What We’ve Learned about Art, Money, and the Renaissance

Conclusion of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series


It’s not true that every culture gets the art they deserve. But they get the art they’re willing to sacrifice for.

If Burning Man is an artistic powerhouse today, it is because over its 30-year history, its community has been willing to make heroic sacrifices for art.

Many of you are probably making one right now.

For most of our history every theme camp, every art car, every sculpture and installation, was not only a gift but a sacrifice: people who were not rich sacrificed their own money, people who were struggling against the clock sacrificed their time. People threw themselves at not just their own efforts, but into each other’s projects, offering everything they had to make them succeed. Not just willingly, but passionately.

Their passionate sacrifices, freely offered as gifts, made “Burning Man art” exceptional.

Over time, we have found ways to mitigate the need for sacrifice – art grants, in-kind support, a community of active crowd-funders – and we have attracted the kind of people for whom hiring a team to build something big is not a sacrifice, which allows some people to be compensated for (or at least assisted with) their time and energy.

These are good developments: artists shouldn’t have to be heroes to make art.

But make no mistake – that spirit of sacrifice is inspiring new heroes every year. The fact that sometimes they don’t have to sacrifice as much only makes them more ambitious. Burning Man is the greatest participatory art experience on Earth because our community will not let it be anything less. And when we make it easier, they take on harder tasks.

Burning Man has great art because we are a community that not only values art, but sacrifices for it. Over and over again.


The Paradox of Convenient Art


The issue we have encountered in this series is not that the world we live in does not value art. On the contrary: we are happy to look at it, download it, and access it anywhere. Never has a culture had more convenient access to all manner of art, from the classics of antiquity to the latest from across the globe, delivered in real time. And we love it. This is a good thing.

But that convenience creates its own challenge, as we now expect art to come to us like water from a tap. We have come to think of art as a utility: we grab artists’ work without attribution (let alone payment) for our blogs, post other people’s music up on sharing sites, pirate movies, search through digital libraries that don’t compensate authors. Modern culture demands art as a right, insists that it be convenient, but scoffs at the notion that anyone should be inconvenienced, let alone sacrifice, for it.

That makes a huge difference.


Old Problems are New Again


In a 1996 paper on art funding in what he calls “The Ford Foundation Era” (1957 – 1996), John Kreidler made a staggering point: that with the exception of a few massively endowed academies, no structured arts organization has ever thrived without significant “discounted labor” – that is, without artists working on a volunteer or underpaid basis.

There is no other way this has ever happened. What the fuck?

This may put Burning Man’s own use of so much volunteer created art into context, but it is also a humbling and disturbing fact. Something seems profoundly wrong about it.

It only gets worse.

“Artist” has never been a stable upper-middle-class profession that is compensated adequately for the time, energy, and education levels artists put in.   Kriedler noted that “Although median household income for performing artists is not out of line with the median for the nation as a whole (and in fact was slightly higher), considering the educational attainment of the performing artists, it was very much out of line with income received by other groups with similar education and training.” He quotes studies showing that historically artists spent more of their income than their peers in other professions on education and training; were unemployed more often than the general population, with their periods of unemployment lasting longer; and that they earn less over the course of their lifetimes that equivalently qualified colleagues in other occupations.

If the sacrifices people make for art at Burning Man are heroic, sacrifice may at some level be what artists do in order to advance their passions at all. In which case it may not be possible for us to ever come up with an arts funding system that guarantees artists a comfortable life.

If this is true, it’s true both for cultural/economic reasons and because artists are constantly pushing the boundaries with what they have. Give them a barren patch of desert, and they’ll turn it into a global happening. Artists are exactly the people who are willing to say “I don’t care if it’s good for my bottom line, this is worth doing!” They create an astonishing amount of value in their communities with whatever tools they have, and whether that’s the contents of a junkyard or the costume shop at the Met, they’re going to want to push new boundaries of the possible.

Artists are, in many ways, analogous to what start-up founders would be if there were no venture capital system.


Why ya gotta make things so complicated?


So yes, they’re going to sacrifice anyway, but it’s much easier for people to sacrifice for their art in times of relative income equality: they’re not giving up access to mainstream economic life, even if they’re giving up “winning” at it. But in times of mass income inequality – like the current era – going into the arts can be an economic death sentence. That’s a dangerous state.

