Robert Rauschenberg (1964), Retroactive I & Retroactive II.
June 1, 2015

Surplus Values: The Political Economy of Prints

Abstract. Beneath the churning apocalyptic surface of Planet Accelerate is there an unexplored reformist core? In this paper I argue the answer is “yes.” Focusing on Robert Rauschenberg’s printed works of the 1960’s, I explore that core, asking what a politically engaged aesthetic project premised on reform might look like. Making the most of Accelerationism’s permission to speak using capitalism’s own terms while troubling the movement’s more determinist tendencies, I show how accidents of capitalism can be seized interpretively to generate what I call “surplus values” which can then be leveraged in other areas of social and political life.

Surplus Values: The Political Economy of Prints [1]

In 1960, Tatyana Grosman, the Russian émigré owner of the Long Island start-up Universal Limited Art Editions, delivered a set of lithographic stones to Jasper Johns at his studio on the third floor of 128 Front Street in Lower Manhattan. During the visit she met Robert Rauschenberg, who kept his studio on the floor below. Two years later Rauschenberg too would be making prints for ULAE. Not all of them would work out.


Robert Rauschenberg, Accident (1963). Lithograph, 29 ex. [105 x 75 cm]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Accident, the eighth lithographic print that Rauschenberg produced, bears a white scar caused by the cracking of the stone as it passed through the drums of the press. A similar crack would appear the following year in Breakthrough I.


[LEFT]: Robert Rauschenberg, Breakthrough I (1964). Lithograph, 20 ex. [105.4 x 75.9 cm]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York [RIGHT]: Robert Rauschenberg, Breakthrough II (1965). Lithograph, 34 ex. [123.2 x 86.6 cm]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Though unanticipated the cracks were not unwelcome. Indeed, they worked to the advantage of the editions, lending them aesthetic and anecdotal interest. In 1963 Accident won first prize at the fifth international exhibition of prints in what was then Yugoslavia, and Rauschenberg liked Breakthrough I so much that he soon produced an extended edition of Breakthrough II (1965).

These cracks are what we might call “accidents of capital.” Effects of the commercial printing process at its mercantile best and worst (limestone being a material that was cheap and for that reason ideal for low-risk high-yield runs, but also weak and prone to fracture), they mark the contradictory fault lines in capitalism itself. With little formal training Rauschenberg was able to multiply his compositions tenfold and benefit from what remains the historical function of the artist print—exposure to new markets—but in the process he belied his status as an amateur in the newly adopted medium and destroyed the lithographic stones, compromising their own status as prospective commodities and imposing an unintended limit on future production.

These accidents of capital are instructive given our topic today: Accelerationism. A variation on the familiar Marxist premise that, in the words of Steven Shaviro, when it comes to capitalism “the only way out is the way through,” Accelerationism aims to overthrow the capitalist system by exasperating its most extreme and—it is presumed—for that reason characteristic elements.[2] In doing so, proponents of Accelerationism will do away with retrograde elements of the Left—namely the State and the Self—and provide a groundwork for a politics that they claim is not only better suited to the conditions of the twenty first century but also capable of achieving that inevitable but nevertheless elusive goal: the introduction of a post-capitalist order.

But Accelerationism is not standard issue Marxism. Indeed, if all it offered was the prospect of another march through the late stages of post-Fordism it would not inspire the hashtag-giddiness that it often does. No, Accelerationism must be bringing something else to the table, whether it knows it or not. That something else is, I think, a rapprochement with capitalism itself—a rapprochement that runs deeper than many of its adherents let on. I am convinced that at least part of what makes Accelerationism appealing is the license that it gives us to speak in capitalism’s own terms and the permission—long denied—that it grants to claim those terms as our own. I am convinced, in short, that when you get down to it Accelerationism is not revolutionary. It is reformist.

This much is suggested from the way the qualifications pile up in even the most straightforward Accelerationist texts: for example, the 2013 manifesto. There we are told that what we will be getting is a “future” secured by “recovery,” that the “existing infrastructure” is not a “stage to be smashed” but rather a “springboard,” that the aim is an “Outside” that was most viscerally imagined in the dreams dreamt “from the middle of the nineteenth century until the dawn of the neoliberal era”—that is, during golden years of the reformist project as such.[3]

But if somewhere beneath the churning apocalyptic surface of planet Accelerate there exists a reformist core, it is one that has gone largely unexplored. How else to explain the persistent return to the anti-reformist notion that capitalism is determined by fundamental laws that set it on a course which, though it can perhaps be slowed down or sped up, cannot in any appreciable way be changed, and that only by courting crises will progress be made.

