Absolute commodity

Notes on Stewart Martin’s ‘The absolute artwork meets the absolute commodity’ (2007)

“Benjamin’s and Adorno’s work is in many ways distinguished by its philosophical reception of Marx’s critique of capitalism, and their development of a novel sense of the philosophy of art is one of its most significant outcomes. This is intensified by their consideration of the concept of art as a form of capitalist modernity. The result is a deep commitment to considering art’s relations to the commodity form as a central problem of modern philosophy.” (p. 15)

Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory as a philosophical reflection of the essence of art under particular social conditions – breaking out of the erroneous division into philosophical-aesthetic speculation ostensibly removed from questions of society and economy, and sociological research which examines art’s social use without examining the essence of art itself.

“Commodification is a condition of possibility of autonomous art as well as a condition of its impossibility.” (p. 18)

Condition of its possibility since commodification abstracts the production of value from actual use value. In this instance the use of art qua social use (an activity of social bonding) is negated in favour of art qua abstracted object. Abstract should be here understood as abstracted from the social: art becomes autonomous from any social function. Two distinctions should be made: firstly, this abstraction from the social is itself a set of social relations (generalised commodity production is a social form); secondly, art had already a degree of abstraction from the social insofar as it (at least since the beginnings of class society) has participated in a division of labour that increasingly alienated large sections of the population from the process of artistic production (which is to say the social was already riven, and not a unity). With capitalism, this latter becomes consummated, and both ‘high’ and ‘low’ art are relieved of their social functions.

What isn’t made entirely clear in Martin’s article is the actual process by which this takes place. It is not simply that the social conditions change around art and by some kind of osmosis it assumes the form of ‘absolute commodity’. Art itself becomes a commodity insofar as it is increasingly alienated from its producers under capital. Presumably, it becomes the absolute commodity insofar as its use value under pre-capitalist economies was nothing other than the pre-rational confirmation of the social itself, which is negated in capitalism. As Margaret Thatcher said: “[With capitalism] there are no societies, only economies.” So there is nothing left of its use value under capitalism, and only abstraction remains. This is what makes it autonomous.

Condition of impossibility since in abstracting art from its social use, commodification renders the artwork increasingly without a clear raison d’être. In the absence of a social practice to give it meaning, art becomes hollow and defenceless before the logic of capital (budget cuts to the arts, anyone?). As said above, art has no use value under capital since its use value is (was) the social bond itself.

“This abstractness has nothing in common with the formal character of older aesthetic norms such as Kantʼs.” (Adorno, quoted Martin, p. 20).

This is important, since – and I can attest to this from my own practice – a ‘classically’ abstract approach to art today produces stillborn results. Old abstract aesthetic rules (for instance a contrapuntal system) are not the kind of abstraction of the modern work: “On the contrary, [the abstraction of the autonomous work] is a provocation, it challenges the illusion that life goes on, and at the same time it is the means for that aesthetic distancing that traditional fantasy no longer achieves.” (ibid.)

“The autonomous artwork is an emphatically fetishized commodity, which is to say that it is a sensuous fixation of abstraction, of the value-form, and not immediately abstract.” (p. 23)

Art cannot be wholly abstract, not just because it loses its social meaning (and all meaning in general, except its friction with the social which too fades with time), but because it loses its very characteristic as art: its sensible nature. Without differentiation and structuration on the level of the materials, art is not art.

So if pre-autonomous art derived its sensible differentiation from (pre-rational, magical-fetishistic) cultural practices, where does autonomous art get its from? According to Martin, Adorno’s answer is the logic of the fetish. Essentially Marx’s – and Adorno’s – theory of commodity fetishism concerns the misapprehension of the value of an object as being a quality of the object itself, rather than a result of the quantity of abstract labour time invested in its production. It sees a thing in itself rather than a set of social relations.

