Sotirios Bahtsetzis: Eikonomia – Notes on economy and the Labor of Art

David Maljković, Out of Projection, 2 channel HD video installation, 18’ 41’’. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London.

David Maljković, Out of Projection, 2 channel HD video installation, 18’ 41’’. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London.

Much has been told about the dangerous impact of a superficial, lifestyle-based and money-oriented culture, which has been often identified as the major reason why people become passive, docile and easy to manipulate, no matter how disadvantageous their economic conditions might be. Following the illustrative critique of two eminent proponents of this criticism, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the culture of our times is endangered by the uncontrollable sprea-ding of cultural industry into higher artistic production, which manipulates the masses into passivity and cultivates false needs [1]. “Art” that produces standardized cultural goods reflects a peculiar type of aestheticization of the everyday-world: a dream-like immersion into mass-produced commodities of culture industry. This immersion is equivalent to the adoption of behavioral stereotypes and judgment of taste linked to a continuously advertised petit-bourgeois phantasmagoria, but also reflects the advanced commodification of social life. Furthermore, this conviction has had an enormous impact on the current understanding of art as a derivate of a monopolized market, which functions on the same terms as the general financial market, a view that experts in ‘art business’ share. What is at stake in the contemporary art field, according to so many of its critics, is that the “art market” as formed in the 19th century has been replaced by ‘art business’ since the mid-1980s, reflecting not only that contemporary art has become a serious factor of wealth, but also making visible the devastating influence of neo-liberal financial doctrines formed by pirate capitalists, corporate lobbyists, and uncontrollable fiscal policies upon an art system that now runs on the basis of speculation and self-promotion. [2] But is art’s relation to money so transparent, so that it can be seen solely as a heroic struggle against its subjection to commodification and an opposing attempt to assert its aesthetic autonomy? The implied dialectic of autonomy of art, a central concept in Adorno’s critique, refers to a complex condition that can only be understood through a more dialectical critique. As Peter Osborne observes, the integration of autonomous art into the culture industry is “a new systemic functionalization of autonomy itself—a new affirmative culture”—that promotes “art’s uselessness” for its own sake.[3] Ultimately, the self-legislated “laws of form” in pure art—autonomous meaning production by the work—is an illusion. “Works of art are thus autono-mous to the extent to which they produce the illusion of their autonomy. Art is self-conscious illusion.”[4] Let us concentrate on this point, as it allows for a further meditation on the connection between the art system, post-capitalist economic power and official, mainstream politics. Considering how politics work, we witness first that the systemic ‘functionalization of autonomy’ observed by Osborne, can be also seen as the grounding force of the post-democratic forms of hyper-capitalism. In other words, it appears that contemporary art’s usefulness offers to contemporary politics a model of moral justification, as this art, in itself, becomes synonymous with the absolute autonomization and aesthetization of both commercial pragmatism and political functionality. Art does not expose its own uselessness for its own sake, but, most significantly, it reflects the uselessness of neo-liberal administration and, by extension, a post-capitalist market. Post-capitalist economy and neo-liberal politics mime art’s claim for autonomy as one of the grounding ethical values of Western civilization. In other words, the alibi of autonomy, which has been the main assertion and declaration of modernism during its constitution in the historical avant-garde, works today for the benefit of politics and market of commodities, which acts in disguise as (modern) art. For example, Andy Warhol’s conflation of art and business attacks the culture industry by adopting its rules. On the other hand, this same culture industry attacks Warhol’s subjective liberalism by adopting his artfulness. From this standpoint, art must reflectively incorporate neo-liberal politics and post-capitalist market into its procedures, not in order to remain contemporary (neo-modern, postmodern or ‘alter-modern’) but in order to keep on offering the ontological proof for the contemporaneity, by necessity, of both market and politics. By contrast, of course, they guarantee the contemporaneity and validity of such an art within a given system. This is a win-win situation. Every art produced today that doesn’t comply with this system of mutual recognition is automatically ostracized by disappearing from global media and, in this respect, from the public consciousness. But what exactly does this systemic ‘functionalization of autonomy’ being at work in both art and politics in economical terms mean? What is the actual reason for such an interdependence of art labor, fiscal games and artful politics that seems to monopolize the art discourse today? Isn’t the debate of autonomy versus heteronomy a rather masked way to talk about the fetishism of commodity—one of the major concepts of Marxian analysis—and by extension, to expose the onto-theological conditions of such a ‘functionalization of autonomy’ best described with the term ‘capital’? In Marx’s concept of commodity fetish-ism, capitalist-exchange value is constituted at the level of social labor as a measure of abstract labor. It is not materiality of any object, which assumes its fetishistic nature, but the commodification of labor that results in the value of ‘objective’ commodities.