As important as this idea has been, especially to those of us who write and think about the avant-garde, experience (and the recently published two-volume Cambridge History of Capitalism) show that, strictly speaking, it is not true.[4] Capitalism has not followed an unwavering course. On the contrary it has been beset by accidents on all sides, accidents that have presented opportunities that reformers have seized to great effect. A list of the more notable reforms born from accidents of capital would include the democratic franchise, which extended the principle of the free market to the realm of ideas,[5] the welfare state, which reacted to globalization by drafting policies to ensure an educated and healthy domestic tax-base, the unionization of labor, which took advantage of international trade deals to legislate increased wages and better working conditions,[6] and if not the end then in many cases the mitigation of colonialism especially in the Near East, where access to global trade offered a means to break the hold of colonial monopolies.[7]

Casual cynicism aside, these reforms were not simply phases in capitalism’s logical development. On the contrary, in most instances they were initially opposed by capitalists and came about through long and arduous struggle. If an expansion and diversification of capitalist forms followed, that is due not to some secret compact or lack of resolve on the part of reformers but rather to the sheer adaptability of capitalism as both an economic and, perhaps more importantly, a cultural system that has proven remarkably—indeed, to some frustratingly—receptive to change.

So, what would a politically engaged aesthetic project look like that on the one hand made the most of Accelerationism’s permission to speak using capitalism’s terms but on the other hand freed itself form the dead weight of determinism? What, in other words, would it look like to set about seizing accidents of capital as occasions for reform?

That is the question that I’ll spend the rest of my time trying to answer. Most of that time will be devoted to discussing capitalism’s habit of generating what I’ll call “surplus values”—that is, those pockets of wealth that are found not in the exchange economy where commodities circulate but rather in the affective economy where arguments are bought and sold. Surplus values trade on our feelings both about capitalism per se and, by extension, about the world seen through (or, subsumed by) capitalism’s value-form. They show up as elements of our aesthetic experiences wherever an artwork presents us with an opportunity to profit interpretively by making new or underexploited reserves in capitalism’s affective economy available.[8]

Focusing on Rauschenberg’s printed works of the 1960s, I will try to show not only how surplus values are generated, but also what can be done with them. I’ll begin by mentioning a number of biographical tropes that have contributed to Rauschenberg’s status as one of America’s premier postwar artists. Casting these as expressions of typically capitalist values I will then turn to the works themselves to show how, through the interpretive act, those values are converted into surplus values that expand upon and in many cases exceed their premises. I’ll end by saying a few words about what the generation of surplus values might offer us, outlining a strategy I’ll call “value leveraging.”


Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning (1953). Traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame [64 x 55 x 1 cm]. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning (1953). Traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame [64 x 55 x 1 cm]. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

In both the full-dressed biographies and the collection rumors that orbit them, Rauschenberg is presented as a particular sort of capitalist, one possessed of industrious moxy and pragmatic good sense. Calvin Tomkins, for instance, describes how, having returned broke to New York from a pan-European trip taken with (and to a large extent funded by) Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg navigated the big city on a budget, negotiating his rent down from 15 dollars to 10 and supplementing his diet with bananas gotten on the cheap at the United Fruit Company docks.[9] Then there is the semi-apocryphal TIME Magazine account of Bed according to which Rauschenberg, having run out of canvas, grabbed the thing closest to him and got to work, a reflex that was later vindicated when Leo Castelli bought the work for what was then the considerable sum of $1,200— surely the best return seen on a quilt.[10]

In these stories (of course, many more could be cited) Rauschenberg is set against the backdrop of a capitalist landscape that he moves through but does never merges with, in the manner of say Warhol or Koons. Unlike them, his is not an “all or nothing” but rather a “some and something” approach, one that allows him to act not only through but also in and on capitalist values, generating the variations on them that I’ve been calling surplus values.

It is in the works themselves that those surplus values appear. For the sake of time I’ll only discuss three: “labor,” “productivity” and “circulation.”

Robert Rauschenberg, This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (1948). Graphite on tracing paper and 14 woodcuts on paper, bound with twine and stapled [30.8 x 22.5 cm]. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York.

Robert Rauschenberg, This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (1948). Graphite on tracing paper and 14 woodcuts on paper, bound with twine and stapled [30.8 x 22.5 cm]. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York.

