This is a version of an article recently published in the Visual Artist’s Newsheet. It’s a response to a roundtable discussion titled ‘Creativity versus Commodity’, organised for Colin Darke’s exhibition at Temple Bar Galleries, Dublin, written about here. [February 8th 2008]

The Capital Paintings evolved from Darke’s earlier work, Capital, where the artist transcribed the entire text of Marx’s three volumes of ‘Das Capital’ onto 480 2D objects, all mounted in A4 laminates. With The Capital Paintings, Darke has returned to the previous work, reconsidering and re-presenting every piece in the earlier work as a to-scale oil painting on canvas, though removing the layer of text previously written over each object. Thus, ‘Darke flips the previous process, the ready made becomes the ‘unique’ art object, the banal commodity further commodified and rarified via its display in the gallery context’. (1) The format of Darke’s work replicates the Christmas ‘selling show’ it immediately followed, and promotes this obvious slippage.

Where Capital was perhaps a distant cousin of Marx’s text, the Capital Paintings are a familial relation at another remove from the initial work, and a further remove still from Marx. Nevertheless, he hovers as the invisible referent.

Sarah Pierce chaired the discussion, which, titled ‘Creativity versus Commodity’, set up from the very beginning a problematic polarity of these two terms. Pierce opened with remarks that questioned the usefulness of this supposed opposition, proposing the notion of a ‘circular economy’ that we are all implicated in, but it proved a difficult opposition to shift.

David Mabb, currently showing work with Darke in the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, read an extract of the text he had written for the collaborative catalogue for this show. In this context, the artists became critics/ presenters of each other’s work, and Mabb’s presentation reflected specifically on Darke’s practice in relation to a Marxist discourse. He contends that there are two ways of looking at the series of paintings; either as a ‘labour of love’, or as a process of increasing alienation. Do the paintings promote a rarefied production of fine art objects (the tradition of oil painting on canvas); or, coming from a non-painter, do they advocate for a craft production of sorts? Mabb asserts that it’s the precarious ‘wobble’ between these positions that makes the work ‘successful’.

Christina Kennedy, Head of Collections at IMMA, was the representative of the art institution at the table. She placed the discussion within a broader international context of artistic and curatorial interest in issues of economy and commodity, mentioning two recent exhibitions, Not for Sale, curated by Alana Heiss at PS1, New York, and For Sale, curated by Jens Hoffman in Lisbon. She picked up on previous elements of Darke’s practice, locating his earlier work within the tradition of institutional critique, specifically referring to earlier temporary pieces where texts were written on institutional walls as a strategy to resist commodification.

She proposed that the museum as an institution has now been ‘exonerated’ and can act as a cultural custodian that acts to prevent resale. She speaks of the new institution of the art fair as ‘capitalism at its zenith’ and describes how some artists may ‘succumb’ to these forces of ‘extreme commodification’. The idea that artistic integrity somehow vanishes in the context of an art fair is a curious one, and the suggestion that artists might somehow resist this system by withholding production is startling. After all, an artificial shortage of art objects is no less a market tactic than one artist she mentions who produces series of small, saleable works (in the artists’ own words, ‘slut paintings’).

Maeve Connolly pointed out that the current exhibition did not really sit within this register of institutional critique, acting as it did as a uniquely flexible grid of 480 paintings that could be easily exhibited in multiple formats. The scale and the cost of the work actually points to a museum as the likely purchaser, and in fact there is no particular reticence on the artist’s behalf in relation to selling it. Sarah Pierce likewise suggests that institutional critique is a practice actively supported by museums and that such positions have shed their oppositional tendencies.

Jesse Jones made a circumspect presentation that opened with a reflection on the place of talkers and listeners in such situations as these, and how knowledge production operates as a commodity that informs, adds to or diminishes the value of a given artwork, gallery or artist-as-brand. Once we talk, write and use language around an artwork, we bolster and build its commodity value. Of course, mentioning Marx, whether a serious reference or a mere name-drop ironically adds to the cachet and marketability of particular artworks too.  She rejects the conflation of ‘commodities’ with ‘objects’ as a conceptual cul-de-sac, and also spoke of a need to address the processes of commodification at work within newer modes of practice such as collaborative, community or participatory practices.

