Understanding the dark side

The art market continues to go up, says Rex Dunn, and one day it will crash. But what is happening to art?

Marx’s Economic and philosophical manuscripts (1844) are an integral part of his oeuvre. In a section called ‘Need, production and division of labour’, he refers to the “inverting power of money”:

It is the “invisible divinity”, able to transform “all human and natural qualities into their opposites”. It is “the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples”, representing “the estranged and alienating species essence of man”, which “alienates itself by selling itself”. It is the “alienated capacity of mankind”:

Money appears as an inverting power in relation to the individual and to those social and other bonds which claim to be essences in themselves. It transforms loyalty into treason, love into hate, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, nonsense into reason and reason into nonsense.1

And never more so than in the 21st century, the age of Trump, wherein the art market is a bellwether of this corrupting tendency at all levels of society.

In a recent article, entitled ‘The lemming market’, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian appears to concur with Marx.2 She compares the art market to lemmings, who occasionally commit mass suicide when their numbers rise to a critical level. (Compare this to the astronomical increase in the price of art works over the previous few decades, which is unsustainable. The market has to crash one day.) Abrahamian’s article is itself a review of two recent books about the art market. The first looks at the current situation and is appropriately called Dark side of the boom: the excesses of the art market in the 21st century by Georgina Adam.3 The second is A history of the western art market: a sourcebook of writings on artists, dealers and markets, edited by Titia Hulst.4 According to Abrahamian, whilst Hulst provides a historical overview, she is much less critical - complacent is a better word!

Abrahamian begins by telling us that on November 15 2017 Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was sold at a Christie’s (New York) auction for $450 million - “the highest sum ever commanded by a painting”. She then uses this example to explain how the art industry works:

A painting sold for half a billion dollars - everybody got rich, and a good time was had by all. The lawyers and accountants and shippers and storage managers got their crumbs. The media covered the event like the spectacle it was. Even the riffraff could indulge in a little Schadenfreude thanks to pervasive but largely debunked rumours that the painting was a fake. Some day the 65.7 x 45.7cm canvas will hang in a museum flanked by two enormous shopping malls on an island in the Persian Gulf. Harmless, right? Not entirely. [Citing Georgina Adam’s Dark side of the boom, Abrahamian says that she] makes a convincing case that dizzying valuations have deleterious effects on our understanding and appreciation of art.5

The author shows how the art industry is linked to the role of the theoreticians of art: ie, the postmodernists, whose role is to provide an intellectual fig leaf for the market. Hence they have strong connections with the dealerships both great and small, starting with Christie’s or Sotheby’s, along with the great museums of art around the world - in a word, the art institution itself:

Adam refers to a chain of dealers, auctioneers, critics and economists. She also examines lawsuits and market data in order to show how pockets of the art world have become complicit with money-laundering and other financial crimes (although the evidence is hard to find). She then takes a close look at the art produced by, and for, the market. Therefore she asks: “Will [art’s] non-commercial qualities - social, symbolic, intellectual and challenging - endure, or will art gradually become homogenised to the tastes of a global elite? … Should we recognise that the market has changed, that it has become corporatised, and that this has led to an evolution of the very notion of art itself?6

As I see things, the word evolution should be replaced by degradation! On the other hand, the market is booming: annual art sales doubled between 2005 and 2017 “to reach $63.3 billion, after a brief slump to $56.6 billion in 2017”.7 It comes as no great surprise to hear that, according to Adam, “the game is rigged”. Instead of market forces, there is:

collusion between dealers, gallerists, auctions and sellers ... as a matter of course ... each puts tremendous effort into preventing prices from falling. The use of art as an asset class and the inevitable speculation that follows inflates prices further ...

