“To be what it stands for yet is never able to be” – On Market for Immaterial Value

Steyn Bergs

December 22, 2016


‘Gold Assay’ is one of many brilliant (pun intended) entries in Theodor W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia. In this brief essay the philosopher, sociologist, and musicologist fulminates against genuineness, authenticity, individuality, and assorted concepts of bourgeois essentialist thinking. “Precisely as an absolute,” Adorno writes, “the individual is a mere reflection of property relations. In him the fictitious claim is made that what is biologically one must logically precede the social whole, from which it is only isolated by force, and its contingency is held up as a standard of truth.”[1] In a passage worth quoting at length, Adorno ends his meditations on the purported authenticity of the subject with a series of remarks on money—and gold currency more specifically—as universal equivalents of exchange:

Genuine things are those to which commodities and other means of exchange can be reduced, particularly gold. But like gold, genuineness, abstracted as the proportion of fine metal, becomes a fetish. Both are treated as if they were the foundation, which in reality is a social relation, while gold and genuineness precisely express only the fungibility, the comparability of things; it is they that are not in-themselves, but for-others. The ungenuineness of the genuine stems from its need to claim, in a society dominated by exchange, to be what it stands for yet is never able to be.

Marx considered gold the material that “ranks only as the materialization of value.”[2] For Marx this meant primarily that, like exchange value, it operates on the principle of quantity: that the weight, the mass of a piece of gold, is directly proportional to its value is considered self-evident, and before the introduction of paper money, the value of coinage was necessarily identical to the value of the precious metals it contained. Gold then, embodies value in that it can be accumulated, divided into discreet portions, then molten together and accumulated again, and so on.

Adorno’s text, on the other hand, can be read as capitalizing on gold’s optical rather than physical qualities: gold coinage functions as a concrete stand-in for the abstraction that is exchange value because, like exchange value, it is reflexive in its appearance.[3] Its shine always only mirrors the reality around it, just as exchange value only exists as a relation between commodities and their producers and in that sense reflects the social and material processes that make up its context—though ‘reflection’ is a tricky choice of words here, as commodity fetishism relies precisely on the effacement and invisibility of these processes, on the infamous non-appearance of labour in the finished commodity. And it is precisely this non-appearance of labour that allows a commodity’s exchange value to be perceived as a ‘natural’ property of this commodity. In the spectral glow of gold coinage, as in exchange value generally, Adorno suggests, what is appreciated as essence and quality upon closer inspection reveals itself to be non-essence and non-quality, always elsewhere and contingent.



Market for Immaterial Value, initiated by Valentina Karga and Pieterjan Grandry, is a project that aims to create discursive spaces—both online and offline—in which the conditions for the production, distribution, reception, and evaluation of art in times of financialization and the so-called ‘immaterial economy’ can be debated and studied. As such, the project entails live events and discussions, the audio, AV recordings, or transcripts of which are made available alongside commissioned texts online.

Apart from these platforms for “sharing the heaviness of financial abstraction”, however, the project also entails a second component revolving around an artwork co-authored by Karga and Grandry; a tiny ‘sculpture’ resembling a golden coin. In an attempt to generate a market around this artwork, Market for Immaterial Value offers the public the possibility of becoming a co-owner of or shareholder in the coin-like artwork. Anyone is free to invest any amount of money in the art piece, the value of which equals the sum total of investments (€324,00 at the time of writing; an admittedly rather unspectacular number, seen from the perspective of the art market). In case an offer is made that is higher than the total value, shareholders will collectively have to decide whether to buy or sell; in the latter case, the profits will be divided among them according to the percentages of their initial investments. Market for Immaterial Value thus proposes what one, for lack of a better word, could call a ‘democratization’ of the typically opaque and inaccessible art market—with its traditional hegemony of the artist-gallery-museum-critic nexus, in which insider information is so crucial.