Rauschenberg’s complicated attitude toward labor is perhaps best grasped in Erased de Kooning (1953), the anecdotal history of which is well known. Visiting de Kooning at his apartment in on East 10th Street, Rauschenberg asked for a drawing that he could rub out. Annoyed, de Kooning nevertheless agreed, pulling from his portfolio a sheet covered with thick swaths of pencil, oil and crayon that would take Rauschenberg a full month to erase.[11]

The affective fulcrum of Erased de Kooning—the pivot-point that makes that month spent erasing a (perhaps the) interesting feature—is Locke’s labor theory of property. Just as it is the addition of labor that transforms a plot of land from common into private property, so it is the addition of labor that transforms a de Kooning into a Rauschenberg. Indeed, Rauschenberg takes the labor theory of property to extremes that even the most committed Lockean could hardly imagine by removing the condition that the added labor result in a higher yield. Whereas in Locke’s plot of land we gain turnips, carrots and cabbages, in Rauschenberg’s piece of paper we loose the de Kooning and are left with labor alone, a value in and of itself.

Something similar happens in This is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (1948).

Robert Rauschenberg, This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (1948). Graphite on tracing paper and 14 woodcuts on paper, bound with twine and stapled [30.8 x 22.5 cm]. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York.

Robert Rauschenberg, This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (1948). Graphite on tracing paper and 14 woodcuts on paper, bound with twine and stapled [30.8 x 22.5 cm]. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York.

Fourteen impressions made by the gradual scoring of a wooden block, the print records the process of its making with the accumulation of white marking the time that Rauschenberg spent pulling the blade over the block’s surface. As in Erased de Kooning, it is labor as such that is valued here (were the “second half” of the series to be realized we would again arrive at a blank page). But in this case it is we viewers who do the valuing, imaginatively completing “in passing time” that fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth print, to which we stake our own Lockean claim.

And it is here that the cracks start to open. By encouraging us to value labor this way, Rauschenberg transforms labor into a surplus value—that is, to repurpose Marx’s definition of the term, “an increment of excess over the original value.” This increment of excess, this conversion into the stuff of interpretation, affectively frees up labor as a value, allowing it to be reinvested both in conversations about labor per se and about activities not typically associated with labor (thinking and writing about art, for instance).[12] Rather than curb our valuation of labor Rauschenberg expands it, urging us to recognize in it an affective reserve that can be traded on. Precipitating something like a shift from what Arendt called “homo laborans” to “homo faber,” he transforms (his) private labor into (a) public work.[13]

[LEFT]: Robert Rauschenberg, License (1962). Lithograph, 16 ex. [105.1 x 74.8 cm]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York [CENTER]: Robert Rauschenberg, Vault (1962). Oil and silkscreen on canvas [152.4 x 91.4 cm]. Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst, Munich [RIGHT]: Robert Rauschenberg, Archive (1963). Oil and silkscreen on canvas [213 x 152.4 cm]. Private Collection

[LEFT]: Robert Rauschenberg, License (1962). Lithograph, 16 ex. [105.1 x 74.8 cm]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York
[CENTER]: Robert Rauschenberg, Vault (1962). Oil and silkscreen on canvas                      [152.4 x 91.4 cm]. Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst, Munich
[RIGHT]: Robert Rauschenberg, Archive (1963). Oil and silkscreen on canvas                      [213 x 152.4 cm]. Private Collection

This notion of public work gets further expanded in later prints like License (1962), Vault (1962) and Archive (1962), where images taken from the popular press act as caches for public work expended sentimentally over years if not decades and stored in the floating iconographic currencies of sport, industry and ceremony.

[LEFT]: Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive I (1964). Oil and silkscreen on canvas [213.4 x 152.4 cm]. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. [RIGHT]: Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II (1964). Oil and silkscreen on canvas [210 x 150 cm]. Stefan T Edlis Collection, Chicago.

[LEFT]: Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive I (1964). Oil and silkscreen on canvas [213.4 x 152.4 cm]. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. [RIGHT]: Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II (1964). Oil and silkscreen on canvas [210 x 150 cm]. Stefan T Edlis Collection, Chicago.

In what might be seen as a late echo of New Deal redistribution-ism—something like a cultural draft of Kennedy’s 1961 “ask what you can do for your country” address—these caches of public work are made available in prints like Retroactive I and II as collections of images that viewers are encouraged to work on so that they might do work in return.

A second, related surplus value felt in the prints is “productivity.” If the already-familiar images that Rauschenberg presented are to do the kinds of work I (too briefly) described, they have to be seen each time anew, changed in some way so that while remaining familiar they avoid becoming redundant. In order for the works to work, they (and by extension we) have to feel productive.

Indeed, the prints often function as fields for productivity. In order to view Estate (1963) we must produce a “reading” of it by assembling its parts—those color swatches on the upper right, lined up like building blocks, the Statue of Liberty and that blush of yellow set close enough to suggest something like (though surely more interesting than) a flame, or that picture of a catholic mass onto which a clock dial is stamped, the set-up if not the punch-line to some imagined joke. That each of these readings is in the end unsatisfying only compounds the initial injunction to produce.

