Burning Book Club (Chapter 1) – Let’s kill some myths about artists to better understand some truths about money

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

One of the things I like best about Culture Crash is the way it does away with the some of our more cherished delusions about artists. Delusions that make artists seem like bad-asses, but don’t actually help with the whole “being an artist” thing.

The introduction nicely dispatched with the idea that artists in the modern era are uniformly hostile to the bourgeoisie middle class: in fact they mostly were the bourgeoisie middle class. They might have been the last to tell you, but,it was true all the same.

Chapter 1 effectively kills the illusion that art scenes occur just because artists happen to live in the same place. On the contrary: a culture of art emerges (or doesn’t) as much from the way artists socialize together as work. However much Romanticism and Modernism celebrated “artists” as solitary geniuses who required peace and quiet lest their nerves be shattered, anti-social artists tend to be both outliers and un-influential on the arts as a whole.

Which means that a group of studios filled by working artists is not necessarily going to be more than the sum of its parts – especially if those artists don’t talk much, and absolutely if there is no particular conversation going on about their work outside of those studios.

That conversation is as vital, if not more so, as their proximity. Timberg quotes artist and critic Peter Plagens: “’You need criticism. You need some polemic – a negative commentary in a magazine here, a positive article there.” Conscientious criticism brings heat to the artists subculture, as well as corralling the public into the conversation, in a way that a-good-time-was-had-by-all cheerleading doesn’t. ‘Art criticism has gone hand in glove with modern art since the beginning,’ Plagens says.”

Questions of art are, therefore, in no small sense questions of community and communication. While Culture Crash is primarily focusing on economics at this point, the questions it’s raising apply equally well to the culture created by the proliferation of artists and the infinite babbling of the internet: Timberg makes a compelling case that artists of the past needed a strong critical infrastructure in order to coalesce into a meaningful scene, but what would that infrastructure look like now? It what ways can and can’t it be replaced by a thousand Twitter accounts about art?

It strikes me as entirely possible that there are actually more people saying more things about art than ever before – certainly music – but that it isn’t actually adding up to any kind of critical conversation.

If Culture Crash doesn’t provide answers yet, I suspect it’s because no one actually knows for sure. But it does seem clear that, as pointed out in the last entry: the more freely available the means of artistic production become, the more people we need to have thinking seriously and independently about art. Democratization of the artistic means of production demands a greater hierarchy of criticism.

That too, however, may not be enough – in whatever form – to create a vibrant art scene. In addition to the existence of artists, social engagement, and a conversation about art, Culture Crash says that a strong arts scene needs some combination of the following elements – in fact as many as possible:

1) “The Day Job Principle” – having an industry in town at least tangentially related to art making where artists can both get the money to live and practice their skills (movies for Hollywood, Casinos for Vegas, universities for a number of places, etc.).
2) “Discernible stylistic movements” – “‘One thing you need to have is young people of the same generation,’ said Adam Kirsch. ‘It helps if they are rejecting old ideas. They start feeding off each other, and pretty soon you have a ‘school.’”
3) “Third, and most important: the first phase of artistic flowering can often come from disparate, anarchic sources, but if fades out – no matter how brightly it burns – without institutions.” This overlaps somewhat with The Day Job Principle, but includes critical magazines on the arts, museums that at least partly spotlight local culture, clubs that book local artists beyond just cover bands,

Additionally, the following factors are very helpful:

• Lots of artists
• Encounters between different kinds of artists
• Infrastructures for artists – an ongoing and often repeated theme.
• At least one clubhouse. Usually multiple representing different disciplines. Places where artists will go to hang out in their off times.
• Geography – it has to be a place where outsiders can get to, to observe and access their art.
• Low police presence
• Still more institutions

It’s a good list, surely. I know a number of economic development professionals who could use it. But I’m left feeling like it doesn’t really speak to the larger question.

A virtue of Culture Crash book is that it is so focused on the do’s and don’ts of an art scene grounded in a context of middle-class capitalism – and hence an art scene that depends upon the existence of a middle class. It speaks clearly to a moment we want to recapture. But this is also a weakness because it demands rearguard action: it’s clear assumption is that if we want to save the arts we have to go back to the economic models of the industrial age.

But what if there’s no going back? What if the pillars of the middle class art world have been irrevocably transformed by the movement of culture and technology? At that point, is it at all likely that society will preserve a middle class just so that it can be filled with arty types?

At that point, shouldn’t we be looking for other models and inspirations?

It’s a question I find myself asking a lot as I go through Chapter 1 of Culture Crash. Timberg lays out a fairly convincing case for what it takes for a middle class city to have a humming art scene – but if the ultimate problem is the hollowing out of the middle class, then, I keep wondering “what is the future of art REALLY?” More to the point: if art in the modern world depends upon the existence of a middle class, then how did we possibly get all this art from the past 10,000 years of history? Where did it come from?

“In previous eras artistic production was often a top-down affair,” Timberg remarks, and essentially leaves it there. Before we had kings and stuff to pay for art. Now we don’t. This strikes me as both woefully inadequate (it’s not only an oversimplification, but it leaves out an incredibly rich vein of folk and other arts that contributed greatly) and insufficient: what if the past has models to offer us?

Which is to say that while the answers provided in the book are good and useful, I can’t help but wonder if they’re to the wrong questions. What if Timberg’s talking about a set of social and economic conditions whose times are done? Then what do we do?

Hopefully there will be answers in future chapters. In the meantime, I can’t help thinking that one of the key reasons people look to Burning Man for inspiration is both its communal model of art – wherein it is all public and all shared and all given away as part of a massive conversation – and its refusal to limit art to questions of economics.

In a sense, Burning Man is doing everything in its power to create a vibrant art scene except for developing an economic model. This is certainly controversial – and possibly unsustainable – but also at least in part why it works so well, and has so much appeal.

I don’t mean to suggest that Burning Man’s model will work for society at large, or that Burning Man itself doesn’t have some hard thinking to do about art and money (we do). But it may be that Burning Man’s emphasis on art as fundamentally decommodified and open to everyone speaks directly to our moment when everybody can be an artist but nobody is going to make a living at it.

We’re asking “how do we make more and get more and help people experience it, ideally without charging.” We are a community of hundreds of thousands of artists and makers in a constant conversation about everything involving art except how to cash in on it. And the world is responding.

This may not be the place we want to end up, but so far it strikes me as being a more likely place to start from, given the world we have, than asking how to keep the middle class alive for artists’ sake.

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

One comment on “Burning Book Club (Chapter 1) – Let’s kill some myths about artists to better understand some truths about money

  • Suz Kaufman says:

    I really feel that categorizing the flourishing of art as coming from the middle class is generalizing a more complicated picture. I’ve read this theory before. Art flourishes in an atmosphere of peace and an atmosphere of war. It is perpetuated by young graffiti artists and retired veterans at their leisure painting plein air. What’s unique about the middle class involvement is that so much of the art produced by them has money as its driving influence. They want to make $$ in exchange for their art. They want to make $$ to teach their art. They don’t want to share their art; they fight legal battles to keep their art to themselves-unless you want to pay $$ for it. This is how they are bourgeoisie, in that money is their ultimate goal. The graffiti artist sends his message. The old retired man relaxes and feels life through his paintings. But the bourgeoisie keep fussing after bucks. Make the art. Putting a dollar tag on it afterwards turns it into a capitalist competition.

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