Art’s sensuous appearance is a fetish. It is a belief in the qualities of the object rather than an understanding of the abstract nature of the social relations producing the object. An artist knows that they have to be absolutely concrete, and pay utmost attention to the materials themselves, or else the artwork will fail.

So as ‘emphatically fetishized’, the artwork is a sensible appearance of the suprasensible. This is true by reasoning via the opposite: without believing that an artwork you experience has its value because of itself, you will not pay attention to the form and detail of the work, you will not get sucked in by it, and will therefore miss experiencing it as art.

Is all this simply to say that as an abstract and fetishised commodity, its sensible appearance is both by necessity meaningless and at the same time sensuously articulated?

“Uses face the same fate as autonomous art. But autonomous art can also salvage use from value. In so far as autonomous art achieves a claim to what is not exchangeable, it becomes the ironic form in which uses can be recovered from their exchangeable form.” (p. 19)

So, art, through its fetishising insistence on sensibility becomes the paragon of that which is not exchangeable: absolute use value (in its absolute uselessness). This is why no material in modern art should be redundant; everything should be necessary. It is thereby a critique of the market and capitalism as such.

“This emphasis on uselessness may seem a perverse critique of exchange-value, when a more obvious strategy would be to emphasize use-value. However, the latter is subject to the same objection that recommends the immanent critique of capitalism in general. In a developed capitalist society it is questionable whether there are any uses that have not been formed through their exchange-value.” (p. 19)

Could one not just assert that art’s (and particularly music’s) capacity to bring people together is its use-value and go from there? Then go about making art that brings people together as something subversive in itself? But this misses the point: in developed capitalist countries the majority of music making is, whether we like it or not, essentially alienated from the majority. It brings people together only in an extremely commodified form: producers and consumers separated, producers and means of production (mostly) separated, etc. No longer a social bond, it is an anti-social bond that commodified art organises (which is nonetheless a kind of bond). Think: music festivals. It is, in this sense, abstract. This cannot be papered over: the commodity fetishisation of art does not undo the abstract nature of the social relations of art under capitalism.

This isn’t to say that no music is in a position to resist its commodification externally (although Adorno would have likely believed this). Indigenous musics and folk musics in particular still in part have the capacity to bring people together in a genuine social bond (despite being at least formally subsumed under the logic of the commodity). Creating and sustaining these musics can be a resistance to capital and has both aesthetic and political merit. It is also true that ‘pop music’ can to a degree partake of this dynamic, and be worthwhile. But all this is different to the modality of autonomous art, which critiques the commodity-form by plunging into the commodity form.

“It is the artwork’s sensuousness – more precisely, its abstract or suprasensuous sensuousness – that singularizes it, generates its self-insistence and autonomy, and that thereby contradicts the universalizing logic of exchange-value.” (p. 23)

In this theory, art critiques the commodity by being the most abstract and most fetishised of all commodities. Useless and alienated, sensuously articulated and fetishised, it therefore has the greatest ability to declare that it is not exchangeable.

And yet, since it is a commodity, and since its sensible resistance to exchange value is a product of its fetishisation, it could also be said that art is false consciousness, not a critique. Art is indeed exchangeable, like any commodity, but it is fetishised and people place false beliefs in its irreplaceability.

Martin says: why not both? And I think he’s right: “autonomous art is both produced by and destroyed by capitalist culture, both its ideology and its critique.” (p. 17)

“The first illusion is a matter of not seeing the abstract nature of value, the condition of possibility of capital, whereas the second illusion concerns not seeing the dependence of capital on living labour, the condition of possibility of capital’s immanent limitation and an alternative form of society.” (p. 23)

I have a feeling this is super important and starts to get at a confusion that I’m having around the question of abstraction. I don’t have the time or space to work it out here, but the confusion is how the abstraction of art from social function relates to the abstract nature of the value produced: abstract labour time. How does artistic value relate to socially necessary (abstract) labour time?