Thus living artists are encouraged “both to overproduce and to create multiples - mechanisms that help sales, until they don’t. Damien Hirst is the poster boy in both cases, now that he has taken to selling everything “from teacups to chairs, from tote bags printed with butterflies at under a fiver to a full set of Cathedral prints ... retailing at £204,000’.” Abrahamian calls this “brand stretching” and adds: “I can’t help wondering when we’ll be graced with Koons kitchen appliances, or an Eau de Schnabel …”8

According to Marx, the commodity has a two-fold character: a use-value and an exchange-value. Moreover, “The property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities.”9 Under generalised commodity production, we enter into the “mysterious” world of commodity fetishism: ie, when a “definite relation between men assumes in their eyes a fantastic relation between things”. In his theory of value, Marx distinguishes between productive labour (to produce commodities) and unproductive labour (including to create works of art). He also explains how the two types of labour can become inverted: the artist may become a productive labourer, once he allows “his product from the outset to be subsumed under capital, [so it] comes into being only for the purposes of increasing that capital”. (Cf Milton who wrote Paradise lost because it was “an activity of his nature”, even though he later sold it for £5. Marx describes Milton as an unproductive labourer.)10

Clearly, the work of Hirst and co, supported by postmodern theory (derived from post-structuralism), falls into the former category. Postmodern art is increasingly characterised by the commissioning of mass-produced, ‘ready-made’ products, wherein the emphasis is on instrumental reason (in order to make money) rather than on artistic labour, which may be non-existent.

Walter Benjamin

All this is contrary to the ideas and aspirations of Walter Benjamin, leftwing intellectual and supporter of the left avant-garde in the 1930s. Taking all this into account, he must be spinning in his (unknown) grave!

In his famous art essay (1936), he expounds his theory of ‘aura’. This can be explained as follows: for Marx, the “nihilism” of the capitalist mode of production, based on the commodity form and the market mechanism, destroys the old “patriarchal, idyllic relations”; it dissolves personal worth into mere exchange value. “All that is holy is profaned”, etc.11

In other words, we see the emergence of secular society. Therefore the sacral tradition in art is replaced by its secular equivalent - not just in terms of its subject matter (eg, everyday life); but also in terms of ‘art for art’s sake’. Now the form of the artwork is considered to be just as important as its content or subject matter: ie, formalism. But in the age of the mass reproduced images of things, including simulations of life itself, via the advent of photography, this produced an adverse reaction to “the increasing mechanisation of all forms of human activity”.12

Hence, within the world of art, as Benjamin reminds us, a new emphasis was placed on the “authenticity” of the artwork itself: “The presence of the original [becomes] the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity ... [which is] outside technical ... reproducibility ...”13 As a result of this preoccupation with the uniqueness of the artwork, the latter acquired a “cult value”. At the same time, “the cult of the beauty of form” is accompanied by the increasing commodification of art; hence we see the rise of the fetishised art object. This was supported by the doctrine of l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake), which according to Benjamin, constitutes “a negative theology in the form of the idea of ‘pure art’, which ... denied the social function of art ...”14

This brings us back to the rise of the art institution, wherein art theory, dealers and the art market, etc play an integral role.

But the world is always pregnant with its opposite: For Benjamin, in the 20th century the cultic value of art could now be challenged, thanks to two things: (i) The new technologies of mass reproducibility (photography and film) could also be used in a positive way; (ii) Starting with the Russian avant-garde, this led to new “theses about the art of the proletariat”, which are able to “brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity, genius, eternal value and mystery - concepts whose uncontrolled ... application would lead to a processing of data in the fascist sense”.15

On the other hand, we have a productivist approach to art, which bases itself on the mass reproducibility of images, as well as the cause of the proletariat (eg, the photomontages of John Heartfield). Here, however, we can detect signs of a prescriptive - even dogmatic - view of art in Benjamin’s thinking: viz, Proletcult “theses” about art, which must now be used as a “weapon” against the class enemy, in order to “brush aside a number of outmoded concepts”, etc (in contrast to an ultra-left tendency within the Russian avant-garde, “which led to extreme attacks on art itself”.)16

Bearing this in mind, according to Benjamin, the new technologies of mass reproducibility transformed “human sense perception”, along with art, in a positive way. As long as artists were prepared to devote themselves to the productivist strategy, this would open up a new “exhibition” or functional role for art. Henceforth art can play a useful role in the struggle of the proletariat against fascism and for socialism (independently of the ‘official’ communist parties, which he never trusted, and with good reason):