Whether this setup will really pave the way for “a more economically sustainable art practice, not dependent on external funds or the dictations of the speculative art market”, as the project description suggests, remains highly questionable. Nonetheless, this rather artificial miniature art market functions as a critical mimesis of the valorization process in general, and that of artworks in particular. Firstly, it renders transparent the fact that exchange value is in reality a social relation. That social relation is in this case made explicit as the names of the shareholders are available on the website, though not the sums they each invested. So while the gold coin stands as a token for commodity fetishism here, the social dynamics which generate this artwork-commodity’s exchange value—from which the “mystical character” of the commodity fetish originates—are also (at least partly) revealed. In Market for Immaterial Value, it is made rather painstakingly obvious that the value accrued around the coin-like sculpture is not grounded in anything, is wholly unrelated to the concrete sensuous appearance of the artwork-commodity, and exists only by virtue of a social bond between the shareholders. The coin-like sculpture is unlikely to appeal to the tastes of blue-chip art-speculating tycoons, not because these tycoons dislike the sight of money, but because the project as a whole lays bare the always chimerical and speculative nature of value—both of artworks and of other commodities.



If in Marx’s time of writing, the aforementioned social dynamics generating value essentially always boiled down to the expenditure of human labour-power, then Market for Immaterial Value reflects the changes that have occurred in the financialized segments of the capitalist mode of production since: the investment of money has here substituted the investment of human labour in a material process of production as the base operation for generating surplus value. This substitution is the essential difference between financialized capitalism and its previous, essentially 19th century incarnation. It is also this substitution that has rendered Marx’s labour theory of value, which holds that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labour time socially necessary for its production, no longer valid. Of course, this labour theory of value has never really been valid for artworks, not even in Marx’s days, but by now it has lost its grip on other sorts of commodities too—branded luxury goods and financial assets being only the most obvious examples. The formerly atypical relation that artworks have always maintained with the value-form can no longer be called exceptional; it is in fact proliferating everywhere. In today’s economy, the artwork functions as the prototypical commodity par excellence, [4] and one may well wonder if the mini-sculpture in Market for Immaterial Value is a token for commodity fetishism because it is a coin or because it is an artwork.



Concomitantly, the figure of ‘the artist’ begins to function more and more clearly as the prototype for the neoliberal subjectivity of the entrepreneurial self. This is a process that was identified and articulated by critical theorists from different disciplines and backgrounds [5], only to subsequently become co-opted by the official political rhetorics of neoliberalism. The hysterical discourses on and heavy government funding of the so-called ‘creative industries’ in most of Western Europe are exemplary in this regard. They extract from the myth of the autonomous artist social atomization and an imperative of individualized responsibility, while carefully filtering out any possibility of genuinely autonomous decision-making whatsoever, as they replace politics with the technical and technocratic solution of problems as they manifest themselves. (Often, it may be added, these are ‘problems’ only from the perspective of capital.) Equally significant and widespread, in the overdeveloped world [6] as elsewhere, is the trend towards the blatant instrumentalization of the so-called ‘creative class’ for the so-called ‘regeneration’ of those urban areas where more value could be extracted.

Another aspect of the form of subjectivity associated with the artist that is prototypical for neoliberal subjectivity at large is its economic precarity—and therefore by extension its experienced precarity. Under neoliberalism, the artist (and by extension everyone else) resembles the Foucauldian homo economicus, a thoroughly economized subject that is, however, still a subject in that it maintains a certain minimum degree of agency. There are still choices and decisions to be made, even though they will be informed, motivated, and determined to the core by economic imperatives. Under extreme neoliberalism, however, the artist (and again everyone else) becomes more reminiscent of a concept identified by Foucault’s contemporary, Pierre Klossowski; that of living currency (‘la monnaie vivante’).[7] Like currency, living currency—while still a “source of voluptuous sensations”—has little to no real agency (though of course it has effects on the world); it is simply there to be moved around, circulated, manipulated as a token for exchange value. And again, as with currency, it functions as a token only when it is credible, when its authenticity is asserted and socially accepted. Extreme neoliberalism as experienced first by artists, and then by everybody else, is the condition of having to establish and virtuously perform one’s own genuineness precisely in order to become reified in the circuit of the art world or of the economy at large. For Klossowski, living currency “would assume the quality of a sign of value while at the same time integrally constituting value.” In the political economy of the art world it is clear that not only the authenticity of the artwork, but also that of the artist, needs to be proven and performed time and again. The promotional video in Market for Immaterial Value, not-quite-credible as it is in its overt use of such unoriginal elements as stock footage and generic muzak, functions as a critical mimicry of this development. A far less critical and far less amusing instantiation of it is the self-promotional elevator pitch that one encounters so often at those art events where every conversation and social encounter is potentially also a job interview. It is in such situations that it becomes apparent that in the current reduction of subjectivity to living currency Adorno’s words ring a fortiori true: “The ungenuineness of the genuine stems from its need to claim, in a society dominated by exchange, to be what it stands for yet is never able to be.”

