Burning Man didn’t invent “Gifting,” and the ideas presented in Lewis Hyde’s seminal book “The Gift” have been extremely influential on Burning Man, suggesting a continuity between what we do and the practices of artistic movements and traditional cultures around the world.
Those ideas are given concrete form in the raw new(ish) documentary by Robin McKenna, called “Gift,” which is now traveling the country in limited release. (Like documentaries do). I don’t know Robin but she reached out to me over email when the film was first being completed to get my perspective, and I recently watched it again when it came to San Francisco. A subtle and engaging film, it brought two of the fundamental concepts we think about “Gifting” to life, and gave me new insights into two more. I thought I’d share those thoughts with you here.
Keep Gifts in Motion
The first concept is that gifts gain potency and effectiveness when they are in motion. That concept is fundamental to Hyde’s work, and clearly illustrated in the film. Gifts that are in motion, whether literally (a specific gift that is physically handed over from one person to another over time) or figuratively (a chain of gifts, such that I give you a gift, then you give a gift to someone else, then they give one to someone else …) increase their impact on the world significantly. Gifts that are kept or hoarded progressively lose value, and even end up reducing the cultural value around them. The film demonstrates this beautifully.
But what I do think can also be usefully pointed out is that this is not a property unique to gifts. On the contrary — it is the entire basis of modern financial markets. Stocks don’t go up in value because they are held — they go up in value because they are traded. (You don’t have to be trading yours, but *someone* has to be buying and selling for their value to increase.) Banks aren’t able to offer interest on money they hold because they really hold it — they invest it, and pay you interest for the right to do so. Put money in a vault without that practice and leave it alone, and it won’t be worth more than it was when you started — and inflation means it will probably be worth less.
The financial markets, in this sense, are like gifts: the more something is exchanged, the more it moves, the more value it attains. This is a well-understood phenomenon in capital markets — the fact that we have to be told that it applies to gifts as well, rather than understanding this natively, as many cultures have, speaks to the way in which we have given an unearned credibility to bought things. They have not earned that halo. There is nothing special about the way purchased goods work that gifted goods don’t.
Art and Gifts Create Value
The second point is the way in which gifts, like art, create value. This, too, should be obvious, but is something we are culturally conditioned not to see. There is no question that the extraordinary Metropoliz — the world’s first inhabited museum, which the film highlights — is far more valuable, in every meaningful sense of the term, than the empty slaughterhouse it replaced. Why is it more valuable? Because of the gifts people gave there, and because it has become art.
Burning Man is perhaps the clearest example of this same phenomenon in the world today. After 30 years of annual effort by an assortment of mostly volunteer artists and freaks, a patch of arid land where nothing grows has become one of the most coveted places in the world, a spot that billionaires try and sometimes fail to buy their way into.
Gifts and art create value. Value — as was so clearly stated by participants in the potlatch ceremony that Gift also follows — is not only fiscal value. Value can exist as fiscal capital and social capital, as health, as safety, as a compelling environment … as so much else than mere money. And we know this not just because it’s obvious, but because people will spend tremendous amounts of money to have these things. At least for themselves. They only become valueless, in the eyes of financial cynics, when they are for other people.
A statement made in the film by one of the creators of the Metropoliz, “Against the value of real estate, we use the value of the art market,” is a wonderful expression of that sentiment, but I fear it misses the essence of the struggle he’s in: the very idea that the value of art can be reduced to money is itself the enemy. (Not that art is worth money, but that its value can only usefully be expressed in it.)
They are playing brilliant defense by using one market against the other, but it is the logic of the market itself that inevitably turns against those without equity, which is why Metropoliz is necessary in the first place. Confronted with a runaway real estate market that renders them homeless, those without equity use gifts and art to create a space too valuable to destroy. (A similar occupation saved the Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dada, in Zurich, Switzerland.)
Good Gifting is Risky
The third point is one that was expressed beautifully by a beekeeper in the film who brought a bee art car to Burning Man: “When you give a gift, you’re taking a risk.” This is, I think, the real difference between gifts and purchases that our culture falsely ascribes to value. For all the talk of “caveat emptor” — let the buyer beware — it is in fact in the act of giving a gift, more than receiving it and certainly more than purchasing a product, that one is taking a risk.
Commercial transactions are at their best when they are risk free. Everyone knows exactly what they are buying and selling, and all the due diligence has been done in advance. Gifts, by contrast, are at their most potent when they are most risky. In my many years of giving art gifts in and especially out of Burning Man spaces, I have observed that the most potent gifts are the ones given not to close friends but to complete strangers — people whom you have never met, do not know, and may never see again. Those are the most likely to be life changing, perspective changing, moments of pure magic. They are also the most likely to cause you to fall on your face. (Sometimes with real consequences.)
But where commercial transactions try to mitigate those risks (no transaction is without risks, but effective consumers and investors try to know all the risks and mitigate them as much as they can), gifts are at their best when those risks are embraced. Gifts given to loved ones are most successful precisely when you do not know how they will react — and, once again, at their most risky.
I think – this film makes me hypothesize – that this is a significantly under-appreciated reason for our culture’s preference for markets over gifts. Yes, yes, business is risky, but the venture capitalists and bankers and hedge fund managers are risking other people’s money. Successful post-modern capitalism involves taking as few risks as possible for yourself, and spreading risks down to everyone else — the 2008 financial crises being a perfect case in point. Gifts, if they are any good at all, involve personal and emotional risks, which after watching Robin’s film, I think is something we have not adequately thought about.
Gifts Are Acts of Creation
Finally, I am reminded of two statements — one made at the very beginning of the movie, one close to the end.
Walking through Metropoliz at the very start of the film, a little girl says (in Italian): “When we first come here there was nothing.” But, she goes on, “They draw the sea or fish or mermaids, or a field with flowers and a star. A room with a lot of things. They draw the world, with everything that exists.”
What does this tell us? That gifts, like art, are not decorative, they are acts of creation. We saw this in the film a moment later, when people in a museum were given flowers on the condition that they deviate from their route to go and give them to complete strangers. This was an act of creation as well — of creating new social connections, new possibilities.
Then, at the end of the film, back in Metropoliz, one of the occupants says: “The idea that you can build an alternative, even if it’s something like a museum, in an occupied space, in my opinion, opens new possibilities of an imagined political nation.”
This is the culture-creation process. Gifts do not just generate value, they create possibilities — they create new worlds. Where market forces try to drag everything down to their level — no question matters so much as “what does it cost?”— gifts are acts of creation, offering new, previously unimagined, possibilities. You buy something because you’ve seen it on display. You know what you’re getting, and have your options laid out. When you are given a gift, you have no idea what is coming — the act of receiving it is an act of imagining new possibilities. And to an extent that is quite amazing, what we can imagine, we can do.
What Gifting Isn’t
I have never been satisfied with the idea of a “gift economy.” In fact, I am an admirer of capitalism, so long as it is in the service of culture, rather than culture existing in the service of capitalism. There is simply no evidence that anything remotely like an industrial or post-industrial economy can be run by anything we might mean when we say “gift economy.” But the phrase “gifting culture” — now that says something. A gifting culture is one which, even if it has active markets, is not reductive. It is open to possibility. It recognizes value beyond the merely fiscal. A gifting culture has so much more to offer everyone in it than dollar signs attached to everything they do. The movie “Gift” has convinced me, in a way I had not before, that to give gifts, especially risky ones, is a kind of revolutionary act in the culture we have – one that brings us closer to the true gifting culture in which we want to live.