With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis, which has become evident a century later. [But] At the time, today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value, the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognised as incidental ... today photography and film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function.17

This raises two important points: Firstly, as history had already shown, Benjamin overestimates the role of leftwing avant-garde art, along with that of isolated revolutionary intellectuals. At the same time, his prescriptive position vis-à-vis aesthetic theory, endangers the freedom of art itself . (Furthermore, it does not stop art from ending up in the wrong hands - eg, the fate of the Russian avant-garde, which was appropriated by the Stalinist bureaucracy for its own ends.) Secondly, even under the direction of leftwing intellectuals such as himself, technological art can only play a supporting role in the political struggle for a revolutionary communist party.


To return to Abrahamian, she now raises the theme of flagging creativity, despite the latest technology. Today’s celebrity artists tend to rely on the ready-made approach: ie, the now outmoded provocateur antics of the Dadaists 100 years before:

Adam objects to these practices [mass-produced consumer goods branded with the artist’s name, in order to mark up the price] not because they desecrate what is priceless [the idea of art being produced, because it is “an activity of his/her nature” - cf Marx?], but because the work they encourage turns out to be incredibly dull.

Tastes are becoming homogenised. Adam writes:

Any visitor to a major art fair will be struck by the similarity of offerings by the bigger galleries. Most will feature a mirrored sculpture by Anish Kapoor, a stack of bicycles by Weiwei, ... some photographs by Gilbert and George with a few rude words ... No wonder they call it a “lemming market”.18

All this is being driven by the rise of the “global superrich”. Their passion for collecting art is not necessarily for its own sake. It has more to do with vanity and social status.

In her first book Big bucks, Adam wrote that art is relatively high on the pyramid of billionaire needs: “After the prestige cars, diamond-encrusted watches, vast house and luxury yacht, comes the desire to own something that others do not and cannot have: a trophy work of art.”19

To this end the rich employ a coterie of art advisors, art market experts, warehousing and storage operators; last but not least, accountants whose job it is to organise tax loopholes.

Then there is the endless spectacle of social gatherings to mark a new acquisition. So the commodification of art has also “turned into a lifestyle”. Adam continues:

Art is used to sell real estate, to brand a hotel, to give a new building project or restaurant the most hip and ‘now’ credentials ... Even companies such as Uber, Airbnb, Volvo and Mazda ... have put on art-inspired projects ...20

Finally there is the question of counterfeiting: “The contemporary art boom is making it easier to produce knock-offs, because replicating an abstract, minimal, machine-made piece is far simpler than reproducing an oil painting hundreds of years old.”21 And so it goes. (By now Benjamin must be spinning in his grave non-stop!)

Crisis? What crisis? Abrahamian points out that, unlike Adam, Hulst’s “new anthology of the art market argues that the state of the [latter] is simply an extreme version of the trends and anxieties that have preoccupied the art world for centuries.”22 It is as old as capitalism itself. Vis-à-vis human perceptions of art in the past - however much of this was an activity of the elite - Hulst refuses to make any distinction between classical, let alone the early, middle and late stages of capitalism: ie, she rejects an essentialist, as well as a dialectical, approach to the question. It is simply a case that people’s attitudes to art have always been mercenary and that is that. For Hulst the art market simply evolved through the Medicis’ patronage of the arts in Florence (which became a means to “diversify their assets”), to a stage when the market took over. (But she does not make any distinction between the two.) During the Renaissance period, when art was based on patronage, following the example of the Medicis, other wealthy individuals also bought and displayed paintings, which

was itself a product of the new consumer mentality: it represented not just the objectification of cultural values, but “the rationalisation of possessiveness in the expanding world of goods”. As commercial centres changed, so did the market, from Italian city-states to Antwerp over the course of the 15th century, to Amsterdam in the 16th, London in the 18th, and New York in the 20th. Art markets appeared and reappeared wherever there was an accumulation of wealth, and migrated according to economic competition and political manoeuvring. The future, Hulst and Adam agree, is China.23

There is no sense here of Benjamin’s idea that “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.” That

the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a very different context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.24

The same could be said for such an object today: ie, it is viewed differently.

