It has become a moderately popular pastime to accuse modern philosophy and theory, particularly Marxism, of evincing a crypto-idealist aversion to objecthood. Bruno Latour claims that the quintessential modern project is to liberate the subject from its dependency on the object, one prominent instance of which is the Marxian critique of the commodity fetish, that archetypal ‘bad object’.footnote1 Is materialism, then, in the grips of a religious impulse to spurn the material world and ‘attend to things invisible’—in the form of grand theoretical notions?footnote2 In fact, for dialectical materialism theoretical abstractions are necessitated by the abstraction inherent in the economic system; the commodity is regarded as insufficiently material, as too ‘theological’, prone to idealist pretenses. In Terry Eagleton’s words, ‘As pure exchange-value, the commodity erases from itself every particle of matter; as alluring auratic object, it parades its own unique sensual being in a kind of spurious show of materiality’.footnote3 But this inherent duality of the commodity is not static; over time, the ‘spurious’ materiality of the ‘auratic object’ seems to become more so, the commodity becoming increasingly dematerialized and abstract. As Vilém Flusser noted, to abstract means to subtract, and specifically to subtract data from matter; throughout history, abstraction has been a movement towards information.footnote4 In the ‘information economy’, capitalism has embraced a quasi-theological narrative of dematerialization, creating a need to redefine materialism that is only heightened by the turmoil in which this economy now finds itself.

Here artworks can be highly illuminating. With its ‘theological whims’, the Marxian commodity is a curious caricature of the work of art, and conversely works of art can be seen as commodities that are as eccentric as they are exemplary. An analysis of commodification with examples drawn from art should therefore not be seen as an imposition of political or economic categories on art, but as a way to put specific qualities of art works into relief. This is not to depoliticize Marxian theory, but rather to accept that aesthetic thought—seen by Jacques Rancière as an inherently contentious conceptualization and division of the sensible realm—is always, implicitly or explicitly, political.footnote5 Works of art are themselves a mute form of political economy, offering insights into the changing nature of the schizoid entity that is the commodity, which today is seemingly dematerializing itself into thin air.

In 1937, Meyer Schapiro noted that ‘The highest praise of [modern artists’] work is to describe it in terms of magic and fetishism’.footnote6 Some fifteen years later, Robert Rauschenberg hung sundry little arbitrary-looking objects from trees in a Roman park under the title Personal Fetishes. With their placement on branches, and seemingly random character, they evoked not so much Freudian sexual fetishism as (an individual version of) African religious fetishism as defined by Charles de Brosses in 1760. The term fetish was based on the Portuguese word feitiço, which derived from the Latin factitius and which was often used in Portugal to refer to ‘magical’ objects; it also came to be used for objects encountered by traders and missionaries in West Africa. On the basis of reports about African feitiços, De Brosses constructed a theory of a primitive phase of religion, preceding to idolatry proper, in which humans revered randomly chosen objects. De Brosses claimed that ‘These divine fetishes are no other than the first material object it pleases each nation or individual to select and consecrate in a ceremony of their priests: a tree, a mountain, the sea, a piece of wood, a lion’s tail, a pebble, a shell, salt, a fish, a plant, an animal of a certain species, such as cow, goat, elephant, sheep: in effect, anything imaginable of this kind’.footnote7 It has been argued that this is a misconception, since the materials used in Nkisi—objects that presumably were at the basis of the Western notion of the African fetish—are laden with meaning, and are part of a ‘complex system of cosmological references’.footnote8 With a fine disregard for the facts, Enlightenment theory thus appropriated and exacerbated the monotheistic accusation of idolatrous materialism; here we have proto-idols that are indeed nothing but base matter. Whereas idols at least represent some deity, however illusory, African fetishes were seen as arbitrary objects without any redeeming quality: crude, primitive proto-idols.

