What Have We Learned So Far About Art, Money, and the Renaissance?

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.

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

11 Comments on “What Have We Learned So Far About Art, Money, and the Renaissance?

  • Timeless says:

    If my comments confuse, these ideas are expanded clearly in a thousand words, including Larry Harvey’s insightful and encouraging comments about what I have to share, just click my name here…

    Thank you, dear writers of this smashing series, for so equivalently teaching me about the dynamics of art vs. money; a breath of fresh air to this high school educated, never taken an art class but living on commissions for 45 years none the less, now-playa artist. Wood carvers are not generally akin to specialized art schools but masterful artists none the less; hearty folks who must merge money with art or get a job! No doubt, some of today’s amazing chainsaw carvers will be enshrined in art history as will many playa artists — another collection of mostly self-educated artists, ha! In fact my sculpture company’s apprenticeship program has produced a precious posy of career artists happy to have taken the same path.

    Now, with a lengthening string of Burning Man installations to my credit, my apprentices morph into playa crew as, by proxy the the Sierra Nevadas have become default staging and support for BRC. Reno has become a somewhat booming center for the production of art, even as, with such stunning art coming off the playa, Lake Tahoe is positioned to become the next international arts destination — a spectacular backdrop for monumental artworks!

    Fact is one posh beach-side retreat has given it up for such art… Their 1000 foot DG beach and pier of the same scale are soon to be peopled with playa artifacts, joining my installation already there, the first to grace the “Tahoe Sculpture Garden”, or TSG. These artworks will be at the center of regular events that show-case and celibate the artists. The art-themed Retreat also hosts a fabulous conference center overlooking the scene that will soon house semi-annual, high-profile art auctions that cater to Burner artists and buyers! Yep, we also want to establish and strengthen relationships between artists, their communities, and funding sources — to reestablish those relationships, and create stronger ties.

    Now, to drive my self-funded playa projects I’ve spent years developing a new way to fund the connecting of artists to their own communities, and embed them in new ones. I call my alternative funding vehicle “Fundiversify” and its designed, not to rely not on donors but Burner investors who would “do well while doing good” as Franklin put it…

    Right now, in addition to kick-starting TSG, I hope Fundiversify can drive the production of our next Timeless installation, set to burn in front of our Great Temple (156 days till the Man burns — yikes!) and the sharing of many monuments at Decoms. This will take transport equipment mighty enough to get us far and wide, to still more installations in default spaces like Tahoe.

    For more, please click my name and please please share the link if you think you can help us find our patron(s). If these projects can prove successful I believe the principles of Fundiversify can be replicated by other artists — to help fund the coming Renaissance…

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    • Michael Theriault says:

      All very nice if you get a ticket. Please. Where is this philosophy about giving back when regular people can’t go to BM when they have invested in your made up society of equals? What have you created? We are addicted … and now you tell us to get in line for a tic. You have become a creative that had turned onto itself; Commercial.

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      • Caveat Magister says:


        Unfortunately there’s simple no way to give everyone a ticket when we’re capped at 70,000 tickets and 140,000 people want one. That’s not commercialism – it’s scarcity.

        But the whole point of this conversation is precisely to try and figure out: how can we do things differently? How can we better support people doing amazing things in their communities? I don’t know what it will suggest specifically about ticket sales, or supporting artists, or spreading Burning Man culture. But that’s the whole point of having the conversation: to try and figure these things out.

        I absolutely agree that we need to do more to make Burning Man, as a culture and an event, more accessible to everyone. But how we do that requires some thought. Doing it thoughtlessly seems like a pretty bad idea.

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  • P. Johnson says:

    The problem with the great request for tickets, is that many ‘tourists’ now get them. Perhaps a way for those who have been coming to get some kind of preferance, say, the more times you have attended, the higher in line you will be, but then limit each of those categories. I certainly think the ‘regulars’ should get some preference over the new ‘tourists.’ And the cost is also a problem-to those regulars but apparently not to the tourists and those large bus-in groups. How in fact do they all get tickets? I am now limiting my times to every other year due to the cost.

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    • Larry Harvey says:

      I can truthfully say that everyone who has ever attended Burning Man, with the exception of the six or eight people who accompanied me to the beach in 1986, is a newbie to me. But I have never regarded these tens of thousands of people as ‘tourists’. In my experience, today’s tourist is tomorrow’s participant. Were our event to consist entirely of veterans, it would probably lead to social entropy. I do, however, understand your frustration, and you should know we’re working on this problem, and may announce our version of a solution later this year.