Just as labor was the affective fulcrum earlier, productivity is the affective fulcrum here. Rather than showing productivity, however ambivalently, Estate compels it, making production its success condition.

Robert Rauschenberg, Estate (1963). Oil and silkscreen on canvas [243.2 x 177.2 cm]. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Robert Rauschenberg, Estate (1963). Oil and silkscreen on canvas [243.2 x 177.2 cm]. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

This changes our orientation toward its surface. Whereas works that simply show productivity often suppose a pictured and/or imagined elsewhere (a background space where production breaks off temporarily and/or an allegorical space where production breaks off entirely) works that compel productivity insist not only that production be the privileged (if not the only) activity while viewing them, but also that that production take place within their physical bounds (the roughly eight-by-six feet of “real Estate,” as it were).

Again, cracks start to form. By insisting that production be valued to this degree, Estate can’t help but lend credibility to whatever readings are produced. Whereas works that open out onto other spaces permit a degree of arbitrariness in their readings (after all, with the exception of pure reportage, it is an “elsewhere” or “otherwise” that is their concern), works that present their surfaces as spaces for productivity lend the readings produced while viewing them an air of necessity.

Robert Rauschenberg, Spot (1964). Lithograph, 37 ex. [104.7 x 75.3 cm]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Robert Rauschenberg, Spot (1964). Lithograph, 37 ex. [104.7 x 75.3 cm]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Yes, those readings may be improvisatory (“on the spot”), but they are also materially “there” (“on the Spot”). Once the minimum criteria of production has been met, it is difficult to discount any particular reading produced, however idiosyncratic it may. Like labor, productivity has been transformed into a surplus value, one that can be called upon to underwrite all kinds of interpretive endeavor.

The last surplus value that I’ll mention is “circulation.” It is not enough to produce a reading. For that reading to be worth anything it has to benefit from circulation. In the prints, the course of circulation flows from the public sphere (the press) to the private sphere (the interpretation) and then back to the public sphere (the work). It is a course that Rauschenberg follows while making the prints and that we follow while viewing them. For him it moves from the public sphere of the magazine cutouts to the private sphere of the applied content (the solvents and paint), and back to public sphere of the completed work. For us it moves from the public sphere of the work where materials for readings are presented, to the private sphere of inferred content where those readings begin to be formed, and then back to the public sphere of the work where those readings are contested or confirmed.

Whether any particular reading is in the end contested or confirmed seems to have less to do with its particular details than with how satisfyingly it delivers the experience of circulation itself—that movement from public, to private, to public. Rather than (or, in addition to) labor and productivity, circulation becomes an affective pivot.

Robert Rauschenberg, Creek (1964). Silk screen and oil on canvas [182 .8 x 243.8 cm]. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit

Robert Rauschenberg, Creek (1964). Silk screen and oil on canvas [182 .8 x 243.8 cm]. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit

In Creek (1964) the experience of circulation is delivered in the movement from the cutouts of swimmers, waves and waterfalls on the right to the swaths of blue paint on the left and back again. Beginning with the cutouts, a marine theme is introduced. This is publicly available in so far as it is presented by the photographs themselves. Next, a relationship between the blue of the pictured water and the blue of the stroke of paint in the center of the composition is privately inferred. This privately inferred relationship is then supported by a shift back to the cutouts as a second stroke of stroke of blue paint becomes the oceanic ground for what at first seems to be a ship sailing along the print’s lower edge, but is then revealed to be a series of rooftop water towers—a revelation that not only complicates the marine theme but also enriches it by ensuring that it has benefited from the shifts between public and private that circulation involves.

And here are the cracks. To value circulation in this way is to insist that nothing stays still for long. To every given public content there must be added an inferred private content, a private content that does not remain private, however, but that then gets reintroduced into the public stream. This makes public content volatile even though it is given. Once circulation is transformed into a surplus value the reservoir of public content not only becomes available to private input but is made to seem impoverished without it.

So, three surplus values: labor, productivity and circulation. Many more could be mentioned, but they would share the same fundamental characteristic: while they belong to capitalism’s core repertoire, when they are exercised as part of the interpretive act they begin to act in unpredictable ways, ways that often involve contradicting what many would consider to be their traditionally capitalist premises.

But contradiction is, as we know, itself characteristic of capitalism, though not of capitalism understood deterministically as a system bound by logic but rather of capitalism understood opportunistically as a system beset by accidents, accidents that manifest themselves as cracks running through its economic and cultural foundations.