At this point Abrahamian ends her review of Hulst and devotes her summing up to Adam’s book instead. Clearly she is unimpressed with Hulst’s less than dialectical approach to social relations and history itself. At least the former’s work is “filled with critics, dealers and galleries”, who say they are alarmed by the buyer’s overtly mercenary approach to the art market at the expense of art itself. So “Andy Warhol’s line about paintings being like stocks and a dealer like a broker has some truth about it.” But there is “no efficient stock exchange, so sales are conducted either at auction or through an unregulated network of agents and dealers”. When it is in storage, art yields no income. Therefore, to extract surplus value,

the wealthy can borrow money against their art: art-secured lending hit $18 billion in 2016 (up from $9.6 billion two years earlier); it grew popular after the recession thanks to low returns on conventional financial investments. Now auction houses have got into the business, with the added advantage ... that they aren’t regulated the way banks are. One FBI agent tells Adam that money-laundering using art is a “growing problem” ...

The question now is how much further the commodification of art can go, whether high prices will withstand (or even benefit from) a volatile market, and whether art will remain such a favoured vehicle for rich people’s money ... The next 12 months will give us some idea. (Perhaps the lemming effect will then kick in?) A Modigliani goes on sale at Sotheby’s in New York soon, with the highest estimate ever given to a painting at auction - at $150 million. (This is before the bidding even starts.) For the moment, at least, it’s up, up, up.25

That question again

But what is art? It is impossible to answer this question in a single sentence. So I shall make two main points.

Firstly, art is both objective and subjective in character. Marx stresses the subjective-objective productive role that man plays in his economic-philosophical views. Hence he quotes in his notebook (1857-58) a passage from Schiller, taken from Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s Aesthetik: “Beauty is [both] an objective and aesthetic state. It is at once form, when we judge it, and also life, when we feel it. It is at once our state of being and our creation.”26

Secondly, art has to be seen in the context of society and the epoch which shapes it. Even in the age of capitalist decline, the hierarchical division of labour, which it created in order to produce the accumulation of capitals more efficiently, remains firmly in place. We still have a division between head and hand labour - with art in between - which is a problem for communist consciousness; and the specialisation of tasks continues, splitting the labour force even further (and now we have a new problem: automation). Therefore it is still widely accepted that there are people called artists who produce things that are usually impractical, which the rest of us can appreciate, either because they are pleasurable in some way or they make us think about the world we live in; hopefully both. So we can judge these objects from an aesthetic standpoint, although one requires specialist knowledge - which is where the division between head and hand labour comes in.

Hence in his Economic and philosophical manuscripts (in the same section quoted above), Marx writes: “If you wish to enjoy art, you must be an artistically educated person.”27 In other words, we must strive to overthrow the system which created the current division of labour, rather than accept it and enter into a race to the bottom: ie, a form of art appreciation which is dictated by the market. Meanwhile art cannot escape the corrupting influence of commodification. Enter the art market once again. Thus we return to Marx’s comment about the inverting power of money.

A propos an objective view of art, I stand by my argument in favour of a Marxist theory of art, which bases itself on the methodology of dialectical materialism. But, as I have said many times, we have to distinguish this from the notion that there is such a thing as ‘Marxist art’. That, of course, would mean that, as communists, we are entitled to prescribe what art is (like the ‘official communist’ art imposed by Stalinism in the Soviet Union, etc). This is anathema to Marxism. As Trotsky and Breton argue in Towards a free revolutionary art (1938), “The independence of art - for the revolution; the revolution - for the complete liberation of art!”28 That said, I shall offer the following, which is based on a talk which I gave to a student meeting at Goldsmith’s College last year:

1. Aesthetic structure is indispensable to the work of art. This is achieved through the unity of form and content. The artist experiments with form in order to express the content of the artwork. It is the basis of aesthetic labour or the free play of man’s physical and psychic faculties. Its driving force is the human desire for freedom and fulfilment.

