Burning Book Club – Introduction: We’ll run out of money before we run out of art

(This post is the second in a new book club, and inspired by reading the introduction of Scott Timberg’s Book-Burning-225x300“Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)

If there is a crisis in the arts, why do we care?

We live in unsettled times – climate change is throwing the whole planet into environmental chaos; there is a constant buzz of military action in a “war on terror” that shows no sign of ending and theoretically never could; global hotspots between major powers like the U.S., China, and Russia, threaten to erupt; antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are becoming an increasingly common fact of life; government power, especially for surveillance, is running unchecked …

When we say “it’s a problem that artists can’t make a living,” this is the competition. This, and the fact that as a result of automation and corporate policies there may soon simply not be enough jobs to go around for anyone.

So a guy can’t make a living painting paintings? So a woman can’t make a living sculpting sculptures? So I can’t make a living writing little stories? So what? What’s at stake?

It’s not like we’re going to run out of paintings or sculptures or stories. If anything, digital images and 3d printing and the internet make all these things easier to come by than ever.

Scott Timberg opens his book “Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class” by making a case that art itself is in danger.

“If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes in his introduction. “The price we ultimately pay is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

As an artist, I would very much like to think Timberg is right – and that the world will not go on turning in some vital way without me and the work I do. As a human being, however, I think Timberg is very cogent in his analysis of the problem we’re facing, but very wrong in his analysis of what’s at stake.

Art is not in any danger. And I think Burning Man, as an arts and cultural institution, inadvertently demonstrates why.

But we’ve got a ways to go before we start talking about Burning Man.

It would seem facile if I were to say “Art is very chic right now,” in no small part because there has never been a time or culture where this was not true. While no two times and cultures have had the same view of or relationship to art, there has never been a time or place where art was not produced, protected, and even venerated. To the extent that there are exceptions – and the closest I can come up with is Pol Pot’s Cambodia – they prove the rule. Short periods known entirely for intense brutality and madness. Pointing out that they didn’t produce or respect much art would be the equivalent of pointing out that they didn’t produce any medical breakthroughs. All they really produced was corpses.

In times of utter insanity, yes, art tends to fall to the wayside. But otherwise … but otherwise … art is everywhere, in every culture and economic system. Whether it was manuscripts illuminated by monks, statues commissioned by the Roman aristocracy, Amerindian songs and dances, Chinese calligraphy, Zen poetry, Andy Warhol’s factory … even Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia elevated the arts and artists and saw them as basic to culture.

Of course, those last two examples also tried to control the arts with a very heavy hand – which proved impossible. Dissident art flourished in both cases. The very existence of “dissident art,” incidentally, ought to tell us everything that’s wrong with the idea that art requires artists to have a middle-class existence. What if we were to say, as Timberg does about all artists, that dissident artists need to have a middle class lifestyle or else there will be no more dissident art?

That’s obviously absurd. Far from creating their art for the money, dissident artists put their livelihoods at risk – and their lives – to produce their art. The notion that the Chinese government needs to create a ministry for dissident art in order to keep the form healthy is as absurd as the notion that Goldman Sachs needs to create a fund guaranteeing a livelihood to Occupy Wall Street artists in order to preserve Occupy Wall Street art. It would be fascinating if it happened, but it’s as unlikely as the premise is absurd.

Dissident art, like many other kinds, may be impacted by the economic models under which it operates – but it isn’t dependent on them. If art were dependent on artists having a middle class living under capitalism, we never would have had it in the first place.

Art never goes away, nor does its production. I think the ideas of humanistic psychologists are particularly insightful on this front: they maintain that creativity is one of the fundamental aspects of being human, and that creative expression – in whatever form is meaningful to the individual – is an essential component of mental health. The idea that art will be lost, either as a dominant form of cultural discourse or as a thing that individuals without a stable economic base do, goes against everything we know about both art and people.

To borrow a metaphor from Christianity (maybe you’ve heard of it?): It is as though “to be made in God’s image” is to be creative. What else could that mean?

Burning Man is exhibit B: for all the arguments that we have about how much to fund the art, and the artists, at Burning Man, the fact remains that nobody makes money – let alone a living – creating art for the playa. And when you have an inclusive view of “art,” as one should, to include art cars and theme camps and costumes, and some gifts, then in fact just the opposite is occurring: ordinary people are willingly spending an incredible amount of time and money to create art for one another with no thought of remuneration. In fact, they get angry – sometimes furious – when they don’t get a chance to do it.

As I’ve argued before, while Burning Man is often viewed as a celebration of individual liberty, Burning Man can also legitimately be seen as the iron shackle of art and culture that we willingly place upon ourselves in the service of something greater. And “art,” in an increasingly atheistic Western culture, is often our stand-in for “something greater” – the thing that we look to (wisely or not) for transcendent meaning and incorruptible virtue.

