Who Sleeps in the Unmade Bed? Conceptual Art and the British Artists Movement

This is a guest post by Tony McKenna. Tony is a Hegelian Marxist philosopher whose writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, New Internationalist, Monthly Review, New Left Project, Counterfire and the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

The modern art produced by the Young British Artists movement has for the last two decades sustained bitter controversy. The movement itself seems to polarise commentators in a vivid opposition. Those who think an unmade bed or a shark pickled in formaldehyde are creations which only someone with more money than sense could regard as genuine art, and those who believe they are significant works in their own right, subject to ridicule precisely because they are radical, visionary and different. They are designed to make you think, as the defenders of such conceptual art will often have it.

The Marxist analysis of the commodity form proves extremely useful in regard to this particular debate. Marx identified the two-fold nature of the commodity – its use and exchange components. The use value of an object is immanent in the process which has called it into being. In the very moment a carpenter has finished screwing in the final leg, the chair at once exhibits as a use value for the simple fact it can now be sat on. The use value is, therefore, actual.

But the exchange value operates in a somewhat different fashion. The exchange value, according to Marx, does not subsist in the immediacy of the chair, its physical properties; instead the exchange value can only be realised through the process of exchange in the sphere of circulation. The use value is actual and immediately given – inexorably bound up with the creative process which has yielded the product. But the exchange value exists as potentiality – it can only ‘become’ in and through a specific set of market-conditions which confer upon it its reality.

If we gaze upon Van Gogh’s Starry Night we at once experience it as an aesthetic use-value. To put it simply, we are moved by it. We are moved because the Dutch Master poured not only colours and shapes into the canvass but also his very being. We know, of course, that this painting was eventually commoditised – it went before the market, was successfully sold, and so its exchange value was realised: in the movement from potency to actuality, the exchange value was allowed to ‘become’. It is through a consideration of the logic of use and exchange a la Marx that we are able to unravel the riddle of the nature of the Young British Artist movement, and conceptual art more broadly. Art historian John Molyneux in his essay The Legitimacy of Modern Art attempts to argue in favour of works like the Unmade Bed or Andre’s Bricks or Duchamp’s Urinal (Fountain). But what is most interesting is the logic which underpins his position. He argues that the artist’s work consists in realising ‘how a particular intervention such as exhibiting a urinal or line of bricks could make a meaningful point or raise significant questions.’ It is the point at which the object enters into a specific set of social relations which is important here. From this Molyneux draws the broader conclusion about art – ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface, arrangements of words on paper, sequences of sounds in the air etc., only become [my emphasis] art in certain social relations.’

Molyneux provides his own well-reasoned take on the argument which is most often deployed to justify conceptual art as a legitimate art form. What is absolutely critical to this formulation is the moment of ‘becoming’. We have already observed that the Starry Night as a work of art exhibits its use value in and through the process of its own creation. It contains that aesthetic use value immanently as a finished fact irrespective of the ‘social conditions’ in which the work is presented. It moves us whether we encounter it in a gallery or in a basement.

But that is not the case with Duchamp’s urinal, for instance. Its use value as an art object is not immanent in the process of its creation; rather this use value ‘becomes’ – i.e. is realised as art only when placed in the context of an exhibition, for it is the placement in this specific social context which ‘makes the audience think’. Likewise Enim’s Unmade Bed has an aesthetic use value which must ‘become’; that is the use value is generated through the movement from potentiality to actuality. When she got out of her bed, it was not art, but when it appeared in an exhibition, it ‘became’ so.

And so the ‘use value’ of much conceptual art, and the art of the Young British Artists movement in particular does not operate according to the modus-operandus of use value in general but rather according to the logic of exchange. What the Marxian analysis allows us to perceive – is not that people are revering these ‘art works’ as cutting edge and avant-garde simply because they are desperate to keep up with some empty but fashionable standard, though this may be superficially accurate. What is exhibited here is a more profound truth; that is, the way consciousness is mediated by the forms and structures of social existence. One of the fundamental features of the current economic crisis is, in a certain way, the predominance of exchange over use, in as much as it is a crisis of finance over and against industry. Less manufactured goods are produced in proportion to the creation of financial incentives such as subprime mortgages, the packages which combine these and the subsequent speculation on such packages; all of which, in tandem, created the financial bubble.

