A talk and guided discussion held at Left Forum 2013, at Pace University, on June 8th, 2013.
If it is true that the 'commodity-structure' (Lukacs) is the defining feature of modern capitalism down through the present, then it stands to reason that it has no less impacted the way art is produced, consumed, circulated, and exchanged. This shift in art's character happened both objectively (e.g., as in an article produced for exchange on the market), and subjectively (i.e., as a kind of experience and form of expression for the social and individual body). However, art's relationship to its status as a commodity is an ambivalent one: Art has become at once more free from past forms of domination, but its freedom is constrained when subject to the dynamics of capital. Art as a commodity is both its cure and poison, and has become a social problem for its practice. Since becoming aware of this problem, artists, philosophers, curators, and critics have taken various approaches in seeking to overcome it. How has art under a capitalist society changed from its pre-capitalist practices? What is the commodity-form, and what is art's relationship to its logic? Must art seek emancipation from the commodity-form, or is it at home in it? In what sense does art take part in the Left and emancipatory politics -- a practice also seeking to overcome the commodity-form -- if at all? By asking these questions, this panel seeks to reinvestigate art's relationship to the commodity form, and make intelligible how this problematic relationship still sticks with us today.
1. How do you define the terms ‘art,’ and ‘commodity?’ In what ways does art in capitalist society differ from art in precapitalist society? How would you posit the relationship between art and the ‘commodity-structure’ of capitalism? Is art already a commodity from the start, or does it get ‘commodified’ only when integrated in the market? Are there ways that art can resist its commodification, and if so, how?
2. Acknowledging that the issue of art and commodity is not a new question, what troubles this discourse today? How has art’s relationship to the commodity-form changed over time, and what does it look like now? Do we understand the problem better than our predecessors, or are we in a worse mode of understanding?
3. If emancipatory politics is the objective, does overcoming capitalism necessarily follow the abolition of art’s status as a commodity? Do contemporary attempts in ‘dematerialized’ or ‘process-based’ art practices (e.g., social practice, pedagogical projects, or institutional critique) challenge the commodity status of the art object, and if so, how? Should art even seek emancipation from the commodity? In what sense does art take part in the Left and emancipatory politics -- a practice also seeking to overcome the commodity-form -- if at all? 4. How do you position yourself as cultural production within this dialogue? If this is a question about the work of arts’ mode of production in society, and opens up the question of class, then in what ways specifically does your work—or other contemporary art work—respond to class consciousness? What role does criticism or art play towards an emancipatory politics?
Panel held as part of the third annual Platypus International Convention, on Saturday, April 30th, 2011, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
After its apparent exhaustion as a project of social transformation, Marxism seems to remain alive as a cultural and hermeneutic endeavor. Self-avowedly Marxist theorists -- Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere -- exert a heavy, if opaque, influence on the self-understanding and practice of contemporary art and inspire research programs in the humanities. Despite its radical appeal, "Marxist" theory may ultimately flatter the political and aesthetic claims of the present. Could investigation of of the now obscure historical Marxist cultural critique of Leon Trotsky, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin bring to recognition, and therein challenge the inadaquecies of the present? What opaque historical transformations does the difficulty of such work indicate? How might the long-abused concepts of autonomy, medium specificity, kitsch, avant garde -- form part of what Marx called the "ruthless critique of the present." What might the problems of aesthetics and culture have to do with the political project of the self-education of the Left?