(Art for Art's Sake, Money for God's Sake)

Sven-Olov Wallenstein


"Ein Kunstwerk von mir verstehen, heisst es zu kaufen" - Apocryphical quote from German artist in the 80s

Contemporary art has a strange, often tacit and yet always heavily charged relation to economy. Art and money – the equation is for some a reason to shiver, for others it occasions critical reflections, sometimes also the idea of new ways to actively incorporate enomical sub- or infrastructures into the work itself and into the artistic process. From Duchamp to Conceptual Art a whole series of strategies has been developed, and contemporary relational aesthetics – the work as ”service,” ”intervention,” ”social trigger,” etc – becomes an increasingly integrated part in systems that are both symbolic, aesthetic, and economic. Whether this amounts to a loss of critical potential, a surrender to consumer society, or quite simply new ways of defining practice in the face of the current situation, remains an open question.

These problems are by no means new. It has often been remarked that the development of modern at runs parallel to the quick expansion of the commodity world during the 19th century. This is confirmed, rather than contradicted, by the violent resistance that many early modernists opposed to industrial capital and its annexing of the life-world – as the commodity more and more comes to define a new status of the art object and give it an increasing mobility, the resistance to this development grows as well. The very idea of aesthetic autonomy, of the work as a self-enclosed and self-referential reality, rooted in Kant’s philosophy but perfected only in the late 19th century, may be seen as a complex reaction: it is only by internalizing, in a paradoxical way, the commodity form, by becoming an absolute fetish, that the work may escape humiliation.

We could find a good illustration of the social mobilty, and of the ensuing dissolution of the stability of taste, in the shifting functions given to the Salon system. As an institution whose roots go back to the early 18th century, and as the space where art criticism and the new and active spectator role developed, it was endowed with a considerable authority. This is indicated by its shifting and unstable relations to the political power and to the Academy, but also by its role on the art market. Significantly enough, a great deal of the upsurge argainst the Tradition – symbolized by the Academy – turned into a fight around the status of the Salon, from the first battle between Romanticism and Classicism (epitomized by Delacroix and Ingres) and onwards.

The salons are subject to constant reorganization, the protectors come and go, and above all the jury system is questioned, since the rapid breakdown of artistic criteria pit the successive generations against each other in an unprecedented way. The most violent attacks often come from older artists who notice that their authority is being challenged. Then a new split occurs, between the offical Salon and the Salon des réfusés (beginning in 1863), which for us, given that we have some taste for historical irony, is one of the beginnings of repressive tolerance, not least since the bipartition from its origin has a royal sanction. This is one of the foundations for the avant-garde and its dialectical interplay within modern public life: the desire to revolt inside a system in order to change it completely. Generations of artists were shut out from the Salon, at the same time as they desired its social graces and the public rewards, which created a tense relation, that then was to take on a wholly new form when commercial galleries came to replace the Salon as a space for market and symbolic recognition. The link beetween aesthetic and market value becomes closer as the pre-set relation artist-contractor shifts into a volatile mass market, where the potential is unknown, and the demand for marketing and public recognition increases.

Courbet’s gesture when he refuses to partake in the World Exhibition 1855, and opens his own exhibition space in the vicinity – still within sight from the official pavillion – inaugurates a new phase: the artist protests against his work being mixed up with all kinds of commercial products, and at the same time this protest becomes the precise expression of a new marketing strategy. Others were to follow in Courbet’s footsteps, for instance Manet, when he set up his own pavillion during the World Exhibition 1867, or Seurat and Signac who founded their Sociéte des Artistes Indépendants in 1884, where the established processes of institutional validation where the main target, and whose offical motto was ”neither award nor jury.” If we leave the theories on painting in postimpressionism aside for the moment, we may see the obvious political connotations of this new exhibition form: the artists’ independance with respect to earlier institutions corresponds to the idea of a new public whose judgement of taste no longer is ruled by conventions, and where everybody can be a judge in matters of taste. ”When the society we dream of has come into existence, when the workers have gotten rid of the exploiters which keep them in ignorance,” Signac writes, ”then they will be able to appreciate all the different qualities in a work of art.” That this new mass audience did not materialize need not be noted; rather, we may in retrospect understand this as a new turn in the very logic of the commodity form. The artwork has to break away from traditional norms in order to produce its own values, which also applies to the sphere of economy. It is no coincidence that Seurat wants this process to intervene into the practice of painting itself – for a while he played around with the idea that the paintings were to be priced in relation to the amount of paint applied, and to the exact time it took to execute them, as if the issue was to find a new form of evaluation that would guarantee the objective status of the work in an increasingly insecure market.