Kreidler’s paper shows that this it can be mitigated: for all that the tools of the “Ford Foundation” era no longer work as advertised, while they worked they demonstrated that is possible to leverage resources and new approaches to support artists in ways that require them to sacrifice less just to live – which both makes them more integrated into society and encourages them to make their art be more ambitious.

Similarly, Renaissance Florence had an ethos of art and money that kept enormous sums of wealth flowing through its public arts. It made very few artists rich, but it provided a more stable base for them to live and work, and instead of taking it easy they famously used the wealth that passed through their fingers to create even more ambitious projects.

It can be done. And when it is done, communities, cultures, and even civilizations flourish.


It’s not about the Benjamins


But the issue is not simply “more money.” One of the first things we discovered in this series was that just adding money to an arts budget doesn’t create a vibrant art scene – and that there are even ways that pumping money into an art scene can kill it. What matters is the way the resources available are utilized: do they create personal relationships between artists and communities? Do they connect artists to other artists? Do they encourage the taking of risks and the exposure to new ideas? Do they create meaningful social bonds between artists and potential patrons?

To the extant that money does these things, it helps; to the extent that it blocks these things, creating walls and divisions between artists, communities, and funders, then a scene is better off without it. So the fundamental question is not: how much are we funding, but what kind of connections and relationships are we making? Focusing on that first, and then letting the funding follow, is the fundamental switch from “patronage” to “matronage” that we have come to see as at the soul of a compelling art scene in the 21st century.


New Models


We have proposed a number of promising experiments in matronage that we believe can support artists by developing relationships. Broadly speaking, there are three different kinds of approaches, each with two specific strategies that our community could engage in right now (and in some cases already are), without asking anyone’s permission:


1) The development of new kinds of art and patronage communities:

2) Enhancing “Burning Man Art’s” value in the existing commercial market through the use of community to generate provenance:

  • Fundiversify – an arts funding model in which investors fund art specifically for purposes of being in our community, with the time spent in the community enhancing its value, eventually leading to a greater profit (and enhanced creative independence) for artists.
  • Outreach Database – wherein we use our community to create a comprehensive database of places, communities, and contacts potentially interested in hosting Burning Man art throughout the year.

3) Finding new ways to connect local artists to local communities of all kinds – form neighborhoods to retirement homes to businesses:


What has hopefully become apparent is that while all of these approaches have increasing arts funding as a goal, they are not fundamentally about money – they are about community. The goal is not to get money in order to create the kinds of communities that support art, but to create those communities and eventually leverage them to enhance arts funding and support what they were going to do anyway.

These models are less important, then, for their specifics – although we think these are good and worthy experiments that have the potential to do a great deal of good – but vitally important to establish what kind of approach helps us resolve the paradox of “art” and “money” in a way that is consistent with our values.   At the end of this year of investigation, we are ready to conclude that “community” is the bridge and between “art” and money” we are looking for. “Patronage” funds art. “Matronage” uses arts funding as an opportunity to build connection and community.

In the introduction to this series, we suggested that artists might need a Declaration of Independence.  In fact they are better served by a Declaration of Interdependence.


There are no shortcuts


While it is vital to Burning Man’s future, and the future of any healthy civilization, to find new ways to support arts and artists, we believe that to be truly successful those new approaches must have community at their core. When art is about community, and community about art, the two can reinforce each other and create a healthy whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. But when art is about money, or money about art, the two corrode each other, bringing out the worst in each.

This is not – absolutely not – to say that money must be kept away from art. Only that this is a case where money functions best when it is in service to other values. Our approaches to art funding must never be about the money. But increasing the connections between art and community creates additional value and prosperity.   It’s a virtuous cycle – if we don’t take shortcuts. When we take shortcuts to make money, community suffers, and a decline in art follows. But when we are focused on creating art first, rather than creating art for the sake of money, then we will always have something around which to form community.

We may never be able to make “artist” a stable, reliable, safe job. The artists themselves may not allow it – and it’s that spirit that makes them so crucial to communities everywhere. But we can create communities in which their value is recognized, and support the sacrifices they make. We can stop taking advantage of their eagerness to make sacrifices on behalf of our communities, and instead celebrate it in meaningful ways. We are confident that they will take any stability we can give them, and turn it into risks worth taking.

