independent from it. That is to say, the world of modern art was never colonized by a mature system of capital, but developed — sometimes precociously — along side it.

And so it is no surprise to find that the art industry today seems to be just as sophisticated as any other sector of modern capital. The system of commercial art galleries, which mediate (along with the auction houses) many of the transactions within the contemporary art world, work within complex web of art investors, dealers, and even art hedge funds.5 Art has literally become a commodity, with some art dealers and galleries catering almost exclusively to the investor’s eye to appreciation value in both antiquities and the products of more contemporary luminaries.

Beyond accepting this status quo uncritically, there are two options available given the status of art and revolution in the current age.

The first is to accept that the means of artistic production are themselves intimately and necessarily bound with the conditions of the present, and (following Benjamin and Adorno) to find transgression in the tensions held within the inherent non-identity6 of artworks themselves. As socio-historical conditions change, the tensions held in the focus of particular works of art dissolve in relation to their stance toward the present, or they take on new roles wholly unintended by their makers. But with the tensions in focus, the inherent non-identity of the artwork stands in opposition to the social concepts of a given historical moment, both in spite and because of the productive relations that underpin it. It does not fundamentally matter whether or not an artwork is traded as a commodity; insofar as it still functions as art, its capacity to disclose those tensions will remain.

The second is to see art as a vanguard form that must be liberated from the present conditions of production. This would include various attempts to create art, or make art out of, non-sanctioned sectors of social activity, as was envisioned by the Situationists some decades ago, much as it has been again amongst some anarchists.7 This would be an aesthetics of praxis, “lived” art, and radical play.

As appealing as it might seem, there is a kind of circularity to this latter option, one which seems to open the way to both bad art and bad politics. On the one hand, it seems problematic to say that it’s possible to liberate the means of artistic production without liberating the means of production in toto, given that the social availability of food, housing, healthcare, education, and everything else is mediated by relations to capital. On the other hand, there’s something politically irrelevant to working from within the fissures of the current system or within zones of temporary autonomy. It would be like saying that squatting is a realistic solution the problem of affordable housing, or that dumpster diving is a socially viable alternative to high food prices. And then there is the question of the relationship between the means of artistic production and the truth-content of the artwork. What is the truth-content of artwork generated from anomalous conditions of production? Is it any more or less likely to disclose the tensions and contradictions of its moment as that which is produced within the commodity form itself?

1The Sociology of Art
Arnold Hauser, K.J. Northcott. 1974.

2Ibid.

3Pedigree and Panache, Shireen Huda. 2008

4Inventing the Louvre, Andrew McClellan. 1999.

5 Art and the Deal, New York Post. 2008.

6 “Non-identity” in this case refers to the failure of concepts to fully identify with their content. Art is paradigmatic of non-identity in at least two important ways. Adorno once said that “art can not fullful its concept”, meaning that as a discipline or practice, art is always redefining what it is, is always transgressing the concept. In the second sense, artworks — their truth content being held in semblance — are themselves displays of the non-identical.

7 See Hakim Bey’s Immediatism or Temporary Autonomous Zone.

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