[5] Although fetishism is immanent to the commodity form, it conceals not simply the exchange value of commodity, but, most significantly, the exchange-value of abstract labor that stands for the product of labor.[6] Based on that Marxian observation and linking it to the concept of the ‘functionalization of autonomy’ described above, we can assume that the fetishistic character of commodities should be seen as a form of aesthetization of pragmatic human activity and autonomization, a disjoining of human action from any moral or social realm. In this regard, individuality and morality are evaluated in terms of their materialistic creditability. Modernity within the condition of alienation demands this level of sophisticated abstraction between labor and value. Isn’t this the real reason why we keep buying our Nikes although we are fully cognizant of the unbearable exploitation of humans in their production? Nike as a “golden calf” is the emblem of commodity fetishism that sustains, in a sensuous way, our alienated understanding of our inter-subjective relation to others: a totally crude form of paganism, which also illustrates the theological nature of Marx’s early socio-economical thinking. Does art possess a particular status quo within this theoretical edifice? Drawing on Marx’s seminal concepts of labor, alienation and objectified species-being (Gattungswesen) of being human as described in the Manuscripts of 1844, we can argue that an artwork represents a specific type of product of human labor.[7] It is not outside the human condition and social-being (das gesellschaftliche Wesen), which means that it partakes in humankind’s universal sense of alienation, which is an inevitable intermediate stage within the so called socio-historical process. However, the product of human labor as a sovereign and self-contained force (unabhängige Macht), which is independent from its producer, potentially entails the means to overcome the alienated stage of current social-being. Radicalizing this Marxian analysis, we can then offer a more refined description of autonomous artwork. Artworks are, in any case, a product like any other and thus a part of the capitalist exchange system. However, they are defined by a special type of resistance; not a resistance to being subjected to their capitalist commodification, but by another type of immunity. They tend to refuse commodity’s own raw fetishization, which, when unconcealed—that can happen at any time—simply exposes its uselessness, drawing attention directly to the masked social constitution of capitalist exchange. It might be easy to see behind any simple commodity as fetish and expose the exchange-value structure that sustains it. It becomes, however, very difficult to look behind an artwork as it constantly negates its capitalist exchange value while preserving the concealment of abstract labor assigned to it. We can draw on the consequences here and argue that art is somehow different from any other type of commodity. Above all, the debate between autonomy and heteronomy of art, or fiscalization of art and aestheticization of the everyday-world, does not take place between the value of ‘pure’ or autonomous art and its exchange-value as a commodity, but is a combat between two forms of fetishist character. In this regard, the artwork (either as pure, or commercial, or even anti-artwork) is a fetish commodity of a second grade: an intensified fetish. The ‘functionalization of autonomy’ might be seen as this additional fetish character of art, which constitutes a reversed notion of fetish as described by Marx. This is a category immanent only to the artwork. It conceals not only the exchange-value of the product, but, most significantly, the generic fetish character of commodity or capital in general, and, therefore, the commodification of labor, which constitutes the value of ‘objective’ commodities. The work of art comes to be an acheiropoieton—not handmade—and thus theologized. The term has been used in Byzantine theology to describe icons, which are alleged to have come into existence miraculously, not crea- ted by a human painter. According to Alain Besançon’s reading of Hegel’s Aesthetics, the notion of modern art is closed to such a concept of an icon.[8] One might assume that, even after the Hegelian proclamation of “the end of art,” the concept of art as an acheiropoieton prevails, transcending art’s demise despite its continuous secularization and humanization. If art’s function were to make the divine visible (as in ancient Greece), its function in the modern era is to make the visible divine. In other words, over and above the common phantasmagoria of commodity (Adorno’s position), we have also the “asceticism” of the work of art. In this regard, an acheiropoieton appears to be outside human nature and its social order, possibly following another disposition or system—in other words, creating the illusion of autonomy from the (human) labor from which it arises and to which it belongs. An artwork has the tendency to reside outside the normal mechanisms of the market, to exist as something that cannot be sold, as something that resists exchange, thus creating the illusion of a non-alienated social-being, although it is placed at the very heart of neo-liberal speculation. Let me give you a banal example from the everyday world of art business in order to provide evidence for such a paradoxical thesis. We can honestly say that the reason for the hostility with which galleries face the mercantile practices of auction houses can be traced back to this double nature of the artwork. By simply offering an artwork to open sale, an auction house often degrades the artwork to a mere commodity of exchange-value. In this case, the artwork appears to be an interchangeable equity, like real-estate and stock-market bonds, stripped of any mystifications and negating its character as