As the crisis of financialized capitalism has morphed into a creeping catastrophe, the literature on questions of art and value has burgeoned.* For Marx and many in his wake, in economic terms art was a partial exception—and the nature and extent of this exception are once more being hotly debated. These debates occur at a moment when the ‘culturalization’ of the economy and the economization of culture suggest that this exceptionality may be becoming a thing of the past.footnote1

The following is an exercise in what McKenzie Wark has termed low theory: a praxis that ‘does not set its own agenda but detects those emerging in key situations and alerts each field to the agendas of others’.footnote2 When it comes to value and labour, art functions as a subject in two distinct ways: a subject of analysis, and also itself a quasi-subject that actively challenges and produces concepts. I will thus examine the ways in which contemporary art articulates the crises of both value and labour, with the aim not of arriving at a ‘correct’ Marxist understanding of art as commodity, or as an entity that fails to attain the status of ‘true’ commodity, but of bringing art as critical aesthetic praxis into dialogue with the work of theory.

Marx’s mature critique of political economy remained informed by romanticism, and hence by the aesthetic—for instance in the discussion of use value, which stands for the realm of the qualitative as opposed to quantifiable exchange value. The defence of the qualitative and of non-equivalence was a crucial aspect of the modern aesthetic project. It informed two distinct forms of aestheticism. The first was the more familiar phenomenon of l’art pour l’art from Gautier and Whistler to Huysmans, Wilde and beyond; the second, which could be termed utilitarian aestheticism, was embodied in Ruskin’s or Morris’s attempts to reintegrate art into daily life and the realm of ‘useful’ labour and artefacts. Both strands were attempts to soften the blows of industrial capitalism and counter the relentless triumph of abstract labour and exchange value; Ruskin’s invectives against Whistler’s ‘paint-flinging’ amounted to internecine squabbling. The episode in 1875 when the young Oscar Wilde pushed wheelbarrows full of paving stones as part of Ruskin’s project to have his students pave a road in Hinksey, near Oxford, in celebration of healthy and unalienated manual labour, shows how closely these genealogies are intertwined.footnote3

If, according to the labour theory of value, the value of a commodity is the amount of labour socially necessary for its production, Marxist and non-Marxist theorists alike have long been aware that the artwork constitutes an exception to this rule. The artist did not sell his labour power to a capitalist who could pocket the surplus value, but worked in an artisanal manner, selling his products. While any work may be productive of use values, only labour that generates surplus value for capital is ‘productive’ in Marx’s technical sense—which is to say, productive of value for capital:

In this respect, as Dave Beech has noted in his study Art and Value, modern art presents the paradoxical spectacle of commodification without true commodities. That is to say, works of art are simple commodities to which commodification remains external and a posteriori; their production process is not truly capitalist.footnote5 Art may have been subsumed formally, but not in its productive logic. Beech attempts a ‘shift from a theory of art’s exceptionalism based on choices and consumer behaviour to one based on artistic production and art’s relation to capital’, criticizing his predecessors for failing to address the fundamental logic of commodification.footnote6 However, he has a surprisingly narrow and rigid conception of what constitutes ‘properly’ capitalist production, while refusing to acknowledge that capitalism itself appears increasingly ‘exceptional’ to the labour theory of value. It is precisely this constellation that makes art a potentially privileged field of inquiry, even as much of it sinks into collector-pleasing irrelevance.