Notes for future research: authorship, the commodity fetish, what the hell is "Art"-

I'm going to drop the "Discourse about Discourse" title gimmick because otherwise it'll just preface almost all my posts onhere anyway. May as well make it the unofficial subtitle to the whole blog at this point.

crediting, authorship, ownership

In Capital Vol.1, Marx introduces the commodity fetish. Per wikipedia's summary of the concept:

In Karl Marx's critique of political economy, commodity fetishism is the perception of certain relationships (especially production and exchange) not as relationships among people, but as social relationships among things (the money and commodities exchanged in market trade). As a form of reification, commodity fetishism perceives economic value as something that arises from and resides within the commodity goods themselves, and not from the series of interpersonal relations that produce the commodity and evolve its value.

Fetish here is used in the religious sense, to refer to an object being possessed with power (here, a value on the market) in an essential, mystical way. The commodity fetish is the mystification and erasure of the social relations of production - the actual social history of the object - that occurs when it reaches the market as an independent commodity: its value appears as an inherent quality, naturalized as essence. While the value (and consequently the price) of the commodities is directly tied to the labor that went into it; that connection is broken and replaced with the fetish in the eyes of the buyer.

Art commodities and digital reproducible works are particular in that they are endlessly reproducible at practically no cost, and rather than relating directly to the labor of production, their value comes almost entirely from their owners limiting their distribution to create an artificial scarcity - this necessitates private ownership of the object, hence the IP framework, in which the author concept plays the key role.

In other words, we could consider it as another form of this mystification of the source of value, or a fetish-
Commodity fetish: naturalizes the value of non-reproducible objects as "inherent", erasing their social production process which is the actual source of their value.
Authorship fetish: naturalizes the value of freely reproducible objects, in reality obtained through the mechanisms of IP ownership monopoly and scarcity of distribution, as "inherent". Serves to mystify the legalisms of IP and obscure the economic motivations for it...?

Is this a useful framework? TBD


I've been thinking about this question because of the recent crypto discourse in Art twitter, in which a lot of artists who defend crypto ledgers and NFTs do so on the basis of works being credited properly (in theory), in addition to of course the money aspect. This anxiety around crediting reminds me of similar questions floating around the games industry, and i want to look into what we're really talking about here.

When it comes to games authorship discourse, one specific talking point that comes to mind is Bennett Foddy's game Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy and his own discourse about it.
This talk is i think particularly illuminating because its core question is supposedly crediting, and better crediting practice - it is somewhat puzzling considering this game lifted its core gameplay from older freeware Sexy Hiking, and is significantly (if not in its totality?) built with assets bought off various asset stores.
While the author defensively rebuked the twitter heat he received and said he'd clearly credited and acknowledged these inspirations and resources, in practice i found no credits on the game's webpage or storefront links, and its credits on mobygames are... sparse to say the least ("various other folks", "all the music is in the public domain as far as I can tell").
His name, however, is featured everywhere and apparently something to write talks about.


But how is authorship acknowledged in reality? It is a social position that is accessed through channels of power - academia, access to media, etc; for every organic auteur there is a past history of opportunities and we all know "opportunity" is never equal. I've talked in my earlier blog post about the category of the artist as somehow separate from that of the amateur/worker/goblin, who does art-ready pieces but doesn't get elevated to this status - the concept of author is a further development of this hierarchy.

