Decommodifying Art

For years musicians have been trying to decommodify their music, i.e. trying not to be stereotyped into a specific genre of music. It almost worked with “World Music” though this again has become a “label”. Punk was famously invented to show 2 fingers to the record industry; trying not be part of the “industry” that is the music business. The same can be said for many artists, who are desperate not be pigeonholed.


Is there a way to decommodify art, i.e. can art just be a piece of art without being called a painting, a statue, an intervention etc? This was the question that artists set out to answer in the 1960s with the increasing prevalence of installation art. By creating art that was reliant on its relationship with a particular space, and by making that space one that is open to the public, artists attempted to ensure that their work could not be sold, and therefore contribute towards the increasing wealth of the art market. It stands to reason that if a piece of art is only relevant to a specific place / event, then after that event / removal from that place it would have no value. Richard Long of course was famous for his walks, which he documented and exhibited. Does a walk have a value?

It’s a movement to which many artists have contributed, from Yves Klein’s ‘The Void’, where he famously exhibited an empty room, to Kara Walkers’ more recent ‘A Subtlety’, which was built to decay over the course of its installation. As installation art became more popular, however, it too began to be commodified. From museums purchasing installations such as Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’, which is not currently on public display, to charging significant entry fees to viewers in order to capitalise on the exhibition, it seems that installation art too has been unable to rebel against the commodification of art in the way that it originally set out to do. Tracey Emin’s bed was recently involved in a fire at the warehouse belonging to John Paul Getty, who bought it the artwork. What was its value and is this realistic? Is it a bed or a piece of art?


Performance art is, almost by definition, uncommodifyable. How can you buy art if it is a person performing? Not possible? You can document it through photographs of the event, or memorabilia. For example, the Tate owns a piece of Yoko Ono’s dress from her performance ‘Cut Piece’, in which she invited audience participants to cut off pieces of her clothes. Then in New York, MoMA became the first museum to purchase a performance artwork when they acquired Tino Sehgal’s ‘The Kiss’ in 2008 for $70,000. Although exceptionally rare, this showed that performance art too could be bought, if the creator was willing.

We should note, however, that there are many performance artists who will not sell their work. Brian Catling is one such artist, whose work defies commodification. As he said in his 2018 interview with the Guardian: “I made installations that only existed for the run of the show, and then they’d go in a skip. People couldn’t believe I wasn’t selling them… Art has not provided me with a living, because I haven’t let it.”


There are also a wide range of conceptual artists working to prevent their art from being commodified to an unnecessary extent. From Jeremy Deller, who keeps the prices of his artworks low enough to be reasonably affordable for his audience, to Maya Lin, who moulds sculptures in the earth in public spaces, these artists are producing work that does not conform to the art market model. In doing so, they are continuing the rebellion that was begun by their predecessors in the 60s.

In the 21st century, with the rise of apps such as Instagram, the viewer now is a crucial part of the conversation about an artwork. Yayoi Kusama began creating her ‘Infinity Rooms’ in the 1960s, immersing her viewer in a space that confronts them with infinities, attempting to address the friction between people and nature. However, the rooms are also highly ‘instagrammable’, and in the last few years, her works have been the feature of hundreds of thousands of selfies posted on Instagram, spreading an entirely less self-reflective message about the artwork. These selfies are reflective of a desire to capture the room, to in some way own a piece of it. This attitude is what has drawn such large crowds, and turned the original message into one that is much more commodified.


Artists, musicians and their like, will continue to attempt to decommodify their works / performances so they cannot become part of the mainstream, part of the establishment, commodified to make them sellable and have a value. A trend that was started in the sixties and sixty years later, is still going on.


Image Credits: Franco B – Photo – Hugo Glendinning | Dusty Boots Line – The Sahara – Photo Richard Long |Tracey-Emin’d – Photo Evening Standard | Marina-Abramovic-Ulay- Imponderabilia – Photo Sean Kelly Gallery | Artwork by Kuoama – Photo Susanne Nilsson


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