intensified fetish as an acheiropoieton. Usually we experience only the negative results of this double bind between the economy of commodity and the economy of the intensified fetish. The practice of an auction house can potentially pose a threat to the controlled pricing and validation policy of a gallery or transform an artist’s career into a speculative bubble, with the subsequent sudden drop in price due to uncontrolled manipulations. Suddenly, the artwork loses its value; it becomes a nothing, a useless play—or, looking at it from another perspective—a non-alienated product of human labor! On the other hand, galleries, through their preferences for particular buyers (collectors and museums), often try to protect the symbolic and “universal” value of the artwork as something that can’t be sold. Having enough cash doesn’t make someone automatically eligible to buy art. And this false exclusivity is not simply a matter of the ‘conspiracy of art,’ or the privilege of insider-trading attached to art by its practitioners, as Jean Baudrillard remarks, but an inherent quality of the artwork. In other words, the “conspiracy of art” lies precisely within this paradox: the artwork’s unreachable nature, in fact, guarantees the commodity’s disposability.[9] It can be argued that the artwork’s double nature has enormous consequences for a capitalist market system. Actually, its character, as an intensified fetish safeguards any commodity’s struggle to be presented as an acheiropoieton, which thus can be disguised and sold as a ‘pure’ artwork. The “new systemic functionalization of autonomy itself—a new ‘affirmative culture’—is a coy description of this fact. Such a belief is gloriously performed in the contemporary culture industry, which produces commodities that must be sold, however frivolous, unnecessary or even impossible (like Japanese gadgets) they might be. They only manage to do so if they can be masked with the aura of freedom that stands in for the allegedly autonomous artwork. The culture of logos, luxury goods and cult objects benefits from this almost theological dimension of the work of art. This fact should be seen also as the true reason why contemporary art is so valuable to the financial market and political business today, and not necessarily the other way around. Can we go even further and argue that contemporary art’s innate tendency to replace the general fetishism of commodity with the ‘particular economy of the artwork’ is the model for any and every semblance of societal pragmatism today? In light of such a comment, and if we ignore the fact that the art system is actually subjected to the dominant social relations of capitalist exchange as argued above, every wealthy collector appears to be a radical trickster, idealizing himself as a romantic hero and spiritual Parsifal, as some collectors indeed claim to be. Indeed, they might represent a kind of hero if we consider the fact that one can easily earn more investing in the stock market and currencies, rather than buying art. Investing in art is simply not lucrative enough. If we take this statement seriously, the choice between the two forms of investment is actually a combat between two forms of commodity fetishism: the labor versus the intensified fetish. Both types of investment are potentially unstable and they demand the readiness of the investor to take risks. But only the second can safeguard capital’s ontological foundation. We can expand the discussion and argue that a work of art in times of economic crisis, such as the current one, actually represents the ideological means for capital’s own survival. Economic crisis is linked to fluctuation of what the ‘fictitious capital’ to which, mainly, credit and speculation capital belong.[10] According to Norbert Trenkle’s analysis of the current economic crisis, “the growth of fictitious capital not only provides an alternative choice for investors, but also constitutes, when viewed on the macroeconomic level, a deferral of the outbreak of crisis,” which is inherent to capitalist system. (Such a crisis is a crisis of over-accumulation, or, to put it in the vocabulary of contemporary macro-economics, a crisis of “over-investment.” In this case, a proportion of capital becomes excessive—measured according to its own abstract rationality as an end in itself—and is, therefore, threatened by devalorization.) As the outbreak of a series of capitalist crises from the 1970s until today have shown credit and speculation capital to be extremely unreliable, they threaten always to translate a particular crisis of devalorization into a genuine global-market crisis. Credit and speculation capital grow too fast because of electronic transactions—automation offered by digital technology—and, as a result, create virtually instantaneous financial bubbles, always ready to burst. Art as intensified fetish always masks its own existence as fictitious capital, eliminating in this way any moral consideration regarding its speculative nature. We can then assume that art’s fictitious capital represents the best possibility for a continuous deferral of the outbreak of an unavoidable capitalist crisis, and, for that reason, view art on the macro-economic level as the best option of safeguarding the system deflecting a crisis of over-investment. Compared to credit and speculation capital of a digitally multiplied finance, art represents in this regard a slow type of fictitious capital. It requires its own investment time. This would mean that art is the perfect defense mechanism, an optimal deferral of the possible outbreak of systemic crisis inherent to a capitalist system. Art can combat the stagnation of the valorization of capital in the real economy. If so, collectors are indeed the heroes of macro-economic planning. This is true. However, in search of a better understanding of the current status quo, it is important to choose an alternative perspective: In the current state of hyper-capitalism, human labor guarantees both the over-productivity and the accumulation, not of goods, but of commodities in the form of information. As Franco Berardi Bifo notes: for the post-operaist thought (Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Christian Marazzi) “social labor is the endless recombination of myriad fragments producing, elaborating, distributing, and decoding signs and informational units of all kinds. Every semiotic segment produced by the information worker must meet and match innumerable other semiotic segments in order to form the combinatory frame of the info-commodity, semiocapital.”