“I’m one of the few people in the world who can say, ‘I know what everything is worth,’” Damien Hirst once bragged, though the follow-up turned out to be commonplace: “Everything in the whole world is worth what anyone else is prepared to pay for it. And that’s it. Simple.” But why are some people prepared to pay a lot for things of no apparent use, that may be inexpensive and sometimes even easy to make — a row of bricks by Carl Andre, for instance? Economists have not been very convincing in their explanations of these apparent exceptions to their theories of value and price, as Dave Beech points out, and so he — not an economist but an artist and writer — has stepped in to fill the breech. To the eye of a fellow layman, he has to an impressive degree steeped himself in the economic literature from Adam Smith to the present; perhaps less happily, he has also succeeded in respecting the dry and dusty stylistic canon associated with the dismal science. Nonetheless his book is well worth reading for anyone trying to grasp the strange place of art in our present social order, in which (even after the crash of 2008 revealed the reigning neoliberalism for the calamity it is) money is represented as the one unassailable truth. There are interesting surprises: For instance, Beech’s convincing argument that there is no coherent way to define artworks as commodities effectively silences half a century of loose and misleading usage. On the other hand, I am less persuaded by his charge that Western Marxism—the tradition of Lukács, Gramsci, Adorno et al. — “provided no economic analysis of art” but merely “integrated a lot of economic-sounding critique into theories of art and aesthetic philosophy”; keeping in mind that Marxism was never supposed to be a theory of economics but a critique (in more or less the Kantian sense) of political economy, Western Marxism was correct in subordinating economic to social thought. Beech’s immersion in economic thought has perhaps led him to forget its severe limitations. His observation that “quality or value is the most conspicuous non-economic consideration that sets limits on the standard operation of supply and demand in the production, circulation, and consumption of art” turns out to be a gigantic understatement; since notions of quality or value are, as he realizes, inextricable from any idea of art, its economic functioning cannot be explained from within economics itself. That’s why — as even Hirst had to admit, despite his wanting to imagine it submitted to what he called “the rules” of the marketplace — “art is fucking unusual. It’s just fucking unusual.” What in the world is art worth? Its economic exceptionalism remains a conundrum, albeit one a reader of Art and Value can discern more clearly than before.
Dave Beech’s Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics (2015) is published by Haymarket Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.