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Yes, But Is It Art?

August 6, 2022

It’s not every day that the world validates your underlying perception of how things work, but an art gallery in Auckland has handed us an example on a platter, so to speak.

But first, some background. Please don’t be bored.

According to Karl Marx, anything that can be bought, sold or bartered is a commodity, and all commodities have two kinds of value.  One is use value, which is how much we value something based on its usefulness to us and the other is exchange value, which is basically what we are willing to pay for something.  Marx spent a lot of time and ink trying to reconcile the two and his supporters and critics since then haven’t been much more successful, because, after all, the two should be the same, shouldn’t they?

Marx felt that the exchange value of goods was driven by the value of the labour (human capital) involved in their creation and that as a result, the exchange value and use value of goods may not be the same. Although you can know the use value of something, you can never know all of the people and processes involved in creating the commodities.  So, recognition of the human capital involved gets lost and human relations are reduced to a relationship between commodities and their exchangeability.  And Marx coined the wonderful term commodity fetishism to describe this relationship.

When it comes to cultural commodities (e.g., works of art, music) Marx felt that human determinations of use and exchange value didn’t apply and that such commodities would be valued in comparison to each other.  (The Russians are notorious for misinterpreting Marx.  That could be why Tolstoy wrote such fat books—he thought they’d be more highly valued).

On that note, in case you are freaking out because I’m talking about Marx, this might be a good place to point out that Lenin and Co. took Marx’s ideas and ran with them and created their own ideology around them.  So we’re not talking Gulag stuff. 

Marx himself defined ideology as belief in an artificial or false world view.  This world view is used and manipulated by the dominant class in order to maintain hegemony over the rest of us.  Hegemony is not just the exercise of power by control.  We accept the hegemony of the dominant class because we are fed an ideology that tells us that this arrangement is common sense, is in our best interests and just the way the world works.  If you think Marx was crazy, you might ask yourself why we tolerate CEOs earning on average 670 times what the average earner makes (up from 604 times in 2020). Or tolerate targeted ads on our phones.

In one view of Marxist theory, works of art inevitably reflect the ideology prevailing during their creation, either as a means to reinforce the ideology or to subvert it.

Which brings us to the Auckland art gallery I mentioned earlier.  An Australian artist is currently displaying this:

In case you can’t tell what it is, have a closer look:

In case you’re still wondering, it is a pickle slice from a McDonald’s cheeseburger.  Stuck to the ceiling.

Let’s explore whether it reinforces or subverts the prevailing ideology!

The title of the oeuvre is “Pickle” and the explanation includes the entire ingredient list of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.  According to the articles I saw, the work is valued at $10,000.  You also have to pay for the cheeseburger separately but you get “instructions on how to recreate the art in your own space.”  Apparently, that involves finding an unused portion of ceiling in your house or somewhere, and flicking the pickle up there.  Sort of a modern day version of a paint by number Mona Lisa!   Not sure why you can’t just buy yourself a cheeseburger and biff the pickle on the ceiling and save $10,000, but what do I know about art?

I can’t begin to tell you how hilariously funny I think this is.  Especially the social media extravaganza in which, among other things, people are complaining that they used to get kicked out McDonalds restaurants for exercising the same artistic urge. 

At the same time, I like it because it is a total validation of Marxist theory.  The artist has created a commodity (work of art) from a commodity (a McDonald’s cheeseburger).  Our relationship to both of these things is solely mediated via our commodity fetishism. 

Technically, therefore, this pickle art should be valued in comparison to other comparable works of art. 

But are there any?  Of course not, so the artist or someone just made up a number designed to reflect commodity fetishism—how much a person may value their relationship with this particular commodity. And to me, that is a reinforcement of the prevailing ideology.

How, you ask?  The current hegemonic power behind western democracies is staunchly neoliberal capitalist.  That power has driven an ideology that we are both coerced into supporting and consent to—namely, everything can be bought and sold and given a market price and the market is the best mechanism for determining price and value.

So, although we may personally freak over the thought of paying $10,000 for a stale pickle stuck to the ceiling, our consent to free market capitalism means we totally accept the fact that a pickle stuck to the ceiling can be given a value and that someone, somewhere will pay big bucks for it. 

Because most of us aren’t billionaires or oligarchs, we wouldn’t dream of forking out that kind of money for something so, for lack of a better word, decadent.  But we know there are people who will and we’ve been taught to believe that that is common sense and the way the world works. 

Don’t believe me?  Have you heard of Non Fungible Tokens? 

Whether it’s right or makes sense is another question altogether.

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