[11] If commodity fetishism conceals the exchange-value of abstract labor (according to Marx), then labor stands today for the attentive and affective time we produce and consume. Labor today is both a semiotic generator and a creator of organic time (of attention, memory and imagination) to be produced and consumed. Let me give you a simple example: Television advertisers purchase advertising time slots. The question is, however, from whom do they buy this time. Aren’t the millions of spectators who offer their attention, cognitive engagement and time while watching commercials the actual creditors of media and creative industries? This is modernity’s credo. However, one must add that information theory does not consider the importance of the message, or its meaning, as these are matters of the quality of data, rather than its quantity and readability. In this regard, the message quality distributed through the television is of no importance. Semiocapital pays no attention to the importance of distributed messages. Such a disjuncture between informational quantity and quality of the communication finds its equivalence in the economical system: Since the abandonment of the gold parity rule, the value of monetary currency is determined through its “informational” value, its exchangeability in stock markets.) In addition to that, today’s extreme acceleration of production and distribution of “semiocapital” has reached its capacity, so that “deep, intense elaboration becomes impossible, when the stimulus is too fast.”[12] What if the present-day crisis of capitalism, which obviously has reached the critical moment of “an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods,” is a crisis of goods, which cannot be consumed? What if current crisis is not a financial crisis, but a crisis of governance and distribution of the produced semio-time? What is the alternative to this condition, which art can offer? Art represents a very particular type of semiocapital. In contrast to the accelerated and digitally self-multiplied capital of the globalized finance system, the semio-time produced and consumed within the system of art is slow; and it is personal. You need some ninety minutes to watch a film, but only seconds to consume a TV commercial. With modifications, the same applies to the reading of a painting, or a book of poetry. Furthermore, art deals primarily with the importance of distributed messages, not with its informational quantity. In this regard, quality equals the intellectual labor and cognitive activity invested by the production of art workers and the reception of connoisseurs of art. It is the deceleration of intellectual labor and cognitive activity offered by art that makes the difference. Deceleration means to focus on the creation of deeper, slower and intensified time, to concentrate on the production and reception of meaning—ideally the maximum quantity of infinite and, for that reason, inconsumable meaning! (This might be another way to describe what Adorno has called art’s “muteness,” as for Adorno art is critical insofar as it is mute, insofar as what it communicates is its muteness.) What if present-day crisis of semiocapitalism is at the same time a crisis of current political order? In order to elucidate this last thesis, I would like to link the notion of the work of art with the notion of oikonomia as analyzed by Giorgio Agamben. The theological doctrine of oikonomia—originally meaning ‘stewardship,’ or wise and responsible management or administration of domestic life—was first developed by early Christian fathers in order to interpret the divine intervention of a personal God into the world. This concept was introduced in order to reconcile monotheism as an emerging state religion with the doctrine of the divine nature of the Son (within the Trinity) and thus explain and justify the intervention of God’s house, the Church, into the earthly world. The extremely sophisticated Byzantine discourse of oikonomia is directly linked to an elaborate conceptualization of the icon (mainly that of Jesus and, by extension, of all imagery) as being part both of the heavenly and the earthly realm.[13] Understanding oikonomia (or dispositio in Latin) as a Foucauldian project, Agamben interprets it as a general theological genealogy of modern economy and governmentality. Modern political and economic doctrines, such as the invisible hand of liberalism over a self-regulated market and society, go back to these early-Christian theological concepts, which refer to God’s activity in the world. Such a genealogy of economy—meaning of a government of men and things—is pertinent to a critical re-orientation of thinking concerning key socioeconomic concepts such as the capitalist ethics of work (according to Max Weber) or fetishism of commodities, alienation and human labor (as per Marx). Not only various political concepts, but also the triumph of financial thinking over every other aspect of life in our times, testify to this close connection of modernity to the secularized version of the theological concept of economy and governance. The novelty of Agamben’s claim—echoing both Walter Benjamin’s ideas of capitalism as religion and Carl Schmitt’s famous thesis about the modern theory of state as a secularized theological concept—is that modern power is inherent in not only to political and financial administration, but also to ‘Glory,’ (doxa) meaning the ceremonial, liturgical acclamatory apparatus that has always accompanied it: “The society of the spectacle—if we can call contemporary democracies by this name—is, from this point of view, a society in which power in its “glorious” aspect becomes indiscernible from oikonomia and government. To have completely integrated Glory with oikonomia in the acclamative form of consensus is, more specifically, the specific task carried out by contemporary democracies and their government by consent, whose original paradigm is not written in Thucydides’ Greek, but in the dry Latin of medieval and baroque treaties on the divine government of the world.”