Also, if art’s sensuousness is a product of fetishisation – the “not seeing the abstract nature of value” – how does it relate to the second illusion: “not seeing the dependence of capital on living labour”? In a sense it would be easier to see how my formulation of art’s abstraction as abstraction from social praxis relates to this latter more so than the former.

This article doesn’t deal with the culture industry and the distinction between autonomous and heteronomous art under capitalism. If autonomous art is produced by commodification, so is heteronomous art under capitalism. Mainstream pop music is a fetishised commodity par excellence, but you’d be mad to think has a critical capacity with regard to the commodity form itself (or anything at all). Understanding therefore that there will not be a clear cut difference between the two, nonetheless there must be a difference. So what’s the difference?

“In a developed capitalist society it is questionable whether there are any uses that have not been formed through their exchange-value. Moreover, ‘natural’ uses tend to become as marginal and powerless as everything else external to commodification, and their affirmation becomes liable to a naive endorsement of their implicitly commodified form.” (p. 19)

This emphasis on immanence in Adorno and much Western Marxism has to itself be questioned. While it is certainly true that capital is a totality, and that nothing really escapes it, it is also dangerous to overemphasise this. The risk is essentialism. In fact the process of commodification is immensely variegated and conditioned at each point by a multitude of local factors (historical and environmental) that are not immediately reducible to it. Also, the process of commodification is never complete, and community and old social bonds are never fully alienated and destroyed. (cf. ‘Law of combined and uneven development’)

The formulation that art derives its sensuousness from its fetishism and its pure fetishism from its pure abstraction – all this is critique: an attempt to draw people away from phantasmogoria, from ideology and into the things themselves. Immanence, not transcendence.

The idea that art may represent, in a traditional sense, something external to itself, is supposedly taboo, that it may present materials that have not gone through a complete process of abstraction, that it may permit the heterogeneous: all this is illusion, in the worst sense of the word. But this risks an inverted mysticism, and a dead end for art. The fetishisation of art’s immanence makes materials ends in themselves, and leads to a loss of expressive breadth and a disconnection from reality. The challenge would then be to create an art that holds to the comprehension of its essential condition – abstraction and fetishisation – while being open to the variety of local conditions. The two should not fundamentally contradict each other, even if they are not entirely synthesisable. (Does this ruin art’s status as the ‘absolute commodity’? Perhaps…)

And what about actual revolution? Should art maintain a relationship to its possibility? Adorno’s aesthetic theory, for all its brilliance at identifying the condition of art under modern capitalism, is predicated on a pessimism about real revolution. Since real social revolution is now both necessary (to avoid climate change) and possible (for instance the processes underway in Latin America), for art to not take a position on revolution is to miss an important part of responding to its commodification.

My current thinking – influenced by my current rudimentary understanding of Luigi Nono – is that autonomous art needs to represent revolution (in whatever way), however naïve this is. Social revolution appears in art as something fictitious and false for its own form, but it also liberates materials from being ends in themselves, and allows them to become, once again, means for the expression of an external principle. Social revolution is an external principle because of art’s current alienation from the social, yet art’s telos is that of revolution: the liberation of humanity where art becomes life and life becomes art. In the very final analysis, art and revolution are the same. Counterpoint, for example would become the free division of labour of all. Nonetheless, in the meantime to represent revolution in art is a contradiction, because to hold firm to the comprehension of their condition under capitalism, modern materials need to be ends in themselves. However, if the political idea is true, it will be as complex and multifarious as the materials themselves – the gulf separating the two needn’t be so impossibly wide. They should be within striking distance of each other, even if they are as two parallel lines that do not seem to meet (until the lonely instance of the final analysis). Thus the politics would have to be as highly developed as the artistic materials. As Nono says:

“There is no doubt that a score has no more chance of causing a revolution than a picture, a poem or a book; but music, just like a picture, poem or book, can testify to the desolate state of society, can contribute, can be the basis for awareness, if its technical attributes maintain the same level as the ideological ones.” (Nono, 1969, p. 26)