The use value of a chair for most consumers (as opposed to capitalists buying the item in bulk for purposes of investment) consists in its ability to be sat on (though of course it has other plausible use values – firewood, for instance). But when someone purchases a ‘package’ of subprime mortgage loans the use value for the buyer consists in the products ability to make him or her more money. In other words the use value here appears as something which accords explicitly with exchange and the reproduction of capital. Profit is increasingly generated from the packaging of mortgages and the insurance of these packages instead of the actual productive activity of building and selling houses.

Likewise in the sphere of conceptual art, the meaning of art is increasingly abstracted from the process by which the artist creates the object through his un-alienated labour activity. In the Young British Artists we see this vividly – the artist merely presents a ready-made object – the creation of which was nothing to do with the artist; rather its arrangement and presentation within a given social context is what truly constitutes the artistry. The artist’s activity is abstracted from the process of production in a similar way to that of the financial speculator. In the case of Damien Hirst the abstraction was so extensive that he actually had assistants create the vast number of spot paintings he puts his name to.

Hegel says – ‘essence must appear.’ In conceptual art we see the appearance of the fundamental conflict of capitals, industrial and financial, which is, as Marx would say, a ‘practical abstraction’ that takes place at the level of social being in its historical unfolding. Conceptual art is one of the forms in which that abstraction appears to consciousness.

  1. Say that the urinal receives its exchange value from being displayed in an art exhibition, where its presence causes us to engage a question like “what is ‘art’?”.

    I agree that this does, in fact, give the urinal exchange value as a piece of art.

    At least, until the question it poses to us–the basis of its exchange value–is answered, whether with finality or just for ourselves.

    At which point, the urinal becomes simply a urinal, the unmade bed a mere unmade bed, and so on.

  2. Stephen Cowley

    It’s a mistake – to my mind – to think of exchange value and use value as co-ordinate species of value, assuming one retains the concept at all for purposes of economic analysis. Use value is the basis for and condition of exchange value. There are conditions for the realisation of use value (light for a painting for example) as much as for exchange value (a market). There are social conditions for use value as well as exchange value – a symphony requires an orchestra, for example. This might add some clarity to the above essay, as it leads to the questions what is the use of art, to whom is it useful, etc.

    On a slightly related topic raised in the above essay, the market in subprime mortgages did lead to the creation of commodities, i.e. houses. The problem was that they could not be paid for by an equivalent, not that they weren’t built.

  3. Thank you both for the interesting comments re my article. Stephen – you are correct – in as much as one needs light to see a painting, but this is not the condition for its specific use value – rather it is the condition for the appreciation of that use value. For instance if we had a picture I’d drawn and a picture by Van Gogh in a dark room, when both are revealed by light we access the (aesthetic) use-value of each – the crap-ness of my own, the beauty of his. Nevertheless those use-values aren’t created in the moment light is shone on the paintings (as exchange value is on the market). They already subsist in the painting themselves, in the form of the brush strokes – in the one which embodies my crass spiritual labour, and the other which embodies the sublimity of his.

    The light doesn’t impart the artistic labour which inheres in those objects and which has constituted them, and so it does not determine their aesthetic power or lack of; it merely reveals it what is already present.

    But that is different in the case of exchange value. What Marx points out about exchange is that when you delve into the physical properties of the useful object, you will find no exchange value; there is no price tag on the inside which is waiting to be revealed by the ‘light’ of the market. The object could go its whole life without ever having an exchange value. The exchange value is not revealed by market conditions – it is created by them. If it does not sell at market it has no exchange value.

    Your argument seems to me to be a more complex take on the old – does the tree really fall in the forest if there is no one around to see it type question? If one does not see the painting (for it is not illuminated), then is it beautiful? I would answer that it is because it possesses that beauty as an immanent quality bound up with the process of its own creation – i.e. with the labour activity of the artist.

    I agree with you about the fact that the houses couldn’t be paid for by an equivalent – and I should have been more clear about this in my article. I wanted to make the more general point not that houses are no longer being built (though I think that will be a likely consequence of the crash) but that the larger emphasis on what Marx called ‘fictitious’ capital – emphasis on things like securities and insurance which only indirectly relate to the growth of real production – is what set the basis for the crisis.

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