Artwork or not work? – Why art is sacred and the key to sociability

Erik Empson
Egon Schiele: “The work of art is sacred, too.”

E.F Schumacher: “…there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price.”

The awe which may have once greeted any one excellent work of art, is today more likely to be generated by the price it fetched when sold than anything to do with the work’s visual affect. How do we account for this apparent reversal?

Art, because of its uniqueness, and because it is the result of irreducible, complex human labour, never fitted into the Marxian conception of value and work – based as it was on factory production and its particular type of discipline. But in escaping that dreary paradigm, artists themselves have long struggled over the problem of authenticity and the commodity form and in so doing sought to challenge the separation between art and life.

Western capitalist societies have gradually overcome the division between mental and manual labour, the time of productive work has been extended beyond the workplace; the production of commodities no longer involves the reduction of the worker to part of the machine, but mobilises their total creative abilities as a social human being. Whether employed or not, whether successful or not, all members of society create and transmit value.

At the same time much of the precariousness, irregularity, flexibility and types of free labour that previously characterised artistic practice has been generalised to all working lives; to make a living today means to mould and shape personhood in a perverse play of changing identities. Conversely, artists’ practice has come to involve more and more profane and mundane elements that belong to the business world and have very little to do with art.

All social activity is now imbued with immaterial and affective elements and it is impossible to think of aesthetic communication as an extra-economic category. The nature of capital has changed; originally mere alienated human labour in quantity, its forms of being have qualitatively proliferated. Finance capital, social capital, creative capital, cultural capital all exercise discrete dispositifs of control over the whole gamut of human social activity even though they are all still the result of the estrangement of human energies into private hands. Thus, whether private or public, work in general is increasing returning to its organic unity with life. Unfortunately this life continues to be, for the most part, unpleasant.

The reason we find the costs of certain works of art so incredulous is because art, like no other ‘commodity’, increases its value by being consumed. This has always been true of it no matter the economic system. But today because the consumption is driven by soulless banknotes, aesthetic value and economic value collide into a troubled unity. So long as this approbation is dictated by who has more capital (financial, cultural or otherwise) rather than by the whole society of producers whose energies and activities, sensibilities and inclinations make meaningful art possible, this collision of values cannot be resolved.

One of the current effects of this is the creation of a spectacular gulf between haves and have-nots within the art world, reproducing (albeit seemingly arbitrarily) the wider inequality in society at large. Golden geese artists are a conduit for the primitive accumulation and valorisation of the total aesthetic energies of mankind. And there is no better figure for this expropriation than that obscenity of a diamond encrusted skull. The success of one equals the dispossession of thousands; and seeing no alternative the craven pander to this elitism.

But even in its distorted, profane capitalist integument, the question of what it means to own a piece of art (how the consumption of another’s labour augments value), allows us an insight into the immutable and universal nature of what art is.

Art is the self-valorisation of society, and a key to the nature of sociability itself. That concatenation produces more value rather than less, is itself the very possibility of society.

Ultimately, economic systems are successful only because of the energies that are invested in them. Capital is not dynamic, people are, and art is the key to the perpetual motion of society. This is why it is sacred. The excess intrinsic to the value of art yet so debased by the art market can be recovered. And that would mean that to enjoy art would also be to profit from it; having pleasure not squandering but augmenting the wealth of social experience. The difficulty is new, but the solution an old one. Society’s problem is not that it produces a surplus but what it does with it.

Text written for The Free Art Fair, London, October 2008 – see the whole catalogue here

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