Objects that were seen through the lens of this theory were eagerly collected, not least in avant-garde circles. The 1938 exhibition of ‘African Negro Art’ at the moma contained a ‘Fetish with calabash and shells’ from the collection of Tristan Tzara—a Congolese object consisting of a small anthropomorphic figure mounted on a gourd with a garland of shells.footnote9 Displayed and publicized by a major museum, such an object is anything but base matter. Promoted by specialized dealers, the ‘African fetish’ became a brand among connoisseurs—its own commodified doppelgänger. When Adorno noted that of ‘the work of art’s autonomy . . . nothing remains but the fetishism of the commodity—a regression to the archaic fetishism from which art originated’, he too implicitly posited ‘African’ fetishism as the truth of modern art, but with the crucial difference that archaism now resides in the value form of the commodity itself, not in any surface primitivism.footnote10 The Marxian commodity fetish is no arbitrary object, nor is it necessarily—let alone purely—material. The economically progressive produces the neo-archaic.

In Marx’s analysis, art constituted a marginal category that could safely be discounted, since in many respects it remained artisanal and not fully integrated in capitalist surplus production. For Marx, capitalism is based on the difference between the labour-power purchased by the capitalist and the actual labour performed by the worker. Labour-power, or ‘human labour in the abstract’, is a standardized quantity expressed in wages.footnote11 A craftsman working independently does not create surplus value, hence he does not generate capital. Only if he were employed in some company would this be the case; for only then would he sell his labour-power to an employer who pockets the difference between the price paid for this labour-power and the labour actually performed. While Marx realized that publishers or gallery owners functioned as capitalist entrepreneurs, he by and large considered art to be in the economic rearguard.footnote12 Nonetheless, as a quasi-autonomous entity ruled by an obscure logic, Marx’s commodity can be read as a macabre parody of the work of art, and with the rise of the culture industry, art would in many ways become the ultimate commodity: the rearguard became the vanguard.

Art long remained exceptional because works of visual art were typically unique, rather than mass produced; this made economical analysis in terms of statistical averages such as labour-power extremely difficult. However, as mass (re)production increasingly penetrated art, and as the capitalist economy became increasingly ‘culturalized’, the work of art attained a status that can be called exemplary. For Giorgio Agamben, the example is a singularity that transcends the opposition of universal and particular.footnote13 As singularity, an example is always also an exception; the work of art is an exemplary commodity precisely in so far as it is exceptional. As the exemplary exception, the modern and the contemporary work of art can serve to focus on the changing status, and even the changing nature, of the object. If modernist artists exacerbated their works’ exceptional status through the formal purification of their idioms and the creation of unique, handmade pieces, artists in the Duchampian line created artistic commodities that are exceptional not as hermetic forms of modernist withdrawal, but as reflexive meta-commodities.footnote14 Their exception lies not in any claim to transcend the system, but in their mode of operating within in.

With the ready-made, the artistic commodity became on the surface all but indistinguishable from ‘regular’ commodities, as artists became consumers buying their works ready-made. However, as John Roberts has argued, this should not blind us to the fact that these artists also produce value: by recontextualizing pre-existing commodities, the artist performs an act of immaterial labour which not only, as Duchamp put it, ‘create[s] a new thought for that object’, but in doing so also creates new value.footnote15 Has the economy as a whole attempted to emulate this feat? Value is indeed increasingly determined by the ‘social relations’ between the object and other commodities; monetary value is inextricably bound with ‘symbolical’ value. As the work of art reveals itself to be the absolute commodity, appearance and truth switch sides and the ‘archaic’ proves to be economically progressive. When, decades after they were ‘chosen’, Duchamp’s ready-mades started fetching high prices, tabloid newspapers had a field-day in attacking the ‘absurd’ prices paid by snobbish collectors for what are after all just urinals and bottle racks that you could buy for a fraction of the cost at a hardware store. The work of art thus appears as supremely irrational, while the ‘behaviour’ of other goods on the market is experienced as natural; the work of art would then be more irrational, more purely fetishistic, more regressive than the average commodity.