Art is not going away, and “Art” writ large is not at risk, regardless of what economic model we turn to. Nor do I see a situation, as Timberg fears, where only the rich will ever make art or have access to their creative prowess.

Indeed, I think it shows just how much we are creatures of consumer-capitalism that we would even consider, for an instant, that art can’t survive without money. Money will always have a connection to art insofar as both art and money are always connected to everything in a culture: there is nothing that escapes their reach. But whatever individual artists may do, neither “art” nor its production is ever reducible to money.

But just because art itself isn’t at risk doesn’t meant that everything’s okay. Timberg is on to something … there’s a reason his book had to be written … and he’s fundamentally right about the fact that a shift in the economic models we now use for art is underway, and that it will have serious consequences. “Art” is not at stake, but the way we access it and the kind of art that gets produced may be.

These will also have implications for Burning Man – though it will generally be one or two steps removed. (I think …)

In my next post, I’ll talk about what I think Timberg reveals is at stake in our current “culture crash.”

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

8 Comments on “Burning Book Club – Introduction: We’ll run out of money before we run out of art

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  • kysmet firelake says:

    I haven’t read the book, but reading your post has sparked my interest. I wonder if how he classifies or addresses what many in the “ART” world consider *mere* craft. It seems to me that the artisan or home made or DIY movement is strong. I guess I’m still confused about where that border is.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Hey Kysmet:

      I don’t think there’s every been a clear differentiation between “art” and “craft,” and I think that’s doubly true today. The border might be fuzzy, and very permeable. I think this is an issue that will be coming up a lot.

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  • the grue says:

    I have the book; I have not begun to read.

    I think we are less than a generation from encountering a great crisis of Work. What does it mean to Work? Today it means to do a job and get paid, and it is this working for pay that buys our personhood.

    The professional artists I know – professional in the sense that they don’t have any other paying job – work very, very hard. Much harder than I do at my paying job, but unsurprisingly they are barely paid at all. They are slighted for this, even among close friends and family — if it’s so hard to be so poor, why don’t you just get a job like everyone else? Why should we (your friends, your family, your community, your fellow citizens) have to support you? Gee, I wish I could follow my dream too, but but but but but…. The Artist who cannot work supporting themself (yeah, third person singular gender neutral, “themself,” I made my choice) by art alone is not really Working, because no one is buying. And worse, this failure to succeed financially means to many people that they are not //really// an Artist.

    This is symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that we are equating Work – paid Work – with Worth. You mentioned the automated jobless future which is bearing down on humanity, and this is precisely why I think this is a crisis, and it is close. Sticking just to America, for a minute, what will happen when every professional driver, professional copy-editor, administrator, and cashier is out of a job because the industry simply does not need workers anymore? This is a different fight, of course, and lots of folks believe that we’ll be fine, but I don’t. If you want to know why, I recommend CGP Grey’s video “Humans Need Not Apply.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU

    Supposing, for the moment, that Grey is right, and millions upon millions of unemployed are just over the horizon, then we’ll have to find a way to divorce Work from Worth, or I believe our society will collapse.

    If we collapse under the weight of our own stubbornness, out of refusal to acknowledge that a human is a person even if they are not Working (in the traditional sense), then of course Art will continue to be made. It will probably look a lot like the Art of any other political revolution or collapse: Hard Times Come Again No More.

    But if we don’t, if we find a way out of this mess, we may find ourselves in a culture where Work means any activity undertaken for the betterment of society – any exertion that you are not doing merely for yourself is now Work. This would certainly include Art, and because the Artists are not constantly struggling to survive, it may be the Art of prosperous times – elaborate, intricate, the result of decades of study and practice. I’m not an art historian, but I’ll take a risk and claim that it is Art such as this which is truly groundbreaking.

    So, this I believe to be true before starting this book. We’ll see if the author, or anyone here, succeeds in moving me.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Hey Grue:

      I lean towards this position myself – that changes in economic models and automation mean that traditional levels of employment are no longer possible. I’d actually go farther and say that we have mistakenly embraced the idea that human beings should be defined by what it is machines are good at: that our imaginations, our research priorities, and even or physical labors have become attuned to what our mechanisms can do.

      If we’re going to avoid a dystopian future in which mass unemployment means mass starvation and depredation, we’re going to need not just to accept that traditional “work” can no longer be the measure of a person, but begin to value and explore those aspects of our humanity which are not reducible to technical functions – and at that point you’re very much walking into the realm of Art.

      But these are preconceived guesses I’m holding heading into the book. We’ll see where it takes us.

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