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.
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:
- Artist workshops focused on teaching and production outside of the “star system” (perhaps exemplified by The Flaming Lotus Girls)
- Theme camps as a new force of citizen patronage
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:
- Creating Community Currencies to support local artists
- Embedding artists in new kinds of communities
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.