How do we seize those accidents as opportunities for reform? How do we widen those cracks into effective footholds? We do so by making the most of the surplus values that I’ve been describing, not least by using them to enrich our rhetorical accounts of the world we have and, more importantly, of the world we want. After all, simply turning our backs on them will not make them go away. The ease with which they can be tapped into in even the schematic sort of ekphrasis that I’ve offered here shows how available they are as affective resources to be used, if not by us then by others (and here I take a step toward what I think is accelerationism’s more pragmatic side).

However (and here I take a step back from what I think is accelerationism’s more deterministic side), this is not to suggest that to use those surplus values is to take them as they come. Indeed, if surplus values are interpretively at play, simply taking them as they come would be insufficient in part because it would fail to offer the prospect of interpretive profit, perhaps the greatest surplus value of them all. It would, ironically, be insufficiently “capitalist”—it would be to treat accidents as providential chance operations, something that would make any self-respecting capitalist recoil.

No, to make use of surplus values is to set in motion a process that involves judging those values (what do we mean by “labor,” what do we mean by “productivity,” what do we mean by “circulation”) as well as those occasions where we feel that they have been rightly or, as has perhaps been more often the case in recent years, wrongly invested (the investment, for example, of ideas of labor to arguments for “right to work” bans on unionization, of productivity in arguments for rising executive salaries, and of circulation in arguments for the exemption of international corporations from national taxation).

This judging of values and their investments belongs to a broader strategy that in my introduction I suggested might be called value leveraging. Value leveraging begins by acknowledging that we find ourselves in a market of values—an affective economy—in which some values trade higher than others depending on the kinds of interest that they attract. When encountered in works of art, values can, as I’ve tried to show, be made to generate surplus values—that is, interpretations of them that exceed and even contradict their premises. These surplus values can then be funneled back into the market as new sources of affective revenue allowing one understanding of a value to be leveraged against another. FDR engaged in something like value leveraging when in his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech he leveraged a collective understanding of freedom against an individualist one, a move that allowed him to introduce a suite of century-defining social-democratic policies on the grounds that they ensured “freedom from want.”

To recommend value leveraging as a strategy would be naive but for the fact that, as the FDR example shows, it has been by far the most successful means for achieving reform. That we as art historians and critics have so far failed to pay attention to it may be due to our habitual suspicion—learned from Marx—of the value form’s propensity to abstract class interests.

In my view, it is precisely that propensity that makes the value form useful. After all, we forget that reforms are the result of coalitions between classes that come to identify with interests that are not (or not only) their own. With that said, value leveraging might be understood, as an attempt at a twofold increase in the interest rate of capitalism—that is, an increase in the number and variety of groups who identify capitalist interests as their own (or, who “take an interest” in capitalism) and—more importantly—a corresponding rise in the interest those groups feel capable of charging capitalism for its continued operation—a sort of politicized Keynesian interest payable, ultimately, in legislative action.

I said a moment ago that art historians and critics have failed to pay attention to value leveraging. That is not quite true. There is, in fact, an art historical precedent for the position I’ve been taking, though for whatever reason it doesn’t come from writing about twentieth or twenty-first century art.

It comes, rather, from Michael Baxandall’s 1972 book, Painting & Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. There Baxandall describes such quattrocento works as Bellini’s Transfiguration as opportunities for the “playful exercise of skills which we use in normal life.” This is a principle that he suggest applies to paintings more broadly. “If a painting,” he writes, “gives us opportunity for exercising a valued skill and rewards our virtuosity with a sense of worthwhile insights about that painting’s organization, we tend to enjoy it.”

In quattrocento paintings, the skills exercised include the courtier’s skill in deciphering gestures, the churchgoer’s skill localizing scripture, and famously, the capitalist’s skill in gauging volumes. Baxandall describes these skills as the repertoire of what he calls the “patronizing class,” a somewhat imprecise group that included both those directly responsible for commissioning and/or buying works as well as those who enjoyed looking at them.

Today’s patronizing class is much more complicated than the one Baxandall described, including as it does groups who often claim to be if not utterly opposed than at least in uneasy company with one another—to put it bluntly, those of us who look at art, and those of them who buy it.

But this is not the only thing about Baxandall’s approach that would need updating were it to be applied to the twenty-first century. The other would be some means of taking into account the fact that—as I have tried to show today—unlike in a Bellini, in a Rauschenberg the exercise of a valued skill changes the terms in which that skill is valued. To update Baxandall’s approach we would need some means of taking into account that change. We would need some means of taking into account what is, I think that most peculiar and potentially most powerful feature of our aesthetic experience: the transfiguration of surplus values.