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 “What We’ve Learned about Art, Money, and the Renaissance

  • The Hustler says:

    We as a society — but certainly not all of us — long ago devalued art as something children do or never-do-wells whose lineage claims divine financial providence.

    How many school systems have cut music and arts programs, whilst maintaining football teams?

    We don’t value it, to our detriment. We lost our ability to be creative and independent. I think we don’t understand how important these skills are and that they’re more than just “arts and crafts,” but at their root level, provide the framework for scientific discovery, for leadership, and other fields.

    With that I feel we long ago gave away a sense of community.

    The many nations who have surged past us in recent decades haven’t devalued their education or their art.

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  • Cranston says:

    Wow. Quite a long excuse for not providing more art grants. The communities and connections you claim are essential already exist. The Borg receives tons of well organized applications from artists and groups that are prepared to bring art – but it is literally the cost of bringing that art into the middle of a desert that they need help with.

    And can we drop the noble “art as sacrifice” characterization. This is not a normal non-profit or renaissance patronage where money flows from those that have it to those who don’t. If that were true more than 2% of ticket revenue would go to art grants. Instead burning man asks participants to raise the money, build the art, transport it, supply the labor for the entire event, and pay handsomely for the opportunity. It’s really pretty absurd when you think about it. Where in the Ford Foundation paper is that model held up as good for artists?

    You hint at the dysfunctional co-dependence that exists between the organization and artists. But I think a better article would explore this more directly. Why do theme camps rise and fall? And how is the organization dependent on a constant stream of young newbies willing to donate so much of their time and money? Why are many established artists abandoning burns?

    Instead of inferring cultural narratives from obscure (and mostly irrelevant) historic parallels, why don’t you simply actually ask burners “What would help you build more art?”

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      @Cranston – when I talk to Burning Man artists, what they tell me they’re struggling with the most is not “bringing art to Burning Man,” but making a living as an artist in the world.

      That’s something that no amount of Burning Man grants can possibly address on a useful scale.

      So I don’t see why it has to be one or the other We can both work to increase our arts funding (which I’m all in favor of) and ask: what can we do to create a world which better supports artists wherever they are?

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      • Cranston says:

        My point it that the Borg has an ethical responsibility concerning it’s use of volunteers and artists that is rarely acknowledged or discussed. Instead of trying to change how the world undervalues and abuses artistic contributions, perhaps we should start with a frank discussion of how our own communities function, and test out remedies in our little petri dishes.

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  • Jackie says:

    We need to beware that it is not the job of the artist to be a social worker. Art needs to be made for many reasons and can be very beneficial to society but not all should be community driven or for the people or else art and how the people view it may become watered down and less meaningful or experimental. Art also encompasses much more than just visual art it also includes the performing arts such as Theatre, Dance, Music and more. When we speak about Burning Man art there is often a heavy emphasis on the visual art however much leading edge work is also coming out of the performing arts category as well. These artists are often pushed by society towards creating programs that are social work based and the value of their creative work can be lessened. It can be easier to attain patronage/matronage for a dance workshop for senior citizens program than it is to secure a way to create a new and innovative piece of choreography to set on professional performers. It seems society wants their art and their social work too. We must be ware.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Jackie – I completely agree. The purpose of art is ultimately not utilitarian, and should not be reduced to social work. Ever.

      But if we’re asking the question “what can we do to make a society that is more supportive of the work that artists do?” it seems very clear that the best step is to better embed artists in communities. People who have a first-hand exposure to the power and impact art can have on their communities are far more likely to support art and artists who are taking risks.

      This isn’t about pitting one kind of art against another, and you’re so right about the pressures on artists to do popular repertoire work instead of doing new and original work. But support for artists doing cutting edge and boundary pushing work will always be harder to come by. Our thesis is that if we can embed artists in the kinds of communities where they presently don’t exist, the value of the arts will be more widely recognized, and that will be good for the boundary pushing artists as well.

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  • Timeless says:

    If this Outreach Data Base is the bare bones of Renaissance, Fundiversify is the muscle. Click my name here to learn more — and learn about the new fire art form Fundiversify is creating on that same site.

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