Commodification, copyright and the economic exceptionalism of art

Rasmus Fleischer


Commodification seems to be omnipresent, yet society cannot "be commodities all the way down", as Nancy Fraser puts it in her recent call for an "epistemic shift" in critical theory, proceeding from the "front-story" of exploitation to the "back-story" of expropriation (Fraser 2014). Her argument resonates with the concept of "value-dissociation" (Wertabspaltung) developed by radical, non-academic theorists like Roswitha Scholz and Robert Kurz, through a critical revisiting of older strands of Marxist feminism (Larsen 2014). The theory of value-dissociation amounts to a daring attempt at theorizing "the dialectic between the commodity and its Other as the core contradiction of the capitalist–patriarchal society" (Flatschart 2012); Fraser however sees not one but three contradictions (social, ecological, political) borne out of capital's back story.

I will bring these perspectives together with a very different discussion about the commodity's Other, namely the issue of art's "economic exceptionalism". In a recent book titled "Art and value", Dave Beech (2015) questions the idea – common to neoclassical economists and many critical theorists – that artworks are commodities just like any other. Beech is right to argue that sloppy talk about commodification tends to overlook the fact that artistic production still seems to be defined by a certain exceptionalism; the fact that the artist's own time is not commodified cannot be overlooked. Just like Peter Bürger before him, Beech points to the curious semblance of artistic production and "simple commodity production" (irrespective of the fact that Engels gave this concept a historical interpretation that Marx might have never intended).
Beech's analysis, however, suffers from two main weaknesses. Empirically, he limits his inquiry to the visual art of galleries and museums while ignoring other art forms. This results in a striking neglect of reproducibility and copyright. Furthermore, Beech does not show any interest in value-form theory. Instead his attempt to delineate capitalist production takes an awkward detour to the old "transition debate", asking "whether art has gone through the transition from feudalism to capitalism" (betraying at the same time a tendency to ontologize the concept of art).

I would instead like to reposition the exceptionalism debate on a new terrain, bringing it in relation to the abovementioned attempts to theorize the relation between the commodity and its Other. I therefore examine the economic exceptionalism in music, as institutionalized by copyright legislation and by the collective rights management. The historical development of music copyrights has been one of re-drawing a limit between those practices that may be subsumed under capital as wage labour and those that may not; in principle one group of practicioners (composers) are granted the social status as autonomous artists exactly by not being allowed to be productive workers (Fleischer 2012; 2015). While this might be understood as an institutionalized decommodification, it is also part of the "back-story" making possible the commodification of music by the culture industry.

commodity - commodification - copyright - culture industry - culture - art - abolition of art - music - value form analysis - wertkritik - wertabspaltung - exceptionalism - critique of political economy