Even more crucially, the author/creator here isn't a spiritual category imbued with a distinct creative flame, contrary to what the mystified cultural image of it attempts to imply. It is the person who takes the game to the market. Creative work before it reaches the market is just a "free gift of nature" in the marxist terminology, it exists outside of the purview of the market and therefore begets neither owner nor value in the eyes of the capitalist. Once one attempts to bring it to the market as an Art piece, however, it is bestowed an exchange-value and an owner (who owns the value embodied in the asset, more importantly than the asset itself, as crypto tokens demonstrate most transparently). The author is both the original value-holder, and once acknowledged as an author, also an extra aspect of the value of the art-object (it changes the perceived nature of the product, from a mere mess of pixels to a piece imbued with the artistic mystique - hence my hunch to connect this to the concept of fetishism).
Bennett correctly identifies the fact that modding scenes, for instance, often have a solid culture of crediting that doesn't translate to the commercial scenes - but frustratingly, he falls short of identifying the fundamental difference between noncommercial mods and games as market commodities, and the way this affects the question of credits in relation to ownership and rights. Mods are well documented and credited within their internal communities, as part of a social fabric; but their authors are virtually unknown and irrelevant outside of these scenes. If an article from a non-specialized outlet picks up a particular mod, expect to see its title read "Someone made a GTA mod where you pilot a shark!!" instead of putting the actual name of the mod creator in any prominent spot.
Bennett also talks of companies where the workers were prevented from putting their names by the bosses for exploitative reasons (to keep wages down by preventing other studios from offering better contracts), and then moves the discussion to solo games where the credited author owns the IP...

The concept of credits as acknowledgement of the social labor process and authorship as abstract intellectual ownership over the art object are mixed up and lead to all kinds of nonsense parallels. While the issues identified in the talk are correct and worth addressing, the proposed answer feels misdirected, or at least very narrow.
Where Bennett says this name gimmick is motivated by a will to credit games better, i'd argue the reliance on a single author brand in fact erases the real social interactions that led to the creation of the game, and the collaboration of different people into the final object. It also just doesn't hold up for anyone who actually makes games for a living and collaborates with a significant amount of people to get them out the door, rather than working on game-pieces on the side as vanity art projects (which is fine, but changes the breadth of the arguments you can make about the field).


Here we need to talk once again about the reduction of art to the commodity form, and its contingent reliance on private ownership for the sake of value.
Specifically, the IP framework kicks in to regulate ownership of reproducible works and turn them into individual commodities - for freely reproducible works, scarcity has to be enforced for any value to be extracted from them. Lana Polansky wrote a very useful overview of the history of IP and its emergence as a mechanism for the monetization of digital commodities for Passage.

"Crypto art" sees the same kinds of smokescreens amplified even more: its defenders in the art world will present it as a way to enforce better crediting practices, but in reality it is vastly detached from it (there were many reports of plagiarized or outright stolen NFT pieces in the past few days alone). Crypto is just a particularly heavy and climate-destructive way to enforce the DRM system, but it goes even beyond that by making the token of ownership the real commodity, while the actual jpeg attached to it can be freely copy-pasted anywhere. This reveals the real mechanism underpinning this fetishism for authorship and ownership, that enforces the value of art pieces as completely abstract speculation vessels (and insufferable crypto nerds pretend that this model, in which the sale is just that of an empty token, is apparently good and not stupid nonsense).
This leads us to absurd extremes where so-called "thinker" Murat Pak presents sale itself as the "art"-making process - nevermind that the image being resold in parts is itself a public domain reproduction of a painting that has been completely fetishized into an abstracted expression of "Real Art", or beauty-as-value.


(The irony is not lost on me that Murat Pak made his name in significant part through Archillect, a project that specifically relies on the abundance of endlessly remixed freely available art, and consistently refused to implement any meaningful crediting / sourcing to it; and is now making his next grift in the land of crypto ownership tracking)

These mechanics aren't fundamentally new - the art gallery circuits around the world have always used art pieces as empty investment vessels to whitewash blood money with no concern for the actual object - but in the age of free digital reproduction, scarcity needs to be enforced through legal means rather than the material shape of the art object - hence the outsized importance of authorship and lineage of ownership.
This is where the real root of these categories emerge: the framework of IP ownership, which is crucial for commodities that are to be sold: who is selling? who is buying? who is allowed to reproduce?

