September 18, 2008

Use, Exhibition, Exchange

Plato’s now legendarily odious dismissal of the painter’s “art” as “worthless” issued from his epistemic Grecian conditioning to accept “usefulness” as the mitigating and decisive factor in determining relative “value.” It is clear that a painting of a bed cannot be slept upon and, regardless of the sentiment attached to an aesthetic vision of an “Ideal Form,” it is additionally obvious that a painted “bed” is twice removed from that Ideal Form, i.e., the best bed that money can buy. Which perhaps helps to explain Ikea but that is another post. It is my premise that the migration of “value” through approximately 2000 years of discourse and inquisition about it has allowed a number of cyclical “returns” to both Platonic and Marxist views about the valuable nature of objects for consumption or contemplation.

In 1867, Marx demonstrated “commodity fetishism” as proof that commodity objects were for both use and barter, focusing our comprehension of the relationship of “exchange” to the “usefulness” of an (art) object. From her perspective as a young gallerista, Rebecca Jones enlightens us concerning the impact Marxism and capitalism have had on art and how the “art marketability” of an art object affects the “original intention” of the artist:
“[Marx] discusses the two standards by which a utilitarian product is valued: “use value” and “exchange value”. (Exchange value wins of course). Similarly, any art work is measured against two sets of standards in its existence: artistic intent and salability. When a work of art enters into the realm of the art market, the original intention of the work, against which it was judged in its creation, can become completely irrelevant to the work at that point, while other factors take dominance like status, edition, and its archival quality.”(1)

One of the cornerstones of conceptualist theory relies on Duchamp’s contribution to the discourse about how “things become art by being put into places where one expects to find art, namely museums,” and that this validating “context” of art galleries and museums established a work’s identity as “art” as “entirely a matter of convention.”(2) In doing so, Duchamp tacked a “new value” upon standard-issue urinals, shovels, coat and bottle racks by usurping their intended functions as hardware. His assignation of an “exhibition value” to this use value objects de-contextualized the objects through his avant garde act of dysfunction.

We must also recall that Walter Benjamin was aware of the possible dominance of exhibition value and the implication of its ascendancy:
“By the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.”(3)

The great Yves Klein marvelously expanded upon Duchampian conceptual logic by demonstrating the possibilities of an “immaterial” transaction to embody both “exchange value” and “exhibition value.” In his “Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zones” he specifies that the “transfer” of “ownership” of said “zone” was to authenticate the immaterial “work” as art:
“Every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensitivity zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has payed[sic] takes away all authentic immaterial value from the work, although it is in his possession.”(4)

Double-talk or not, Klein reclaimed his “intention” as an artist within the textual documentation of these transactions, and reaffirmed that both the making and the “ownership” of these “immaterial” works of art were “useful,” much like the earlier use of art within ritual.(5) Because “ownership” of a Klein “Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zone” is both authenticated and negated by the transaction, it yields two insights on art; first, that art need not be “material,” and second, the transaction literalizes the “exchange value.”

The successful postconceptual artist questions the imbued value of “art objects” and explores and defines use, exhibition and exchange values. The intangible nature of value attribution through the cultural validation of an object makes it now impossible to insist that these values are guaranteed within these objects.


1. Jones, Rebecca. ”Contemporary Art vs. the Contemporary Art Market”, May 2007.

2. Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts 1986-1993, Cambridge, 1995, 15.

3. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935, Section V.

4. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 81.

5. See Benjamin, Section IV.

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