Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
As we pivot from looking at questions of art funding in the Renaissance to issues of art funding in the modern world, I want to take a moment to discuss why the Burning Man Philosophical Center is producing this series in the first place.
Black Rock City is treasured by its citizens as a culture where money cannot buy you citizenship – but many of our best citizens hurt each year as the cost of participating in Black Rock City rises.
Burning Man inspires people to transform their lives around art and whimsy, but as Scott Timberg has shown us in Culture Crash, art and whimsy are increasingly luxury items affordable only to rich hobbyists.
We don’t need that data: we’ve all met too many Burners who are dedicating their lives to doing incredible things in their communities but are struggling to pay rent. Too many artists doing amazing work who are trying to scrape together the cost of materials, let alone find commissions.
The question of how to make a meaningful living in the world is hardly unique to Burners, but the biggest obstacles to the spread and adoption of Burning Man culture are arguable economic: how do people adopting an ethos of Decommidification and Gifting and Communal Effort thrive in a world that, despite the best efforts of utopians (along with many, many, not-so-good efforts), is based on currency transactions?
That is the question underlying most of the concerns and complaints we hear – from ticket prices to art grants to plug-and-play groups on playa. And the truth is there isn’t a clear answer yet.
So we’re using the theme of Da Vinci’s Workshop to ask the question. And we’re doing it in public, so you can see what we’re thinking, and even join in. Hopefully come up with even better ideas than the ones we’ve got.
If we succeed, this series will present new ideas and models that can be tested and tried by anyone inspired to do so, in or out of Burning Man. If we fail … well … every Burner knows that sometimes failure can be even more interesting and inspiring than success.
Plus you’ll get to see us fail. Which will be fun.
What’s Happened So Far
So – 14 posts into the Renaissance, what have we learned?
The most vital point, as Larry Harvey illustrated, is that money it not innately opposed to the culture we’re trying to create: the problem is that culture has become subservient to money. It’s a fairly simple equation: money that goes where the culture tells it to enhances that culture; culture that does what money tells it to becomes plastic and soulless.
The Renaissance went to fairly extraordinary lengths – from Florence’s use of two currencies to legal prohibitions on usury to religious damnation – to keep the power of money in check.
A successful use of money in support of culture, Eric Weiner suggests in his book The Geography of Genius, would create two conditions: diversity – of cultures, of ideas within cultures, and of talents and approaches to the world – and “discernment”: the critical faculties needed to filter good work from bad and identify both subtle and important differences.
So to the extent that money brings in diversity — enhancing immigration and travel, creating new communities alongside old ones, and bringing people with different backgrounds and perspectives together on common projects — it can be an engine that powers an art scene.
But when money creates gated communities, gentrification, and epistemic closure it sounds a death knell for creativity and the local creative class.
To the extent that money is used to take chances in pursuit of excellence, it can be a boon to artists and the cultural landscape. To the extent that money conflates “bigger” with “better,” “repetition” with “excellence,” and circulates only among a select few rather than as a bridge to new talent, a scene is better off without it.
This is all well and good to realize – but it also assumes that the fundamental dynamics of arts and arts funding remain unchanged. What if they don’t have to?
Stuart Mangrum argues that the Renaissance ushered in the era of the “star artist” and did away with the artists workshop as a standard model for apprenticeship, production, and monetization. He suggests that within the Burning Man community we are developing now new, more collaborative, workshop models, and that these could as hubs by with artists both learn their craft outside of the formal education system and work with others to buck economic trends.
Felicity Graham, in her series on art, gender, and the Renaissance, looks at the examples of Renaissance women who defied cultural norms to be both artists and patrons and determine that they were, in fact, engaged in a different set of practices entirely: “matronage,” instead of “patronage.”
Matronage, at base, involves not just commissioning art but using the process of art commissioning to establish and deepen relationships, build systems that encourage the future development of art, and establish the legitimacy of the artists as a class. Though it was exemplified by the women of the Renaissance, a case can be made that it was at the heart of the greatest patronage. The example of a young Michelangelo being taken in by Lorenzo de Medici and joining his family while he learned his trade is perhaps the perfect example: it led to commissions, but was not a relationship based on money.
Where do we go from here?
As we pivot to look at possible funding models and experiments in the modern era, I’d like to suggest that perhaps it is in fact matronage, rather than patronage, that we are actually looking to foster: that far from simply adjusting the flow of money, we want to establish and strengthen relationships between artists, their communities, and funding sources.
Part of the problem may be that artists have been atomized not only from themselves from the broader community: the rise of museum culture and the establishment of specialized art schools, though conveying many virtues, have also served to create parallel institutions that in fact distance serious artists and art from daily life.
Supporting the arts in the 21st century may not be just a matter of funding: it may involve re-establishing those relationships, and creating stronger ties. Finding ways to connect artists to their own communities, and embed them in new ones, may be the most important task.
In the next part of our series, we’ll take a look at some of the efforts Burners are making to change the way art is produced and conceived of, as well as the state of patronage in the 20th and 21st centuries, and see what happens.