I think Everest Pipkin's note on the nature of digital works here is illuminating :

Digital files don’t have that much going for them. They store monumentally less information than say, a piece of paper- which contains the artwork on it as well as inscribed histories of hand, pen, ink, pulp, forest- a dense connected materiality that unfolds forever. A digital file is a pauper in comparison. A file breaks down to requisite ones and zeros well before one can reach the atomic composition of the materials in a physical drawing.
What digital files and digital artists do have is duplicatability. There is no original file. When I make a copy of a text document, 3d model, or game and give it to you we both have the original. We’re both having a first-hand experience. We both are engaging with the work wholly as itself, not second-hand documentation.
This is it! This is the one thing! Digital artists have media that can proliferate over a network and be held by many people at once without cheapening or breaking the aura of a first-hand experience. It is the one true benefit to working in digital space.

I’m horrified to see this willingly traded for an opportunity to reproduce the worst parts of the existing physical art market, where “the original” is useful foremost as a rare thing- a unique thing- that, in its scarcity, is an asset.


(Everest also points out that the entire credits argument around NFT doesn't hold up - in the absence of regulatory structures, there is nothing in place to enforce copyright, even if that was something that benefited small artists in practice (it does not). Worse, stolen works can be minted without the creators' consent and, once put on the blockchain, cannot be taken down; the entire system is a hall of mirrors, and pipe dreams around enforced crediting or recurring pay cuts to the original artist are at this stage only wistful thinking)


Even provenance, which could be a way to document relations of production, is under capitalism only recorded as a string of owners - here too what matters is the trajectory of the commodity rather than the processes through which art came to exist in a particular form, in a particular place.
In other words, the lineage of the art object is here seen as starting with the finished object and its author (ie. original intellectual owner), and continuing onwards with its subsequent owners. The history of the object prior to its arrival to the market, the many contributions of artists and workers and the inspirations it pulled from and the multifaceted forms it took during production are completely absent from the picture, erased from the record.

So to sum up: physically-substantiated art objects become interesting not only in terms of their specificity and value, but because they are a strange type of witness to history. The record of their provenance, the analysis of their style, the chemistry of their patina, and so on, does not only confirm authenticity and therefore value; they are a corpus of historical information that is drawn forward, through conservation, research and provenance documentation, to continue to inform artistic and expressive production broadly. Digital art objects, on the other hand, are freely replicable and distributable in a highly flexible way that challenges ideologies of scarcity and ownership. Crypto-art marketplaces thus far remove the nuance and flexibility of both, while only offering an inadequate, individualized entrepreneurial “solution” in return.

Em Reed, Provenance is a Technology!

What, then, does it take for crediting to be Good? There are many intermediate ways to acknowledge the history of production of a work of art - most will need to be fought for since they go against the incentives of the market and the capitalists, but it is certainly possible to include comprehensive credits in artworks, and to apply particular care to the presentation of the work (i don't personally think putting a particular person's name in a title is especially salient, but hopefully you can find other methods that actually make sense here).
But the true, final answer to this question is once again the abolition of the commodity form... Woops!!

towards a utopia of the Arts: art beyond the commodity form

I don't especially care for utopias - they don't motivate me, they strike me as thought experiments that don't particularly respond to timely conditions and concerns in any meaningful way. If the ideology of the future is shaped by the future organization of society and its productive forces, which is bound to shift dramatically over the course of time, i am not convinced there is particularly poignant insight to find in our present extrapolations on what that could look like.
That being said, i think it's interesting to think of what art-after-IP could be like.

Picture art as it exists now: cut into delineated and static art "pieces" and "products" that die the second they are born, and exist to embody value. This is the form art takes when it is thrown into the commodity-form.

Now imagine a living practice of art with no product-boundaries, engaged in constant remixing, shapeshifting, participation from the whole of society. Imagine art grounded in the social relations it emerges from and responds to, art so abundant it is everywhere and impossible to contain or categorize.
Imagine the dissolution of the distinctions between amateur and professional, low-art and high-art. Imagine the dissolution of the artist-worker-consumer boundaries.
Imagine art as an inseparable part of the fabric of society, imagine every person engaged in creation without institutional barriers. Imagine art as a mundane everyday social interaction, a tool for the exploration of our social relations, never locked away, infinitely abundant. Imagine everyone being an artist.
This wouldn't lead to art theft or the dissolution of "crediting" - rather, it would lead to the social relations and history of each emergence within the societal art-fabric being acknowledged and observed in the social milieu that interacts with it as part of its constitutive language, as one of the binding elements of the community, which embodies its history within it. Instead of gatekeeping institutions, imagine communities involved in the constant recording and celebration of their own histories, and cultural exchange with other communities ("institutions" could - should! - still exist here and organize this archival and curatorial endeavour, but in a shape radically different from those we know today). Remixing and cultural exchange taking a form opposite to the superficial appropriation of Archillect, one instead that respects and engages with others' art in dialogue and curiosity.

