This is an excerpt from my article “Art and Economic Objecthood: Preliminary Remarks on ‘Sensuous Supra-Sensuous’ Things,” which was published in REAL – Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature. The article provides a discussion of a recent book on aesthetic autonomy by Nicholas Brown that draws on Marxian value-form theory, Michael Fried’s distinction between art and objecthood, and Theodor W. Adorno’s aesthetic theory. It is part of an ongoing research project concerned with social and aesthetic form. The full text—including proper references and footnotes—can be read here.
Art and Economic Objecthood: Preliminary Remarks on
"Sensuous Supra-sensuous" Things
In an oft-quoted passage Andy Warhol insists on the egalitarian nature of American society:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest customers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
This distinguishes the United States from European states still informed by feudal relations of inequality—and in the following paragraph Warhol refers to the different eating habits of “aristocracy” and “peasants.” Yet, the artist has no need to rely on an argument based on natural law, according to which all human beings were created equal. In Warhol’s America equality is a function of access to identical commodities—it is an equality of consumers.
Coca-Cola is, thus, “good”—and everybody knows it. And yet, is a common adjective such as “good” able to provide a sense of the affection felt for the beverage by Benji Cooper, the novelist Colson Whitehead’s fifteen year old alter ego? This “love”
went beyond mere buzz, however. How could one not be charmed by the effervescent joviality of a tall glass of the stuff—the manic activity of the bubbles, popping, reforming, popping anew, sliding up the inside of the glass to freedom, as if the beverage were actually, miraculously, caffeinated on itself. That tart first sip, preferably with ice knocking against the lips for an added sensory flourish, that stunned the brain into total recall of pleasure, of all the Cokes consumed before and all those impending Cokes […]. What forgiveness for the supreme disappointment of a fountain Coke that turned out to be fizless and dead, or a lukewarm Coke that had been sitting for a while, falling away from its ideal temperature of 46.5 degrees Fahrenheit/8 degrees Celsius, all the bubbles fled, so that it had become a useless mud of sugar. Which is what New Coke tasted like, actually.
With these words the narrator renounces the Warholian tautology: a Coke is not a Coke and, hence, “good” under any and all circumstances; a New Coke most definitely is not. But a “good” Coke is, from Benji’s perspective, not merely “good,” but serves as the occasion for a hymn of praise drafted in prose that seems to be as intoxicated by its own inventiveness as a Coke caffeinated on itself.
Two things follow: On the one hand, Coke for some is not just “good,” but provides an experience of pleasure surpassing “mere buzz” by far. On the other, there remains the possibility that a Coke is not judged to be “good” at all, but rather as a “useless mud.” The essential goodness of Coca-Cola is, thus, contingent on a number of factors, the correct temperature being just one. More pertinently, however, for no matter how many persons Warhol enumerates—politicians, celebrities, indigents, and what have you—the claim that they all deem Coke to be “good” can never be more than conjecture, however well-founded it might seem to be. That is to say, as sensual beings humans are (more or less) unequal, for they have varying preferences regarding the objects they use to satisfy their desires. To be sure, Warhol remains exactly right about the fact that “no amount of money” can get anyone a better Coke. In their role as owners of money the President, the movie star, and the “bum” are indeed, if only formally, equals.
To be sure, Warhol might have been fascinated by the Coke bottle and its role as an “icon of consumer society,” possessing a “special emotional charge” (David Joselit). Yet it is rather money and its leveling function that produces the community of—formal—equals he celebrates. In his Philosophy he notes that he tends to buy “STUPID THINGS,” not because he needs them, but because he feels the urge to “spend” money. Yet, at the same time he is “not happy” when he does not “have it,” presumably because this would limit his purchasing power. The relationship of individual and money implies not a concrete person with specific preferences, but remains purely abstract, so that the money-owner’s individuality becomes arbitrary. When it comes to money, Warhol is not interested in “where it’s been” or “who’s touched it,” for everything that would tie money to a particular individual and a specific history is erased by “a certain kind of amnesty.”
From this perspective, the point about Coca-Cola—and the same holds true for each and every commodity—is not its taste, provided it is “good” enough that anyone would want to spend money on it. What is more significant is the fact that Coca-Cola—like each and every commodity—can immediately be purchased with money, regardless of the social status or identity of the buyer. But that is to say that the equality Warhol perceives is not one of consumers affected by the same commodities (say, a “good” Coke), but rather one of individuals involved in relations of exchange that are mediated by money.
Interestingly, Warhol models his notion of the ideal work of art on Coca-Cola:
You see, I think every painting should be the same size and the same color so they’re all interchangeable and nobody thinks they have a better painting or a worse painting. And if the one “master painting” is good, they’re all good. Besides, even when the subject is different, people always paint the same painting.
Again, equality is not constituted by a particular content—or artistic “subject”—but rather formally. The art historian Sebastian Egenhofer, who notes that these passages dealing with classes of “good” objects should be read in conjunction, concludes that it is “the homogenizing function of exchange- value” that finds an “emblematic expression” in the “equality of all Cokes.” Exchange-value, however, is but the “form of expression” of value. As we shall see, it is only a “universal equivalent” to which all particular commodities can be related, that makes possible an adequate expression of value. In practice this universal equivalent is identical with the “money-form.” Warhol’s ambition, then, would seem to involve creating works of art that do not merely articulate the (unquestionably existing) fascination exerted by particular commodities, but are rather analogous to the form that makes universal commodity exchange possible in the first place; that is, to money.
In what follows, I will offer some meditations on this analogy of art and money, drawing on Karl Marx’s critique of political economy, Michael Fried’s art criticism, and a recent attempt by Nicholas Brown to unite the two. The latter argues that their autonomy is what saves works of art from falling victim to the universalizing logic of the market. Brown, thus, suggests that “Marxism has something to teach aesthetics,” and, as will become obvious, I am very sympathetic to this approach. However, I will offer some critical remarks on Brown’s reading of Marx in a comradely spirit that might, accordingly, have some bearing on his argument about aesthetics. In short, I believe that Brown’s argument regarding commodities, objects, and works of art remains incomplete so long as the commodity’s determination as a value—and the appearance of value in the form of money—is ignored. The money-form, I will argue, is ultimately not antithetical but analogous to aesthetic form.
Read the rest here.