2. As long as the artist produces from an ‘inner human need’, he/she is an unproductive labourer. But if s/he works primarily for the purpose of the accumulation of capital, then s/he becomes a productive labourer.

3. Hence we can speak of art’s relative autonomy. Although it cannot escape commodification and ideology, art comes closest to a state of disalienation, as long as it is free from coercion by either church or state; it struggles against market forces. Thus the artist may be seen as the harbinger of man as homo aestheticus. I consider this to be a positive achievement of the bourgeois epoch: ie, prior to its decline.

The telos or final form of art can only be achieved in a future communist society:

Otherwise ...

That is Marx’s position (and also mine). He recognised that under capitalism there will always be a tension between art - as I have defined it - and the commodity form. The longer this continues, the survival of art’s autonomy is under threat. To summarise, there are four main reasons:

(i) The bourgeois division of labour continues, unabated, despite universal education.

(ii) More than ever, the artist needs the imprimatur of the art institution, linked to the market. Therefore art remains a separate realm, produced by a “remote spectrum of experts”.

(iii) The market isolates the producer from the consumer; especially the worker. On the one hand, the worker is reduced to a mere commodity; on the other, the bourgeois division of labour reduces the worker to a “machine-like type of labour”; hence, from the standpoint of the worker, the aesthetic plays no part in the production process.

(iv) Increasingly the market reduces art to a mere commodity and therefore degrades it. The tendency is for price to become the determining factor, not the quality of the artwork.

Therefore the “inverting power of money” is able to make black white, reason nonsense, etc. Today, that is all-pervasive, at both the individual and institutional level.

Compare the early 20th century with the instrumental present, whereby the aspiring artist sees him/herself as an entrepreneur. The heyday of art’s autonomy in the form of aesthetic modernism is long gone: ie, when artists produced impractical art objects, based on an inner need to create - or, as in the case of the Russian avant-garde, to serve the revolution - not just to live off the fat of the land ...

To paraphrase Marx, without the overthrow of capitalism the decadence of art becomes inevitable. From the standpoint of classical Marxism, art and the commodity form have always been irreconcilable; but never more so.

All this is implicit in Abrahamian’s review. But art, which is integral to what it means to be a fully developed human being, can only be rejuvenated - albeit on a broader and higher basis - via a communist organisation of society. Meanwhile, if the artist chooses, s/he can contribute to the political struggle (eg, for a revolutionary communist party), provided that the work undertaken retains its semi-autonomous character (see above).

Despite the odds, this is the only way forward if art is to survive.



1. K Marx Economic and philosophic manuscripts: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf.

2. London Review of Books May 10 2018.

3. London 2018.

4. Oakland CA 2017.

5. London Review of Books my emphasis

6. Ibid p27, my emphasis.

7. Ibid p27.

8. Ibid p27.

9. K Marx Capital London 1992, chapter 1, p3.

10. II Rubin Essays on Marx’s theory of value Montreal 1982, pp262-63.

11. K Marx and F Engels Communist manifesto: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf.

12. This is a reference to Hegel. See M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London 1973, p14.

13. W Benjamin, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ in H Arendt (ed) Illuminations New York 1969, p220.

14. Ibid p224.

15. Ibid p218.

16. C Gray The Russian experiment in art, 1863-1922 London 1971, p274. Gray devotes the whole of her last chapter to the rise of the Russian avant-garde, which covers both formalism and constructivism; she notes, in passing, that a nihilist attitude towards the art of the past is inherently dangerous.

17. W Benjamin op cit pp224-25.

18. London Review of Books p28.

19. Ibid p28.

20. Ibid p28.

21. Ibid p28.

22. Ibid p28.

23. Ibid p28.

24. W Benjamin op cit pp222, 223.

25. London Review of Books p28.

26. M Lifshitz op cit p96.

27. K Marx Economic and philosophic manuscripts: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf.

28. See Leon Trotsky on literature and art New York 1970, p121.

29. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1966, p820.