A shorter version of this text was published as part of a collaborative visual essay by Market for Immaterial Value and Steyn Bergs in Cultural Policies: Agendas of Impact (Kunstlicht 2016.1).

Special thanks to Angela Bartholomew for her editorial work.



1    Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life, London (Verso) 2005, pp. 153-154.

2    Marx, Karl, Capital Volume I, London (Penguin Books & New Left Review) 1990, p. 199.

3    On the uncanny convergence of the material and the ideational in coinage, see also: Sohn-Rethel, Alfred, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey (Humanities Press) 1978, especially pp. 60-67. For Sohn-Rethel, all abstract thought (from ancient Greek philosophy onwards) originates from the real abstraction inherent in the social process of commodity exchange. In a particularly amusing passage on page 64, Sohn-Rethel has a hypothetical money-owner visiting a marketplace in the time of Plato and Socrates ponder whether his coins are in fact just pieces of metal or whether they are really made up of something as Platonic and ideational as value: “Arriving there at last he is, however, struck again, for not far from the butcher’s stand he sees Plato sitting on the parapet in person in philosophical converse with Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus and other friends. Should he accept his coins as being simple silver, go to the butcher and buy his meat with them, or should he pursue the question of the indestructible, abstract and purely ideal stuff he knows his coins should really be made of, and ask Plato to put him wise on the question? This, of course, would engage him in purely intellectual pursuits and who knows when he would ever return to the economic necessities of life?”

4    Graw, Isabelle, High Price. Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, Berlin (Sternberg Press) 2009, p. 130-131.

5    Three texts addressing (in very different ways) this issue are: Chiapello, Eve, ‘Evolution and co-optation: The “artist critique”of management and capitalism’, in: Third Text, vol. 18, 2004, pp. 585-594; Lorey, Isabel, ‘Governmentality and Self-Precarization. On the normalization of cultural producers’, in: Transversal, 2006. Accessed through <http://eipcp.net/transversal/1106/lorey/en> on 20 December 2016; Diederichsen, Diedrich, ‘People of Intensity, People of Power: The Nietzsche Economy’, in: Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art, Berlin (e-flux & Sternberg Press) 2011.

6    I use this situationist term to emphasize that I am offering an account of neoliberalism that is highly eurocentric. Precisely because I am hereby reinforcing what is already the dominant account, I find it important to stress that the neoliberal subject of the cool urban hipster creative type as described here may be prototypical, but is also still exceptional, and that its existence is obviously afforded by the more old-fashioned, blunt, and gruesome forms of exploitation to which the vast majority of the world’s population is still exposed to.

7    Klossowski, Pierre, ‘From Living Currency (trans. Reena Spaulings)’, in: The Claudius App. Accessed through <http://theclaudiusapp.com/2-klossowski.html> on 20 December 2016.


Steyn Bergs is an art critic and a researcher currently working as the co-editor-in-chief of Kunstlicht, Journal for Visual Art, Visual Culture, and Architecture. He is conducting his PhD research on commodification, value and reproduction in digital artworks at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He previously worked as media and research coordinator for Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, and has written for Metropolis M, Stedelijk Museum’s Global Collaborations platform, and Open!, among others.