Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
One of the defining features of Burning Man art is its collaborative and inclusive nature, offering would-be artists the chance to learn by doing in a group environment. To those of us raised with the peculiar 20th century notion that art can only be learned in Art School, and that making art and making a living are irreconcilable, this may seem like a novel idea. But history shows that artists have been joining forces to teach, learn, and work cooperatively since classical times, and that it’s only in the recent past that art-market dynamics have pushed collectivist approaches to the fringes.
In Leonardo’s time, art had yet to be distinguished from craft, and the craft of art was acquired in a process common to all trades, by apprenticeship to a master and years of toil in his workshop. Before becoming masters in their own right, Leonardo worked under Verrocchio, Michelangelo under Ghirlandaio, and Raphael under Perugino. In addition to technical skills, learned mostly by careful imitation, they presumably picked up the business skills required to operate a workshop and the social connections needed to secure commissions.
In much the same way that art and tradecraft were still conjoined, so too were the lines blurred between what we now think of as art, engineering, and architecture. Though we like to remember Leonardo for his works of sculpture and painting, it was his skill as a military engineer and architect that put the bread on his workshop’s table. The design and fabrication skills required to create a monumental work of sculpture were not all that different from those needed to create fortifications or weapons systems, and moreover were often likely to be commissioned by the same aristocratic patron. It is not particularly ironic that Leonardo’s massive equestrian statue, the Gran Cavallo, commissioned by the Duke of Milan as a tribute to his father’s military triumphs, was never built because the bronze was needed to cast more cannon.
Just as the Renaissance marks a historical turning point in what we now think of as “art,” it also saw the first salvo of challenges to the centuries-old workshop business model. The rise of mercantile wealth created new demand for art, broadening the buyer pool to include not just the Church and aristocrats but business entities and the nouveau riche. While Leonardo and Michelangelo continued in the service of kings and popes, their rival Raphael seized this new opportunity, adapting his enterprise in a way that presaged much that was to come. Though clearly a great artist in his own right, he also seems to have been a master marketer who pioneered the role of celebrity artist-impresario. At the height of his popularity he is said to have employed as many as fifty apprentices in his workshop, and seems to have spent most of his time socializing with clients.
This model of production — a workshop fronted by a master and funded by a relatively small group of wealthy clients — endured for many years, and its shape can still be seen in the organization of modern architecture firms and design agencies. In the world of art, however, it had all but vanished by the mid-19th century. The demand for art products surged in the wake of the industrial revolution, and a new market structure emerged to serve it, characterized by commercial art galleries, for-profit art schools, and critical tastemakers in the academy and media. Reacting to this new economic landscape, and to what they saw as an increasing industrialization of art, a group of English romantics including the painter John Millais formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which urged a return to earlier models of authentic expression and unmediated production. One of their best-known adherents, William Morris, incorporated many of these ideas into the Arts and Crafts movement.
Yet while the decorative arts steered back toward a workshop ethic, the fine art market by contrast became increasingly focused on the individual artist as a commercial celebrity, able to sell products based solely on the power of his personal brand. The first of these international art superstars was probably Salvador Dali, whose gifts as an artist were surpassed only by his genius as a self-promoter. At the height of his fame, Dali is said to have made millions by simply signing his name to stacks of blank lithograph paper for posthumous printing. This kind of larger-than-life imagemaking allows no room for sharing credit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Dali worked unassisted. According to one poison-pen account, he secretly kept a staff of young artists busy with all his production work, and hardly lifted a brush after 1950.
While Dali may have relegated the workshop to the status of dirty secret, it took Andy Warhol to discredit it completely, through irony. By dubbing his studio the Factory, he made art out of the business of turning art into a business, and by dubbing his entourage “superstars,” made a joke out of exploiting these would-be celebrities as he put them to work on his screen-press assembly line. Jeff Koons took this industrial logic one step further, bidding out his production work to contract manufacturers and adopting a fully outsourced model. The making of art was now a solo endeavor, celebrity-driven and effectively divorced from the teaching of art, which was a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right.
Yet collectivization never completely disappeared; it persisted at the outlaw fringes. By the close of the century, when burners started making art in the Black Rock desert, many of them were already working in collaborative groups. One of the most obvious examples is Survival Research Labs, the seminal machine-art crew headed by Mark Pauline. Though Pauline himself was never involved with Burning Man, a number of early Burner artists honed their design and fabrication skills in his San Francisco workshop. The Cacophony Society, too, can be viewed as a sort of art collective, focused on Dadaesque performance and interactive anti-art. Likewise the Billboard Liberation Front, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and other collaborative groups from the fin-de-siècle San Francisco scene all contributed organizational DNA to the emerging Burner genome.
Burning Man has been described as a “permission engine,” and it’s certainly true that many come away from the event with a newly found “I could do that” attitude towards art. The self-suppression of one’s creative drive in the name of economic common sense, so typical in a society where the odds of making a living as an artist are lottery-slim, is overcome by the urge for radical self-expression, and people allow themselves, often for the first time since childhood, the license to create. And since this is Burning Man, and not the mainstream art world, they have a wealth of resources to leverage in the journey, in fact an entire alternate art ecosystem that has emerged from the culture in response to this need.
The weird imperative of creating Burning Man art has helped drive the formation of numerous collectives that, like the medieval workshops, combine collaborative effort on large-scale art projects with active teaching and learning of craft. Groups like the Flaming Lotus Girls and Flux Foundation are as much about making artists as making art. And there are the cooperative industrial studios and build spaces like Nimby, American Steel, The Generator, and the various incarnations of [freespace], where the focus is on making rather than teaching, but where by the natural osmosis of adjacency Burning Man artists tend to exchange ideas and skills, and wind up working on each others’ projects. It is no accident that the Burner and Maker communities are so deeply intertwined – we are all learning to apply new tools and technologies to creative challenges. As I wrote in an earlier post about this year’s theme, “It is a hallmark of our community that in order to turn the fruits of one’s imagination into action in the world, new skills often need to be acquired.” Many of these skills simply are not taught in art schools, or are just starting to be introduced. This is reflected in the growing popularity of alternative, not-for-profit, Burner-flavored learning institutions like The Crucible and Gray Area.
In each of these neocollectivist approaches, there are echoes of the Renaissance workshop system. Leonardo might not recognize it as such, but it’s easy to imagine that if he were alive today, he and his crew would be living and working together in Black Rock City. And they might even be able to crowdsource enough bronze to get that horse made.
Top image: Raphael’s “School of Athens”