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      • TJ says:

        My first year I came for the week to see if I would “like” it. I brought mixers to give to bars at the end of the week. Left, resolved to do more.

        Having lost out on DSG (not enough allocation to participate) and General, I still think the point on social entropy is valid. Going more than once, you see the repeats and can choose to either be comforted by that or think “I’m tired of that”. Repeats are new to those who are new, so there’s that.

        It’ll be interesting to see if the non-profit status begins to morph this into the “primary fund-raising event” for the non-profit rather than the reverse.

        “Da Vinci’s Workshop” is all very well and good. The florin souvenir is a good idea for a gift. It would be interesting to see what would happen if “Potlatch” would be the theme.

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    • I also think first timers should be given a chance to get tickets. I am an artist who moved to the Bay Area 8-years ago. Would love to attend BM but prices are prohibitively high. And too, tickets are super difficult to obtain. As you are now so very successful, why not roll your prices back so ordinary, struggling artists, etc., can afford to attend? Why not set aside x-amt of tickets for first time attendees?

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  • Timeless says:

    Just think of what happens when a lake loses its mouth and its source…

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  • Catalyst says:

    Here’s a challenge: think of the complaints of a lack of tickets to Black Rock City to the complaints of people not being able to visit their favorite theme camp because its too full. The latter doesn’t really happen because you have choice. The solutions include: 1) Build regionals to be as magical as Black Rock City; 2) Innovate in willing default world cities to be as magical as the regionals (my favorite answer); and 3) Convincing the Nevada government to allow growth at Black Rock City, though if you think traffic is bad now…

    Regarding the demonizing of money per se, Burning Man, the regionals and crowdsourcing our own communities requires money, lots of it. Just think about it, $390 x ~60,000 tickets = $23 million to lay the foundation for building a city by the people for the people. From an artist’s point of view that’s an ungodly and ‘corporate’ amount of money. But from a city manager’s point of view? That’s what it would cost to dump 60,000 people’s trash for a year – it’s not much as far as city management goes.

    The point is, the no-money rule only makes sense during Burning Man, and only between its attendees. Volunteers aren’t emptying those porta potties. The no-money rule certainly does not apply whatsoever to the development of Burning Man. People seem to deny this fact every time they criticize anyone getting paid. Ironically, you don’t hear them criticizing paying porta-potty service workers, but instead save the worst criticism for… artists? Crabs in the barrel syndrome perhaps, because nothing else makes sense.

    Burning Man is not only the modern Renaissance, it’s mass democratization – at the same time – and it requires people getting paid, especially artists.

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  • Captain Ping says:

    Considering “funding models” for providing for artists, how about this one: We tax the wealthiest among us progressively, as we did before Reagan, and we provide healthy funding for our schools. We make it getting an education doesn’t put one $10Ks or even $100Ks into debt. Then, when one is a young, educated adult, one can afford the time and money needed to create art.

    I for one am disgusted by the increasing dependence of artists on crumbs falling from the tables of the super-rich. This “funding model” only works if you don’t mind it if only the super-rich decide which art is going to be made. Even if you don’t mind it, you will ultimately get non-inspired, not-cutting-edge art.

    Though we can’t change the tax code overnight, we CAN get a change like this at bman: Tax the heck out of pay-to-play camps. Raise their fees to the ceiling, and expand the art honorarium budget.

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    • Timeless says:

      Oh Contraire dear Captain Ping,

      As one who has lived off those crumbs for over four decades (Click the name to see my body of work and history) I am liberated by the possibilities of Fundiversify because I myself, the artist pay expenses on my next installation with money I made by selling art with my chosen expression to an investor; one who agrees to let me “celebrate” the works by a series of events, installations, openings etc, all of which are forward my cause as artist — and all of this just happens to accrue value.

      Meanwhile I’m back home creating my next installation — one that radically expresses my own vision. Hopefully it’ll be inspired and cutting edge enough to make it accrue as well…

      Diversified funding to a diversity of artists will deliver pure artist statement all over BRC and the world beyond, faster and surer than all the taxation all the kings men can regulate and enforce.

      Life doesn’t get any sweeter for a playa rat…

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