In addition to being self-reflexive about the conditions of the discussion, and the knowledge production that such a scenario entails, Jones was self-conscious about her response to the exhibition, and to art work generally. She described a self-consciously ‘schizophrenic’ response to artworks that invoked her twin identities as an artist and as a Marxist. Cautioning against ‘the fairytale of communism’, she warned against a reading of Marx that becomes a bedtime story, inducing slumber rather than an awakening.

Sarah Pierce tried to tease out some of these ideas of artistic labour that loomed large in this exhibition in relation to other forms of labour and production. If knowledge production is commodified, how is this done, and for whom? While artists may be alienated from their product, it’s unlikely that they are alienated from their labour… ‘I am autonomous, I am free, I am working all the time’.

Declan Long made a similar point to Connolly and Jones earlier in relation to the production of knowledge and the role of art education, drawing attention to how education itself and the very experience of this gallery talk (chiefly populated by students and lecturers) is totally embedded in these processes. Critical engagement or consumption produces commodities too… artists may often find that their time is worth more to talk or write about art than to make it.

This sense of expansion in relation to ideas of labour and creativity relate better to contemporary economic models than ideas of ‘Commodity’ that seem weighty and awkwardly attached to objects. Unfortunately the discussion only managed to escape this territory in brief moments, such as when Aislinn O’Donnell queried the ‘dated-ness’ of the whole debate, and asked, what is a commodity now? Clearly art, like other economies, is becoming increasingly based on the provision of services and experiences rather than the production of goods. She challenged Darke that the process of making this work does not capture or address how the economy has diversified and changed.

Joan Fowler contended that the discussion was in danger of reifying the artist’s labour. How does ‘labour’ relate to ‘making’? She cautions against valuing labour in an unquestioning kind of way. 

Following the presentations, Sarah Pierce highlighted the absence of ‘creativity’ within the debate, and wondered about what happens to the ‘things’ no longer of value for use or exchange. She connected this to an idea of anonymity and invokes Foucault’s idea of the ‘anonymity of the murmur’ – things that cannot be easily claimed or owned by any one person. A major gap in the discussion, in relation to contemporary economies and creative social and cultural practices, were the creative commons, open source and copyleft movements. This is testament only to the sense of inertia the terms of the discussion induced.

The solidity of this language is in dramatic contrast to the dynamic language and nomenclature that surrounds ‘The Economy’. I’ve been keeping a list of these different economic conceptualisations that so far includes the Tapeworm Economy (2), the Attention Economy (3), the Rhizome Economy (4), The Experience Economy (5), the Bridget Jones Economy (6), the Karaoke Economy (7). These terms are in addition to the now commonplace Creative and Knowledge Economies.

Tim Stott describes how boredom relates to alienation, and wonders if maybe boredom provides a potential stumbling block to processes of commodification – boredom as resistance? This is in the context of a capitalism that ‘produces moods’.

It seems clear that processes of commodification are increasingly related to the generation of knowledge or services rather than objects – generally cheaper to mobilize and more easily sold. Creativity in the marketplace is often manifested as a conjuring trick that generates ‘something out of nothing’: currently, the most profitable websites do not sell objects, and barely sell services – they sell ephemeral networks and structures. YouTube, MySpace, Facebook do not produce anything. They only produce the opportunity for users to generate their own content.

Economists and social commentators are split over this web 2.0 phenomenon that sees the proliferation of free or pirated music and software, bedroom TV, podcasts and so on. While some (including James Suroweicki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds) could be described as techno-utopianists that see web 2.0 as a massive democratising force in cultural production, others such as Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, see this kind of unbridled creativity as ultimately damaging to standards of established quality and a threat to cultural institutions (be they Tower Records shops or the Guggenheim). This is mainly because such cheap, democratic creativity does not have to be paid for to be consumed. When the producers become their own self-satisfied audience, other more established forms of cultural production may wither. In this situation, it would seem that if artists are to resist the forces of commodification, they must do so cautiously.

A voice I can’t identify in the audience asks whose labour do we reify? Can we radicalize a practice by speaking about one person and their labour?

Are commodities evil?  Is labour good? It seems we are locked in a dance with very established questions.



  1. Temple Bar Galleries press release, February 2008
  4. 4.
  5. 5. The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage, Joseph Pine, James H. Gilmore, Harvard Business Press, 1999
  6. 6. ‘ Singles and the City’ in The Economist, December 20th 2001
  7. 7. Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell a Nordström, Karaoke Capitalism, Greenwood, 2005.