The creation of new public exhibition forms is a heritage from the older idea of an ”avantgarde,” which was first formulated as a program for overcoming various types of social and aesthetic divisions. The application of the term ”avantgarde” to art derives from the group around Henri de Saint-Simon (the first time that it explicitly refers to the vanguard role of art in relation to politics, economy, and science, is in a philosophical dialogue written by one of Saint-Simons pupils, Olinde Rodrigues, in 1825). The promise signalled by this term in the middle of the 19th century is a fusion of art, politics, and science, where art, at least for a moment, seemed to be able to give plastic form to all of these social forces.

These lines of development soon diverged, however, which gave rise to a long-standing opposition between the avant-gardist and the ”petty bourgeois” (as he is characterized in Marx, Flaubert, and countless other writers). The historico-political vision presented in Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre (1855), where the intellectuals of the period all come together in one symbolic space, was never realized, and the artist more and more came to be opposed to established authorities and bourgeois public life. On the level of aesthetics and art theory, this is expressed in how the genius breaks free from the old Kantian framework – where its function was to displace the frontiers of taste by going back to a common nature, situated beneath rules and conventions, like an infinite source warranting the continuity of art history – and becomes a figure for the non-assimilable, for that which breaks apart the concept of nature and taste, and whose value lies precisely in resisting incorporation into an aesthetic consensus, while this value is novelty as also what allows the work to enter into the new sphere of circulation of the commodity.

Walter Benjamin has in a precise way described this dialectical contradiction or tension in his analysis of Baudelaire, who was perhaps the first to experience the intrusion of capital and the commodity form into the interiority of poetic language, at the same as he resists this with all his powers (a case of this would be his violent reaction against photography as one of the most telling expressions of commercial levelling of art). Just as the Parisian arcades, Baudelaire’s poems and essays for Benjamin become focal points where the old and the new confront each other; as the ”capitol of the 19th century,” Paris constitutes the very battlefield of modernity. The position of the dandy and the flaneur can thus be read not only as a romantic echo, but above all as an image of a new type of alienation. At the center of the poet’s attention we find the crowd and the chock-like encounters it creates, the dissolution of experience into momentary intensities. The artist is caught between a hopeless aristocratic self-affirmation and the (death)drive to be engulfed by the crowd, to merge into a larger whole. In this sense Baudelaire is highly ambivalent, he becomes a modernist against his own will, and in his desperate quest to re-ascertain the dignity of art he shows us its inescapable integration into the world of commodities. In his constant quest for the new, Baudelaire shows the fundamental emptiness of the novelty, Benjamin claims: the novelty of the commodity is really the eternal return of the same, and the connection between ”modernity” and ”fashion” established in Baudelaire’s poetics strikes back at the poet himself.
In the first draft to the big and unfinished Arcades project, ”Paris, Capitol of the 19th century,” Benjamin suggest how the new and the old merge, but also a kind of caesura between them, their essential non-synchronicity. Dividing time from itself, the fissure liberates us for a retroactive possibility and gives us a distance to the present which otherwise would be impossible to attain. For Benjamin, the description of 19th century Paris also becomes an image of his own actuality, a history of the present and by no means a detached historical analysis. As a ”disenchantment of the world” the capitalist process of rationalization liberates us from old myths, but it also gives rise to new ones: commodity fetishism, the ”theological whims of the commodity,” in Marx’s words, a universal phantasmagoria – and Benjamin will show us the double-edged quality of this, both historically and in his own time.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has shown to what extent the World Exhibitions influenced Marx and Engels’s description of commodity fetishism. Marx’s experiences of Crystal Palace and the first exhibition in London 1851, where commoditites and products were severed from their immediate functional value and turned into free-floating signs of ”modernity,” generates a fetishism which he describes in the following way (Capital, 1:4): "At the first glance, a commodity seems like a self-evident, trivial thing. An analysis however shows it to be a highly complex thing, full of metaphysical subtleties and theological whims [...] As soon as [the thing] appears as a commodity, it is transformed into something with supernatural qualities. Not only does it stand with its feet on the ground, it also stands on its head in relation to other commodities and develops [...] fantasies that are even more strange than if it were to start dancing on its own."

