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The Art World Needs to Look at Marxist Economics, Not Ethics

Mike Watson

29 April 2023

All too often the art world navel gazes and invokes ethics as a means to wish away its complicated relationship with capitalism. Though in reality, social class hierarchy and nefarious funding practices will not change without structural changes to the economy.

Kiasma_strike, the art strike centred on Finland’s Kiasma contemporary art museum has given me cause to reflect on the centrality of capitalism to the injustices of the art world. That strike began in late 2022 with a demand that art collector Zabludowicz be removed from the Kiasma Support Foundation on the basis of his previous involvement in arms trading. Freelancers refused to work for the museum, igniting a debate in the national press on arts funding. The publicity led Kiasma to enter conversation with the strike’s organisers and representatives and to write a new set of funding guidelines.

Following this process, on April 27th this year, Kiasma announced a new set of ethical guidelines, outlining that “Ateneum, Kiasma and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum [museums all run by the National Gallery of Finland] do not cooperate with organisations and other actors whose activities violate human rights, promote the oppression of minorities, authoritarian governance models, gender inequality and criminal activity.” Further it prohibits support from, support “from entities that have, in the recent past, worked in, for example, oil and gas production and the production of environmentally hazardous chemicals.”

As a result of these changes, the organisation has cut formal ties with the Kiasma Support Foundation, which exists as a private foundation raising funds for the museum's acquisitions, exhibiting and publishing projects and the museum’s director, Leevi Haapala, will resign from its board.

This announcement from Kiasma must be hailed as a victory for kiasma_strike, in that it recognises the ways in which political causes use museum support as a means of whitewashing their causes. However, without a strong critique of the economy these ‘ethical’ achievements are practically cosmetic in their effect, as they serve to give the appearance of change even though we know that in a capitalist economy no money is completely free from association with bigotry, environmental degradation and warfare. By focusing on the most nefarious behaviours in our society the impression is given that there might be positive aspects to capitalism (Zizek’s ‘capitalism with a friendly face’).

This narrow focus has privileged the amorphous and abstract field of ethics over more concrete areas such as economics, or specifically anti capitalist critique, which might otherwise have opened up an analysis of social class structures within the art world. This misses an opportunity to cast the art world elite as unwitting participants in an economic system that treats all people as pawns. Such a move would potentially allow a broad consensus across social classes on the problems that need addressing within the cultural field. Unfortunately however, the Finnish middle classes (much like any other) appear afraid of inviting an attack on their own livelihoods and personas. This is a sad reality that we all too often see as socialists: our attempt to find a common cause across social classes by inscribing inequality as a material fact of capitalism is misread as a shrill condemnation of the rich. This is despite the fact that such a materialist approach would cast, for example, an art collector with a history of investments in unethical goods as a functionary of capitalism rather than an ethically dubious actor in need of cancellation. Often, marxism is more forgiving of the individual capitalist than the liberal identitarian approach is.

To better explain this it is worth considering a fundamental tenet of marxist economics in relation to the art world, namely Marx’s Theory of Labor Value. For the purposes of simplification, let’s say that no money in any industry can be made without driving wages down, given the equal cost to competing manufacturers of materials. For this reason,wages among the lowliest workers in any given field are basically equal to the cost of maintaining the worker in adequate enough health to come to work each day. Some people have trouble seeing how the art world can fit into the Theory of Labor Value, given its application to large scale industrial production and the ownership of that production by capitalist bosses who benefit from the exploitation of often tens to hundreds of unskilled workers. How do the owners of art foundations, the directors of museums (which are often in any case state funded) or art collectors fit the description of the spendthrift factory owner? After all, collectors often have other primary income sources or significant savings (‘family wealth’), and the people they employ rarely seem exploited, in the same way as, say, a factory worker does. Often art workers are freelance and choose whether to work or not, while artists are practically individual artisans, able to choose their hours as they shape material at whim into artworks. This can lead people to argue that Marx is at best irrelevant to the cultural sector, at worst completely outdated, with his talk of yards of linen exchanged for bibles and lowly agricultural or cotton mill workers trekking to work at 4am, and sometimes even selling their children into slavery. Such are the guffaws of people in denial of their own exploitation or role in the subjugation of others. However, consider this: the art world is rarely the only source of income for its apparent hobbyist directorial class precisely because it is the conduit for channelling sources of income made in other fields. The parity of prices for materials and production equipment leads to competing industrialists to drive down prices until they cannot drive them down any further. Once the cost of labour has also reached rock bottom, the only way to increase profit is to diversify investments into other fields, with art being one of many sectors that the super wealthy invest in as sidelines to their main industrial or real estate activity.

Put simply, many private financiers of the arts use the arts to launder money earned in other fields, to avoid taxes, or to whitewash (or ‘artwash’) other activity via the display of high cultural and/or ethical credentials. This being the case, there is simply no desire on the part of the average person running an art foundation or association to pay high wages (not when the foundation itself serves as a means of offsetting tax from money earned via driving wages down in other fields). Nor do high wages it make economic sense in a field as unproductive and useless as the arts in the sense usually understood by those terms. This means that where Marx argues that the principle means of maintaining a profitable edge over competitors is to drive wages down (give technological parity between competitors most of the time), in the field of the arts, which is seen anyhow as an honourable hobbyist pursuit, the aim is often to drive wages down to zero (hence the amount of voluntary labour and internships in the cultural fields). The art world managerial class are often worse capitalists than mere industrialists, though it is the influence of the industrial sector and its need for alternative sources of investment (in the form of high end artworks) that drives the cultural director to offer low (or zero-) wages. Though beyond managers and collectors with backgrounds in the military industrial complex there is a sprawling and autonomous capitalist system that seeks profit at all costs. No one is directly to blame, and that’s why the capitalist class looks aghast that we should discuss class issues: diversification of portfolios comes as naturally to the rich as shopping around for 2 for 1 supermarket meal deals does to the poor. None of this is to say however, that the capitalist class system is not exploitative, or exclusionary. Low wages and a scarcity of permanent contracts mean that the cultural sector continues to be seen as a kind of privileged space. A museum or gallery job is the ultimate accessory, given only the rich can afford one. In summary -- the art world is a place for industrialists to diversify profit and is no place for the poor.

None of this can come as any surprise to anyone with the faintest grasp on marxist economics. Yet it is a difficult reality for many to countenance because it cannot be wished away by pontificating on ethics. Truthfully, removing one capitalist from a museum board would in any case have a minimal effect. Big collectors only exist due to the culture of competition engendered by capitalism. Further, the global nature of the economy and tentacle-like reach of capitalism means that all money in circulation touches nefarious investment areas, such as arms trading. As such, what the middle class possibly fears most is that an honest talk on capitalism and social class would demonstrate that we are all complicit and that an ethical art museum would have to be rethought from the ground up. It would necessitate the severance of art’s links with capitalism, which could only happen by bringing about a socialist society. Kiasma-strike has scored a great and unlikely victory by getting Kiasma to rethink their funding procedures. Similarly Kiasma has acted with sensitivity in doing so. What we need now is a strong critique of capitalism and its processes within the art world alongside the promotion of genuine alternative economic models on a societal scale.


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