Art is Property

Artists are making and sharing. But where is the pleasure? Where is the revolution?

Text McKenzie Wark
illustrations Mary Zet
Published 09 Aug 2023

What I’ve always wanted in life is pleasure, fame, autonomy, revolution—and at least enough money to get by in the meantime. This is probably common among artists and people who think like artists.

It’s a universally acknowledged truth that capitalism makes it hard to get by doing exactly as one pleases. More than ever, artists now seem to be people with inherited wealth. Well, good for them, if not for art. Rich people are just not as interesting as they think they are. The rest of us, even those from middle-class backgrounds like myself, have to work for a living, and I’d like to think that makes the art a little more vital.

This, then, is the condition of being an artist: one has to sell one’s labor, but one doesn’t want to be consumed by working for the man. The history of the artist as a social type involves experimenting with various solutions to that problem. Artists experiment with forms of life as much as the forms of their medium. The solutions available track with the dynamics of capitalism, if that’s even what this mode of production still is.

The solution is usually a bit mixed: some combination of a day job, patrons, and income from the art itself. It’s often imagined that making all of one’s income from one’s art is the goal, and for some it is, and it works out. For others, it compromises one’s autonomy, both in everyday life and in the art. I don’t envy touring musicians grinding out hits they had 40 years ago.

The available day jobs change over time. Sophisticated communication skills used to be rare, and artists of all kinds used to do pretty well in commercial art, or writing, or managing things that required such know-how. Mallarmé edited newspapers. Warhol drew shoes. Unfortunately, such skills are no longer rare, putting downward pressure on the money and working conditions in such work.

When universities expanded in the postwar period, they drew in a lot of the artistically inclined—including me. It was a pretty good gig. But its golden age is over. It was the last good job in America, so it had to be destroyed.

At this point, there’s always some asshole screaming, “learn to code!” The lesson here for artists, though, is a little different. It’s to try and gauge what skills a creative person might acquire that are rare and sought-after, such that one’s leverage around pay and work conditions is enhanced.

As with day jobs, so too with getting paid for the art itself. The possibilities track with how commodification changes. In the old days, most of us sold the rights in a work to a company that turned it into a product, and we got a tiny slice of the revenue from the sale of recordings or publications. How each industry worked was different, and they were regulated in different ways, but that was the gist. The exception was fine art, which was about making unique objects for sale to collectors.

This stage of capitalism, or whatever it is, severed the link between the material strata of the work, such as the magazine, book, or CD, and the information it supports, such as the article, novel, or music. This resulted in a tremendous amount of leakage, of various kinds, from the commodity economy of art. For example, all of my books—or the good ones, at least—can easily be found as pirated PDFs.

Freeing art from the commodity form was fun while it lasted, until the ruling class responded with two strategies.

One was ever more invasive forms of digital rights management, which gave them North Korea–levels of power to surveil what you did within a culture they saw as entirely their property. The other, more interesting strategy was to figure out how to collect rent on platforms designed to host all that free art.

It’s a great age for artists as far as making and sharing the art goes. Less good for everything else: for pleasure, fame, autonomy, and revolution. Fascist counterrevolution is in the ascendant. Fame goes to the most annoying. Many of our pleasures are no longer a secret among us and are overexposed. Autonomy is under a lot of pressure given the way technology makes it possible to micromanage jobs involving intellectual labor. It’s a blighted era, not made much better by one of the most boring and useless ruling classes in history.

But then why not take advantage of the foibles of that class? This brings us to patronage. Apart from selling one’s art on the mass market or selling one’s labor on the labor market, patronage is the third potential avenue of support for the artist. Since the ruling class destroyed the world and ruined so many pleasures, they’re bored—and there’s good money to be made in entertaining them.

This has always been part of what fine artists do. And occasionally writers. Truman Capote had a brilliant life among the ruling class (particularly the wives) until he thought he had the autonomy to write about them, and they dumped him. The rich also require a lot of attention, they’re fickle, and it all takes up a lot of time. They’re terrible at managing their emotions, so you have to be as patient with them as with toddlers. Capote pretty much stopped writing once he became a court jester.

Artificial intelligence can do the heavy lifting of stringing the words or pixels or sounds together. The role of the artist becomes more akin to that of the art director, curator, or DJ.

If one is to make art for today’s ruling class, one has to make it in a way that corresponds to their desires. This might have less to do with the content of the art than with its form. These days, art, like everything else, is owned in a form that manages and hedges risk—in this case, aesthetic risk. Collectors now think of their collections as portfolios, gathering up different styles as a hedge against future changes in art world fashions.

