(Return to Introduction)
Those who still feel it is crucial for art's wellbeing to imagine it as non-commerce are in denial. Most have by now backed off absolute distinctions, and are left to defend art as a commodity plus some ineffable quality. All that remains to these latter-day-critical theorists is a slow death-by-a-thousand-small-cuts retreat. One does not have to believe in any degree of autonomy to see that while commodity-art resembles the trappings of other markets even these art/products are different in fundamental ways.
The Marxist understanding of "commodity" (where much of this hand wringing has its origins) is anything bought or sold that satisfies any need or desire. When the art historian, George Kubler, was faced with a similarly all-encompassing set, "man-made things," rather than imagine art as separate by means of some intangible "privileged status" he looked for a tangible difference in the ways we value the things we make. And, as Roberta Smith has observed, “Pleasure is an important form of knowledge.” Kubler found a tangible difference by means of desire:
Let us suppose that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world. By this view the universe of man-made things simply coincides with the history of art. It then becomes an urgent requirement to devise better ways of considering everything men have made. This we may achieve sooner by proceeding from art rather than from use, for if we depart from use alone, all useless things are overlooked, but if we take the desirableness of things as our point of departure, than useful objects are properly seen as things we value more or less.
It's possible to imagine buying or selling as a huge anonymous "lot"- a train car full of landscape paintings for a chain of motels - but that is not what we mean by either "art" or "art market." Likewise it's not impossible to imagine a corncob being sold at auction for a million dollars (Jacqueline Kennedy's childhood cob). But again that is not what we mean by commodity. Because art is "bought and sold," and art is a market, is no reason to concede that it therefore "behaves like other markets." Although "identical market forces do exist," all markets are in no way identical; art least of all.
To have a functioning commodities market for things that are less absolutely undifferentiated there has to be an agreed on definition of that commodity. These are legal definitions. Frozen orange juice concentrate is a commodity, and by quirk of history, onions are not. Art at its highest levels isn't completely unregulated, but the complete market (it is an unregulatable market is crucial to understand. it means the market can never be fully understood (or fully manipulated/controlled) as an single undifferentiated, unobstructed, whole. That art is not a commodity is no quirk, it has to do with what art is and isn't at the most basic levels.