What is fascinating with this description is that it could just as well apply to the idea of the autonomous art-work, whose Kantian framework here is derived from a logic in which the use value is gradually absorbed by the exchange value so that real material and social relations appear unreal, and relations between things appear to be social. It should be emphasized that commodity fetishism in Marx is not something psychological, but an objective social structure. Art becomes autonomous in the same way that the commodity becomes a fetish, and this process cannot be undone by a return to a natural ”object-form,” since the form ”commodity” has become irreversible.

When modern sociology emerged around the turn of the century, this type of experience had already become a commonplace. In his texts on The Philosophy of Money and ”Metropolis and Spiritual Life” Georg Simmel analyzes how the monetary economy penetrates all forms of social life, rationalizes them and produces a wholly new type of consciousness. In the latter essay, Simmel writes: ”Money only asks for what is common to all phenomena, for the exchange value that levels all qualities and peculiarities to a question of mere quantity. All emotional relations between men are however based upon their individuality, whereas the rational relations only count with people as figures, i.e., as elements that in themselves are indifferent and only of interest to the extent that they produce something objectively calculable.” For Simmel, this process of rationalization gives rise to a new consciousness, which should not be understood as purely negative. In the Metropolis, ”mental life” aquires a new dimension and complexity because of the uniqueness of money and the commodity form, and this is the essence of our modernity.

In a later phase of modernism, Marcel Duchamp’s readymade will in a playful way introduce another aspect of the commodity into art, namely its seriality, and the question of how economic and aesthetic values are interrelated is brought up on another level. What occurs when we ascribe value to something? What could aesthetic value be but a position within a system – and thus analogous to the symbolic convention governing the functioning of money?
Duchamp’s desire to play with his identity as an artist, his view of both the artist’s personality and his work as a kind of dissimulation game, also relates to the ”infrastructure” of aesthetic autonomy – against Picasso’s bragging about his paintings functioning as bills, or signing paper as payment, one could oppose a work like Duchamp’s Tzank Cheque (1919): a fake cheque (originally sent to his dentist, Daniel Tzanck) whose only guarantee is the convention upholding the fiction of ”value” in art, a pure sign of (aesthetic, economic) value enacting a short-circuiting movement that brings together those spheres which convenance and good manners tend to separate. Duchamp hardly draws any radical conclusion from this, but halts his critique at the ironic indifference of the dandy – he has no intention of dissolving fetishism, instead he wants to intensify it in order to extract even more perverse effects.
His successors were not releuctant to draw them, however. Conceptual art, often leaning on the authority of Duchamp, undertakes a fundamental revolt when it demands that art should no longer consist of objects to be bought and sold, but rather should be ideas to be owned by everyone, capable of circulating freely outside traditional institutions. Marx’s analyses of commodity fetishism here gained a new currency – for what would be more fetishistic than an artwork, which seems to display exchange value in its purest form? And what could be more (at least symbolically) efficient than to attack this aesthetic institution at its very foundation?

