Skip to main content

Value of Commodities and Artistic Aura: Exhibition Value, Cult Value, Sign Value, Functional Value (Karl Marx)

Beginning in the 19th century, the German sociologist, Karl Marx, undertook his critique of the capitalist mode of production. By examining the basic conditions that underlie capitalist production, he predicted that capitalism would continue to exploit the proletariat until it became impossible to abolish the system itself. Marx also discovered that in a capitalist society, commodities are exchanged relative to others through a money system. This exchange value represents the abstract expression of a non-social relationship between two objects in a marketplace (Marx 1867: 327). For example, in order to consume goods and services like food and shelter, one needs the purchasing power of a unit of currency. As a result, the object of currency can be exchanged for other commodities in a marketplace.

However, in a capitalist society, the value of a commodity is not always based on how much it costs. Marx discovered that commodities are also exchanged as a symbol of a social relationship between people. In contrast to exchange value, the symbolic-exchange value signifies the expression of a social relationship between two objects in a marketplace. The classic illustration of commodities with symbolic-exchange value would be gifts and ritual objects.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, new technological developments in film and photography changed the perception of visual works in modern society. These two processes produced images of objects, which allowed them to be observed and studied by all members of society. The value of an object exhibited, or presented publicly, is known as the exhibition value (Benjamin 1936). For example, consider if a museum were to put on an exhibition of paintings by Pablo Picasso. The curators would typically print a series of pamphlets and photo advertisements that display some of the works of art in their exhibit. By mass-producing photographs of these objects for the public, many members of society might feel as though they no longer need to see the actual works of art. Therefore, this mechanical reproduction causes the original object to lose authenticity and artistic aura (Benjamin 1936; Baudrillard 1981). Artistic aura is defined as the originality of a non-reproduced object (Benjamin 1936).

Mechanical reproduction and the decay of artistic aura can also be explained in a description of the Lascaux caves in southwestern France:

With the pretext of saving the original, one forbade visitors to enter the Lascaux caves, but an exact replica was constructed five hundred meters from it, so that everyone could see them (one glances through a peephole at the authentic cave, and then one visits the reconstituted whole). It is possible that the memory of the original grottoes is itself stamped in the minds of future generations, but from now on there is no longer any difference: the duplication suffices to render both artificial. (Baudrillard 1981)

This quote further emphasizes the previous assertion that the replication an object produces a decline in the authenticity and artistic aura of the original object. By creating an exact replica of the Lascaux caves, the original grottoes were then considered to be less genuine. Furthermore, this allegory demonstrates that when a work of art becomes reproduced for public consumption, the object, in turn, correspondingly increases in exhibition value.


Increased and Decreased Values

As This Increases......This Decreases

Exhibition Value

Cult Value, Sign Value, Artistic Aura

Functional Value

Cult Value, Sign Value, Artistic Aura

Sign Value

Functional Value, Exhibition Value

Cult Value

Functional Value, Exhibition Value


Understanding Values

Click on the image to see the full size version.

Click on the image to see the full size version.

However, as exhibition value increases, the cult value of an object is displaced. Cult value is defined as the value of an artistic production within the service of a cult (Benjamin 1936). Prior to the mechanical reproduction of works of art, people created ceremonial objects for cult and ritual purposes. These objects functioned as instruments of magic and were generally hidden from the view of mass society. Cult value can also be explained in a description of the rare Renaissance sculptures and paintings in Italy:

Certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain Madonnas remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are invisible to the spectator on the ground level. (Benjamin 1936)

This quote reflects how certain Italian paintings and statues once possessed cult value because they were connected to ritualistic functions of ceremonial worship.

In order to view a particularly rare Madonna or sculpture, one needed to be able to demonstrate their commitment and service to the cult (i.e. admittance, education, practice of customs, etc.) But with the development of film and photography, works of art were no longer able to remain hidden, ceremonial, or retain their original artistic aura. Therefore, as the exhibition value of a work of art increased, its cult value and artistic aura diminished because the original ritual function of the object was eradicated.

In opposition to cult value, which was once the primary purpose of a work of art, a new value emerged that was more associated with the political and economic function of art: sign value. Sign value is defined as the value that is accorded to an object because of how it impacts the social status of its owner (Baudrillard 1968). As paintings became increasingly exhibited and commoditized, people began to perceive works of art as extensions of their wealth and status in society. For example, consider two potential art collectors that both value the painting “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. One collector appreciates the work of art because it represents a beautiful, sensational image. The other values the painting because it signifies his wealth to other members of society.

The distinction that must be made is that the former art collector is concerned with the functional value of the painting, while the latter is focused exclusively on the sign value. As works of art became commoditized and exhibited, people began to reproduce these objects in order to increase their functional value. Functional value can be defined as the instrumental purpose of an object (Baudrillard 1968). Furthermore, an original work of art has a greater sign value than a reproduced image of the painting because the original is more difficult to obtain and its existence is the most genuine.


Benjamin, Walter. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1968 . The System of Objects.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Tr. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. (Originally published in French by Editions Galilee, 1981.)

Scroll to Continue


Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 07, 2011:

Thank you! Sorry I led you to the wrong hub.

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on December 07, 2011:

I'm on my way to go check it out then! Even though I'm 3/4 asleep.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 05, 2011:

Thank you so much, HSB! I can't wait until you see my next's all thanks to you!

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on December 05, 2011:

I cannot add more than the previous commenters, except that I would like to state that this was a well researched hub. Thanks so much for a great hub!

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 04, 2011:

Derdrie, I had no idea that that is how they chose the buildings to destroy in WWII. Thank you so much for sharing, commenting and voting. I love when my hubs prompt discussion. Thank you so much for sharing. Have a wonderful day. -Brittany

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 04, 2011:

Michael, thank you for your comment. Yes, once an object goes on display, it loses it's artistic aura and becomes a commodity. I think that in some cases, artistic aura can be a good thing, like when talking about vinyl records (as I did in another hub). Nowadays, we lose the artistic aura of music by ridding of the ritual (or cult value) by using mp3s. We no longer have to place the needle on a record and possibly find the track we want in an album. Now we just click on a track on our computer and within seconds, we can click away and forget the sound we listened to.

Thanks for sharing your comments. You make great points.

Derdriu on December 04, 2011:

Brittany: In a way, all five of the criteria were considered during the English and German bombings of each other during World War II. The two opposing sides agreed in advance which buildings could be destroyed and which spared because of their distinctive architecture and old masterpieces. The buildings which survived were deemed essentially as being irreplaceable in aura and in value. The aura and the values which you identify and compare indeed can make (but not condone) the thumbs up/down decision understandable (but not excusable) in economic if not cultural and moral terms.

Thank you for the excellent analysis, voted up, etc.,


MichaelStonehill on December 04, 2011:

You explained well, in clear and simple words, marxist criticism on modern art. Note that the idea of authenticy and Aura of an art object per se is problematic, since art is a manifestation of human inner expression, and human expression has always been uttered to God or to other persons.

In ancient times art objects were considered to be imitations of the third degree, and as a result were inferior to useful objects. From the Renaissance on, art masterpieces have been considered to be an outcome of precious geniosity. In this respect, mass production not only makes art as something too common or too marketplace-binded, but also succeeds to decrease the idoltary aspect of art consumption and art worship.

When people begin to understand that most masterpieces of the past were beautiful but not good, and learn to prefer inner truth to external appearance, finer and more sublime works of art will be created.

Related Articles