(Im) Material Art: The Concept


For over two hundred years, the term "commodity" has been used to refer to anything that is tradable. This (neo-)liberal definition of a commodity as an elementary economic unit within the context of a free market economy has come to the end of the road as far as its physical, political and ethical limitations are concerned:
It would seem that the global finance system is no longer viable without state support. As a commodity in itself, money has forfeited much of its own value and the confidence placed in it by consumers. Yet despite a surplus of artistic production, works of art are fetching record prices, which results in their being treated as speculative commodities for long-term investors.


How are artists to react in the fact of such obvious and yet inscrutable relationships? How to proceed when the production of art has become comparable to a shopping spree? What is to be done if collectors and producers of art are able to transform themselves into heroes of consumption, always on the look-out for new sensations and provocations?


At first glance, the interpretative value of "art as a commodity" seems to be the only remaining aspect of its existence that still keeps it at some remove from the play of market forces. Has art become nothing more than a playground for the adult world of turbo-capitalism? Is the interpretative value of art really enough of a difference to make a difference?
Is the interpretative value relevant as an informative subtext if art is regarded purely as a "commodity"? Is it even worthwhile examining art from the point of view of veracity if the principle of playfulness, of "how" it's done, of authenticity, is the primary and short-lived focus of attention that determines the basic themes, the substance of this commodity?


Contemporary art is often described as "colorful" and "comprehensive" - terms that are clearly linked to an awareness of market forces and their role as the single most important factor when it comes to attracting the public's attention: art has become just one more commodity.

Just as a "commodity" has been acknowledged as constituting a basic component in a free market economy that exists independently of good or evil, this new approach to art as a plaything in this same arena and subject to similar preferably mathematic-statistical formula completely fails to take account of the ontological difference between "truthful" and "false", between "real" and "virtual", between "commodity" and "non-commodity".


In the midst of all this confusion, it is hard to work out exactly where the artist's competence and responsibility lie - as well as those of the interpretative agent. Has art not always been a playground on which all players and co-respondents mingle regardless of their responsibilities? And does not this same playground exist as a deregulating area in which self-imposed rules and limitations may be transgressed?
How is such an approach to the free and playful creativity and (aesthetic) perfection of "true" art to be matched with an understanding of artwork as a commodity. Has art become a industry? Do works of art not circulate within our economy like any other commodity?
The logical consequence of such an argument would be the conclusion that any qualitative differentiation between regular commodities and art works is no longer tenable. A quick look at the history of artistic ready-mades from Duchamp to Pop Art and beyond would seem to confirm that the boundary between art and commodity has long since ceased to exist. Consumerism, mass-culture and other contemporary lifestyles have now extended far beyond the borders of western society and been elevated to universally valid art forms.


Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to ask the following question: does the fact that it has become impossible to establish a qualitative difference between art and other commodities mean that art can now be justifiably regarded in quantitative terms, thereby transforming it into a calculable statistical factor within an economic or game theoretical context? If this is the case then we can also ask ourselves why this has not yet been accomplished by economists? Time and time again, bankers have foundered on their boundless greed - the Lehman Brothers are just one of many examples - and the same applies to art speculators.
In this setting, art reveals itself - and there is a certain correlation with the notion of game-playing here - as characterized above all by an extravagant use of thought processes. To put it more positively, it is generous with its resources: no greed - no need to save and vice versa. Against this background "true" art and "art as a material commodity" appear linked to one another in a playful alliance full of serious intent, statement and significance and yet still negotiable and calculable, albeit only through the rear-view window.

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Maybe we have arrived at the point at which we recognize that the free market economy and art itself are both subject to limitations imposed by a one-dimensional, calculable logic of programmability?

Slavko Kacunko