Ownership is important to any ruling class, so it’s no surprise that digital art has not appealed to them much. From the point of view of its owners, art is about provenance; it’s about clear chains of ownership and unambiguous rights to enjoy what’s owned. Digital art today—and that’s most art—has to find a way to meet that desire if we as artists want to make at least some of our money from the art.

Provenance changed somewhat in the mass media era, and it continues to change with the realization that copies can increase, rather than decrease, the value of originals. The reproduction is what creates the original and makes it rare. A Warhol could be worth more than a Courbet because reproduction (in prints, in magazines, on social media) has added to the value of the former. More than that, reproduction authenticates the original.

Let’s look at a notorious example. At Art Basel Miami in 2019, Galerie Perrotin exhibited Comedian, by Maurizio Cattelan. It was basically just a banana duct-taped to the wall. It got international press, as did the guy who pulled the banana off the wall and ate it. The work sold in three editions, for a reported price of 120,000 dollars. At that price, the owner does not get the banana, or even the duct tape—just provenance. They have a certificate confirming that this work is now theirs. The artwork is now a derivative of its simulation. There’s value in owning the art world gag that everybody’s heard the news about.

It’s tempting to wonder if one could cut out the middlemen: owning that Cattelan still involves interacting with the skilled labor of art world professionals, and not all collectors enjoy the expense of having to securely store their art or pay professionals along the way to validate provenance. There is an opening for art that automates provenance and makes it independent of specialized labor. Hence, the desire for art that has reliable provenance but can be widely copied.

If by “art” we mean “fine art,” the art of the art world, then it has always been about things the ruling class owns. The history of art is the history of forms of property. Landed aristocracies liked to own pictures of their horses and stud animals, along with pictures of the land they inherited, the wives they acquired, and, of course, themselves. The Dutch bourgeoisie liked pictures of the fruits of their trade: still lifes with pineapples.

Industrial capitalists liked pictures that gave them ownership over the one thing their rule denied everyone else: unalienated labor, which over time became the special labor of artists. Warhol was the beginning of the next mutation in the art-property complex. His main business, once he had professional management, was portraits, which put his rich clients into the frame and style of the same mediated images as his portraits of Marilyn or Elvis. He created the illusion that money was as good as talent.

After Warhol comes conceptual art and the dematerialization of the artwork. This is usually seen as the reduction of the work to its documentation, but that’s only half the story. The other side is the connection between documentation and provenance. Art becomes a relation between two kinds of information. One is information about ownership, which is its form. There’s a kind of repetition to this: an ownership claim always takes the form recognized in a given legal jurisdiction. The other kind of information is the art, the “content,” understood as some unique phenomenon that has been copied and shared, at least among those with some knowledge of what art is or could be.

This is what both art and money look like now that money is off the gold standard and art is no longer based on rare materials: each is acknowledged to be a derivative of the process of simulating it into existence.

Just as the artwork is a derivative of its simulation, the art world in general is a derivative of its simulation. This is the function of art fairs, and also of biennales, which are art fairs for the trade itself. It’s all a rather elaborate way of conjuring art into existence, and it was only a matter of time before this too would end up being automated.

We’re on the verge of automating both sides of the production of art: the work itself and its provenance. Artificial intelligence can do the heavy lifting of stringing the words or pixels or sounds together. The role of the artist becomes more akin to that of the art director, curator, or DJ. This isn’t entirely new; the moment that made a fetish of the individual artist as author (and first seller) is the exception. What is new is the speed with which computation can allow an artist to iterate variations on a set of prompts.

On the other side, provenance can be automated and deskilled. One way to think about the blockchain is as automated provenance. The history of the property form, like that of art, is one of ever-increasing forms of abstraction and automation.

The most advanced instance of the aesthetic appropriate to our times may well be the AI-generated work, the image of which goes viral and the ownership of which is validated by the blockchain. The role of the human in the whole circuit is mostly confined to the way it snagged that rare commodity: attention. Its simulation as viral media validates a nonexistent original, which corresponds to the very real property claim recorded on the blockchain.

What, then, of those of us who want to live in this era like artists? Unless one has a private income or patrons, autonomy is probably best achieved by finding those rare skills in the production of simulated value upon which the upper reaches of this ruling class thrive. Give them the kinds of property they deserve! As for fame, it turns out to be something of a curse. It might be better to be known only to those among whom one wants to be known. As for pleasure, it’s best not to tell anyone where that is to be found, as the crowd now arrives with unprecedented alacrity. And as for revolution—we live in an era in which one struggles against the worst, not for the best.

Of course, the money will end up in the hands of those who really desire money above all else. They tend to be more focused on those goals than artists are, and to us, that seems like a boring way to spend a life. They even bore themselves, which is where we come in, by distracting them from boredom, but in a form that recognizes the core of their desires, which is always the ownership of property. Art is interesting forms of property.

Art is Property

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