At SAM, Untitled (1982)
At SAM, Untitled (1982) Charles Mudede

The painting could not have arrived at a better time. A young Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, bought the painting by the last celebrity artist of the 20th century, Jean-Michel Basquiat, at a prestigious art auction that occurred on May 18, 2017 in New York City. His bids were made on an iPhone as he sat in the living room of this Tokyo home. The guaranteed minimum for the painting was $60 million. Maezawa and other millionaires and billionaires inflated the value of the painting, which was completed when the artist had a little more than five more years left of life (he died in the summer of 1988), to $110,000,000.

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It's a gorgeously brutal work. A black skull bursting with vivid colors, and bursting out of a blue chaos. I never fail to hear in this image that one line on Linton Kwesi Johnson's "Dread Beat an' Blood": "Electric hour of the red bulb/Staining the brain with a blood flow/And a bad bad thing is brewing." The object at once stores these complex ideas and feelings (art) and an impressive amount of monetary value. And though the former part can do without the latter, and the latter can't do without the former, the former is disconnected from the latter and instead plugged into a market for assets that store and, depending on the demand for such assets, inflate monetary value. Houses are in this class of assets, which the British call placements.

The homes of Seattle are in high demand not as use-values (which if met would end the housing crisis) but as exchange values (which is why their prices are rising so rapidly). And this easy inflatablity, the very fact of it—and the dangers of an even faster deflation—is the key to the substance of value itself, which is not, as many Marxists think, in tension with use-value (the ghost in the value machine). What I want to present in this post is nothing less than the essence of capitalist value.

Let's return to Basquiat's painting, Untitled (1982). The work has art value on one side, and asset value on the other. My contention is that both values (and, for that matter, all values in a capitalist system) arise from and are determined by the same source, which is human culture. The value of the money spent to see the painting, the value of the painting, the aesthetic value of the painting are all cultural. This is why the second paragraph of David Ricardo's 1817 book On The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, which treats on the nature of value, contains almost everything that ever needed to be said about the condition of value in a capitalist economy.

Describing objects that are very much like Untitled (1982), Ricardo writes:

Some rare statues and pictures, scarce books and coins, wines of a peculiar quality, which can be made only from grapes grown on a particular soil, of which there is a very limited quantity, are all of this description. Their value is wholly independent of the quantity of labour originally necessary to produce them, and varies with the varying wealth and inclinations of those who are desirous to possess them. These commodities, however, form a very small part of the mass of commodities daily exchanged in the market.
True, they are a "very small part of the market," but there is no capitalist value which is not exactly like the value of these rare statues, pictures, books, coins, and wines.

Value in capitalism is not a thing of nature but of culture, and this results from the essence of capitalism itself—it's culturally fabricated. But we often do not see this because our most popular form of telling the story of capitalism, orthodox economics, places it and its modes and folds of production (machines, labor, what have you) in the same light as, say, the ancient processes of photosynthesis. Indeed, biologists are in the habit of calling ATP, which along with vital sugars are generated in a leaf's photosystems (two in all), as the universal currency of life. ATP (nature) is the same as money (culture)! Tell that to a baboon or the poor orangutan who recently lost a beloved tree to humans possessed by the dark powers of interest rates, stock values, and compound annual growth.

We have orthodox economists to thank for this kind of wonderful thinking. It is they who, upon seeing a giraffe eating leaves, think that the long neck and expressive chewing are the animal's factors of production. It's very primitive, for sure; but this giraffe business is, in their eyes and mathematical models, the same as the mode of production that developed into the global division of labor and vast interconnected credit systems. But from its very beginning, from what critics of capitalism call primitive accumulation (which is basically the destruction of any form of work that is not wholly dependent on a market that buys and sells labor), the system has been as cultural as a painting.

This is why it is important for critical theory to separate the social from the cultural. They are not the same things. The social is us the animal, the gregarious and loquacious ape. The social is old and changes slowly. We can talk about genes when we talk about our sociality. It makes cooperation possible and is analogous (not homologous) to the eusocial insects. Culture is another matter. It's described in Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, a book by anthropologists Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, as the storage of "information [that's] capable of affecting individuals' behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission." The social makes the cultural possible.

Humans are ultra-social and hyper-cultural. You can have the former without much of the latter (which is the case with ants); but the latter can not exist without the former. The latter is the precondition of the former. Lastly, it is by means of the former that capitalism (itself cultural) constructs a value system that makes a ghost of the latter.

Marx had an idea of the ghostliness of nature within capitalist culture when he wrote:

The form of wood is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, everyday thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “tableturning” ever was.

Not all of the ghosts in the market economy are benign. The one that haunts and terrifies us the most is climate change.


This is part of a series that I began in Monday, an art journal published by the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. The whole work will be called the Political Economy of Basquiat.