[14] It is exactly the issue of what is perceived as the visual manifestation of power sustained by the semio-time offered by consumers-creditors of semiocapitalism, which allows mediation regarding art’s current state and future role. In view of capitalism’s tendency to commercialize everything as part of global financial speculation, could art—understood as affective and sensuous time—offer an alternative? If economy alongside bio-politics is the secularized pendant to oikonomia and technological spectacle produced by modern industries of the imaginary is the equivalent to Glory, then the question that arises is: If the work of art as a dispositif of acheiropoieton can be turned back against the doctrines, what caused human labor to appear as a commodity at the very beginning, and current society to look like a network simply of fiscalized info-producers? It is pertinent to us that art permanently assumes its position as acheiropoieton—a slow and mute icon—offering the impression that it is situated outside the world of labor (semio-time) as part of a particular economy. In this regard, the ‘economy of the art work’ might be the hidden equivalent of both the governmental machinery and the economic control power within our ‘alienated’ society. Because of this, art strives to infiltrate current society with the ascetic notion of the acheiropoieton and to hijack the secret center of power: capitalism’s political and financial mechanisms and the spectacular “glory” that sustain them. Eikonomia[15], an economy of the work of art, can be the Trojan horse against the appealing and seductive deluge of accelerated information produced by ‘creative’ investment-managers, film-producers, software developers and corporate advertisers, which sustain commodity fetishism and direct consensual political decision-making. Such an alternative economy does not exist outside the given system of hyper-capitalism. It simply works outside the given informational parameters of this system. It produces an inconsumable and intensified semiocapital slowing down affective and cognitive time—or, in the words of Lazzarato, it creates novel “time-crystallization-machines.”[16] This is its hidden surplus value in view of a future society in which labor is not a commodity, but the production and consumption of content-time. It is indeed difficult to imagine a world in which the ‘economy of the artwork’ will have a stronger influence on the global distribution of images, stock-market courses and the bio-politics of labor and will be able to establish a paradigmatic shift in society. But even if such a world remains utopian for the moment, art’s double nature, which intervenes both in cycles of financial speculation and in actual productive economy of affective time, still offers options for working within the structures of managerial, economic and political control. Beyond any romantic ideas of revolution, which might end the ‘evils of capitalism,’ the marketability of art should not be seen as its handi- cap, but as its safeguarding screen—a trompe-l’œil until a universal economy of the artwork can be established. This might not cancel out the condition of alienation that is inherent to the human condition and create a society free of conflicts—the romantic dream of all social revolutions—but it might be able to suspend its force to destroy our inherent social-being. The price to be paid is often very high: present-day impoverishment and precarization of intellectual labor, which makes artists (and, with them, inventors, philosophers, therapists and educators) appear simply as ornamental accessories of economy. Indeed, present-day “immaterial” and creative workers belong to the most exploited part of the labor society. Not so, though, if we evaluate this labor not with economic, but with eikonomic criteria. Nevertheless, in a futuristic post-human scenario, in which semiocapital is not only produced but also consumed by those who are able to deal with its endless acceleration—meaning by ‘intelligent’ machines—and in which humanity exists only as a beautiful, viral bubble within a gigantic technological, informational and fiscal Gestell (the beginning of which might be the so called “Internet of Things”), the intensified, non-fiscalized and creative time offered by art would be our only recourses. Focusing more on labor as praxis, as a bringing forth and taking into account human labor’s product as an acheiropoieton and its specific oikonomia, might offer us some solutions: worshiping less the golden calf of semiocapital and creating invisible dispositivs of intensified time! This project will require its own economists, theorists and workers. Even if, for now, leading a life that is as creatively intense as it is economically effective shouldn’t be seen as taboo—one should also urge: Watch to whom you offer credit!

Sotirios Bahtsetzis is an adjunct professor in art history and an independent curator based in Athens and Berlin. His research interests include image theory, political theory and contemporary cultural analysis. Recent publications: The Time That Remains (e-flux Journal v. 28 & v. 30), Image Wars (Afterimage v. 38); Recent exhibitions: Roaming Images (3. Thessaloniki Biennale).