What i'm pointing towards here is a final horizon of the total abolition of "art" and "artist" as categories, and the integration of "creation" into the daily lives of all people, the very fabric of society, in every area of expertise and every field of production - and into leisure. It is a daunting perspective in some ways; as artists who formed our identities in the ideological soup or capitalist liberalism, it is intimidating to conceive of art's utopic horizon being one of absolute mundanity and accessibility, one where the authority it confers us would be so drastically eroded. But as ideology and material conditions constantly influence each other, i want to believe in a utopic subject who is not susceptible to the vanities of the contemporary artist, and instead finds fulfillment in genuine and free social bonds, mediated in part through creative endeavours.

This is a really indulgent and idealistic vision, as are all utopias - a horizon i don't particularly have plans or aspirations to reach. It isn't even really something i particularly want, and certainly not a manifesto (belch!!). In reality, the form that "art" takes as a social construct will shift and change along with the relations of production and the social fabric, and it is both impossible and pointless to try to predict the future or will a specific future vision into being. But i think it's interesting to reflect on how different our mystified categories of "art" and such would look once freed from the commodity form, to pull on one loose thread in the ideological construct of "art" and study the unraveling of the rest of the edifice.

notes for future productive research:

Art-after-the-commodity-form will only be a relevant question once the commodity-form (and the value-form, and capitalism) are abolished, it will not predate it or cause it (and this total abolition/revolution, while we should fight for it at every turn, is not a project that will be "achieved" within our lifetimes - if the concept of "achieving" historical transitions makes sense to begin with, which is debatable).
So beyond asking what an utopic (non-)concept of art would be what i really want to figure out is how art fits into contemporary political struggle. I do not accept the brazen rejection of arts as essentially counterproductive or bourgeois that some left LARPists sometimes uphold, but neither do i want to mystify the concrete place of the artist and the art commodity under capitalism - and even art that exists outside of the market is subjected to this influence, and under constant risk of appropriation, extraction or cooptation.
Identifying both of those frameworks of "art" as reactionary is the easy part, but i want to get to the bottom of this question and actually find some kind of affirmative answer to it. I hope that this can lead to some productive clarity about the role of the artist in the struggle, and how to organize as artists. Without it, we're bound to keep falling into either of those reactionary reflexes.

I think it's especially crucial to be rigorous about this question because of the mushy class character of the art milieu(x). I've talked earlier about the artist category as one that reinforces class hierarchies, and it's important to acknowledge that many artists are either petty-bourgeois or bourgeois outright - organizing for "better art funding, better art scenes" could become another project of small business subsidization or an entrepreneur pyramid scheme (as we currently see with crypto). But it's also wrong to see the artist as essentially bourgeois, for there are many struggling artists, many workers in the fields of the arts, and crucially many people who would make incredible art if they had the resources and effective freedom for it - i expect organizing the arts to be both a matter of organizing people who already work within the field, and creating avenues for more accessible participation to the arts, both as creators and as audience. This is easy to say but before we know how to concretely work towards these goals, a proper framework for understanding the arts is needed, and i need to do a lot more reading before i get there.


Flagging this book for future research: Aesthetics and Politics collection from Verso's Radical Thinkers series (with texts from Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch, Brecht, Lukács & Jameson) - this text was put on my radar after talking about these topics with people who've actually read books and sounds promising, so i'm making a note to myself to read it and hoping it'll shine some light on the question of the artist's role in struggle.

No i will NOT get an editor for these posts this is my blog i will write however insufferably i want, listen i do this for free and it's taking enough of my time as it is.