If conceptual art thought it was possible to break with the commodity form of art, then we can in retrospect see that what it really achieved was something entirely different: the limitless expansion of the commodity logic in a transformed way – everything can be art, ”non-artistic” objects (an instruction, a description of a process, an event) can be packaged and sold. In this way, conceptual art, through its radical critque of commodity fetishism, actually prefigured the next twist in the art-economy spiral, where the focus is no longer on objects and things, but on social processes. We may find a precise analysis of this transformed commodity logic in Jean Baudrillard, whose early writings are contemporary with conceptual art (even though his own examples are ususally taken from Pop Art). We are moving, he claims, from the political economy once analyzed by Marx, to a political economy of the sign, where exhange value has finally absorbed use value, which makes it possible for use value to be recreated as a myth: truth and falsity, nature and artificiality, now form oppositional pairs within an economy that is semiotic and psychic rather than based on industrial production – it produces affects and effects consumed by us so that we may reproduce ourselves as the subjects of consumption. We live the ”object system,” Baudrillard claims, as simultaneously ”sense and counter-sense”: it constitutes a point of intersection between two logics, a process of social differentiation in which we consume things in order to set us apart from our neighbors, and a ”fantasmatic” order where things correspond to our unconscious cathexes. Because of this, the system is always inherently unstable, and consumption as an active practice is required to keep it alive. Ritual consumption, and an equally ritual critique of consumerism in the name of another and more true life, is what provides the object system with energy – ”just in the same way that Medieval society was helf in balance by the opposition between God and the Devil,” Baudrillard notes.

Our current information technologies seem in many ways to instantiate what Baudrillard once forecasted. The utopian visions are similar, especially in fantasizing about a kind of ”anarchy” arising from the alleged dissolution of the producer-consumer paradigm, the levelling of aesthetic hierarchies and an economy less focused on the materiality of the commodity object. Many descriptions of the ”new economy, ” with their emphasis on the commodity as sign (or ”brand”), on its functioning inside a semiotic-psychic political economy of the sign rather then on the commodity object, seem to come straight out of Baudrillard books from the late 60s. When these thoughts were introduced in the artworld in the 80s they seemed at first rather strange, perhaps relevant for some artistic strategies that used commercial and mass media imagery as their raw material, but finally too exaggerated to be able to say anything about the development of society at large. Perhaps we should re-read these texts once more on the basis of the present: it is almost as Adorno once remarked about psycho-analysis, that only its exaggerations are true – and the political economy of the sign seems today to constitute or normality.

As our societies more and more take their lead form the service industry, art itself often appears as a kind of ”service” – an action undertaken in order to produce a psychological state, influence a situation or a set of social relations, rather than to produce an object. This need not be understood as a step away from a commercial logic, in fact it is probably only the expansion of the new commodity form into the symbolic sphere. Art is surely always connected to the bourgeoisie it fights against with an ”umbilical cord of gold,” as Clement Greenberg remarked in 1939; but what is interesting is perhaps to study the multiplicity of ways in which this relation can be set up. That many artists (Björn Lövin, Res Ingold, Ingo Günther, Guillaume Bilj, etc) since long have taken an interest in the imaginary company as an artistic strategy can no doubt be interpreted as a symptom of a deeper change, i.e., the incorporation, into the role of the artist, of other functions – administration, pedagogy, marketing, consulting, etc. The question is of course whether the next step will be the real company, if the possibility of interaction and intervention can be extended to the sphere of real economic power, or if this in the final instance once more will become a solidifying of the aesthetic.


Agamben, Giorgio, Stanze: La parola e il fantasma nella cultura occidentale (Turin: Einaudi, 1977).
Baudrillard, Jean, Le système des objets (Paris: Gallimard, 1968)
-—Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).
Benjamin, Walter, Bild och dialektik, transl. Carl-Henning Wijkmark (Uddevalla: Cavefors, 1969).
De Duve, Thierry, Kant After Duchamp (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1995).
Clement Greenberg, ”Avantgarde och kitsch”, transl. Tom Sandqvist, i Avantgardet (Göteborg: Paletten, 2000).
Mainardi, Patricia, The End of the Salon: Art and the State in the Early Third Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).
Marx, Karl Kapitalet. Bok 1: Kapitalets produktionsprocess, transl. Ivan Bohman (Lund: Arkiv, 1997).
Simmel, Georg, Philosophie des Geldes (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1900).
-—Hur är samhället möjligt?, introduction and translation by Erik af Edholm (Göteborg: Korpen, 1981).

This article was written for the exhibition "Pengar" (Money) organized by CRAC (Creative Room for Art & Computing) in Stockholm during May-June 2001. It can be found online on the exhibition website.

about Sven-Olov Wallenstein >>