Face Value

Ian Wallace on Isabelle Graw's Three Cases of Value Reflection: Ponge, Whitten, Banksy (2021)

Banksy, Love Is in the Bin, 2018, aerosol paint, acrylic paint, canvas, board, 40 x 31 x 7''. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images.

Isabelle Graw, Three Cases of Value Reflection: Ponge, Whitten, Banksy. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2021. 64 pages.

ISABELLE GRAW’S oft-cited 2009 book, High Price, which explores art’s economy of fame and prestige as the prototype for creative labor under capitalism, was published just after the collapse of a speculative bubble in the market for contemporary art. Now, roughly a decade later, Three Cases of Value Reflection: Ponge, Whitten, Banksy arrives contemporaneously with a series of meteoric high-dollar sales of NFTs (“nonfungible tokens”), a class of digital nonobjects that seems to reduce art to pure speculative value and the subject of a market bubble that seems to have burst with unusual speed. The idea that a work of art need not take material form at all is not particularly novel, nor is the idea that such a work might be bought or sold. The NFT phenomenon does, however, renew long-standing questions regarding the relationship between an artwork’s material form—or lack thereof—and its monetary worth. Is it possible that the perplexing relationship between the two might be clarified and retooled for a purpose other than the fabrication of speculative market value?

Building on ideas she initially developed with specific attention to painting (see the essays collected in her 2019 book, The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium), Graw’s slim new volume argues that artworks, unlike other commodities, have a “special value form” that puts the labor that has gone into their production on display, including immaterial labor like communication, ideation, and conceptualization (what she terms art’s “intellectual surplus value”). The book moves, somewhat tentatively, beyond Graw’s earlier medium-specific investments by bringing together essays focused on three diverse figures: the French writer Francis Ponge, whose prose poems describing inanimate objects also address his friendships with such artists as Jean Fautrier in the artistic milieu of 1940s Paris; the Black American painter Jack Whitten, who dedicated his Memorial Paintings to friends and heroes in 1960s New York (situating his work within this social network, Graw suggests, enabled Whitten to claim a legitimacy otherwise denied him by racist exclusion); and the popular provocateur and street artist known as Banksy, whose widely publicized, self-destructing painting Girl with Balloon, 2006, retitled Love Is in the Bin after it partially shredded itself at a 2018 auction, serves as the central episode of the book’s final chapter.

Jack Whitten, Black Monolith X, (The Birth of Muhammad  Ali), 2016, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 63''. Photo: John Berens photography © Jack Whitten Estate. Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

Though Ponge, Whitten, and Banksy are certainly strange bedfellows, the historical and tonal incongruity of these subjects is clearly intentional. As a proponent of the so-called relative-heteronomy thesis of art’s value—that is, that art basically functions like other commodities, but with the additional ability to contradict or even reject its own economic conditions—Graw invites us to find commonality in the way all three figures employ various “vitality effects” to reflect on their own works’ intellectual surplus value. We are led to see Ponge’s value reflection as desirable because he allowed his social relations and financial conditions to guide both the form and content of his writing, explicitly acknowledging the instrumental nature of the artist-writer relationship. Banksy, on the other hand, plays the part of undesirable antagonist because his hollow gesture of iconoclasm only facilitates his work’s increased market valuation. Whitten’s Memorial paintings, meanwhile, are dually value reflective because the artist presented them as “gifts,” with titles dedicated to friends and heroes, and because of their evidently worked surfaces. According to Graw’s analyses, both Whitten and Banksy use value reflection in the attempt to ease their works’ entry into systems of exchange. Her explanation of Whitten’s work via sociologist Marcel Mauss’s theory of gift exchange, however, is followed by a somewhat predictable critique of Banksy’s aesthetic weaknesses (she describes his work as “facile” and “infantile”). The difference between the two seems to be in the symbolic rewards sought by each artist through his participation in the art system—for Banksy, fame; for Whitten, respect and inclusion—which Graw does not detail.

A knottier problem arises from Graw’s secondary task, which surfaces most clearly in regard to Ponge and Whitten: to restore and recenter the position of the subject, which is displaced within the ontological approaches gathered under the umbrella of “new materialism.” This is a somewhat strange accompaniment to the question of value that serves as the book’s central focus, particularly because such object-oriented ontologies are predicated on superseding the human subject, whose projection of desires, needs, and ideals is arguably the very source of valuation in the first place. In particular, Graw’s analysis of Ponge, whom she identifies as a new materialist “avant la lettre” for his object-focused poems, hinges on an apparent misreading, wherein the displacement of the subject is taken as new materialism’s blind spot, rather than its entire point. Likewise, Graw argues that the “animated” quality of Whitten’s paintings requires “an observer who is able to animate the material in his or her mind,” a factor that is “often not prioritized in new materialism.” To the extent that a new-materialist perspective is at all useful for thinking about art—and I would argue it is much more constructive for conceptualizing supra-human problems such as climate disaster—it would likely entail approaching a painting as an aggregate of materials held in tension, each with their own agendas, rather than as the vitalistic expression of a creative individual as interpreted by a specific viewing subject.  

Is art’s special “vitality,” then, a material quality of the artwork itself or a subjective effect of its social embeddedness? Graw seems to want to say that it’s both at once: “Artworks trigger this vitalist notion,” she writes, “not only by giving it a material vehicle, but also by intervening concretely in their respective social contexts in a specific way. . . The special value form of an artwork is not only founded on the specificity of artistic labor; it is also dependent on its reception.” What happens, though, when the two are separated? When the artwork’s “vibrant matter,” to use Jane Bennett’s terminology, exists without a receptive social context, or—as in the case of NFT art—social reception proceeds in the absence of vital material? To address such cases would require moving more firmly beyond the realm of painting.