This is part III in Caveat’s series about “decommodifying permission” and figuring out how to square the needs of a decommodified art culture with the difficulty making a living as an artist. Read the whole series here.
A while back I was having tea with an artist I admire, and he mentioned that one of the things that distinguishes the San Francisco underground art scene from many other scenes is our willingness — still, in these economic times — to create art experiences that have no reasonable hope of a financial return. They end up costing us money, but we do it anyway.
I agreed, and started rhapsodizing about the power of decommodified art. I gave him part of my “Decomomdified art can do things that commercial art can’t!” spiel.
He gave me a hard look and softly said: “Decommodification is for artists with day jobs.”
And there it was — one of the central conflicts in Burning Man culture.
Except for a few breaks here and there, I’ve been an “artist with a day job” — and proud of it — for most of my life. I’ve made money with my art, sure, but it’s not how I pay my rent, and so I’m free to put questions of money aside whenever that seems like the most interesting path.
The artist I was having tea with is a full time artist who pays his rent with his art, which means that sometimes he’s had to sleep in a horse trailer because that’s all he can afford. It matters to him very directly whether people will buy tickets to his shows and whether he can sell his work.
We were polite about it, but this is an area of passionate disagreement because if you can’t get passionate about art and livelihood, what can you get passionate about?
Burning Man exists firmly in the idea that Radical Self-expression — of which Art is the queen — is available to everyone. Burners frequently say things like “everyone is an artist,” which is absolutely true.
And … there are aspects of art that require time and practice to unlock. There is usually a significant difference between people who devote their lives to art and people who have a great time working on an art piece once in a while or paint as a hobby. It’s hard to quantify how; it’s not necessarily in the quality of the work. Both my philosophical opponent and I agreed that amateur artists can be better than professionals. But devotion to craft really does count, putting the time and experience in really does matter, and since that’s a serious commitment it’s hard to do when you’re working a day job.
Which is to say that we believe, strongly, that everyone should do art and have access to the tools of self-expression, which means art has to be free … AND we want people to be able to devote their lives to bringing their art to new heights, which means they need to get paid.
How do we create a culture that can do both?
You Can’t Have One Without the Other
It’s worth briefly noting here that our culture has benefitted from both. Burning Man started out as a wholly decommodified experience, with organizers sharing and covering all the expenses out of pocket. Then it became a full time entity, with staff who don’t get paid a lot but do get paid. (And even so, still has a massive infrastructure filled with volunteers.)
A world that can’t have both can’t have Burning Man.
So what do we do?
Doing It Ourselves
The easiest thing to say is to make it somebody else’s problem by proposing a political solution that, gosh darn it, other people should really make happen. Something like a Universal Basic Income (UBI) that would allow artists to still have economic security while devoting themselves to their art whether it’s commercial or not.
And I agree with this! I think a UBI is a great idea, and would help in a lot of ways.
But I also think that there’s something very incongruous about a do-ocracy culture deciding that the only way it can approach a problem is to lobby other people to solve it for them. Is that really how we want to first approach these issues? By saying that all we can do is demand that other people do something?
It’s fine as individuals for us to lobby the government for a UBI. In fact, I hope you will. But as Burners? I think we are called on to figure out what we can do to address the problem with the resources we have.
We want to encourage more decommodified art, and we want artists to make a living. There’s a creative tension in those contradictory wants, and Burning Man culture thrives on harnessing the energy of creative tension. What can we do with the resources we have to encourage both?
We Used to Have Ideas
In 2016 Burning Man’s Philosophical Center ran a series of articles on the relationship between “art” and “money,” and in the last part of the series we proposed a number of experiments that could support artists while expanding Burning Man’s ethos that art is for everyone. They were all things that individual Burners or groups of Burners could work on themselves, here and now. They included:
- Establishing artist workshops focused on teaching and production outside of the “star system” (exemplified by groups like The Flaming Lotus Girls).
- Having theme camps commission art by local artists in their areas, for use outside of Black Rock City.
- Attempting “Fundiversify” — an arts funding model developed by a Burning Man artist in which groups of investors fund art projects specifically to be spent in our community. After a period of time in the community the projects are sold (with their value enhanced by the publicity and provenance the piece has received), with the investors getting the gains. (The artist will have been paid up front to create the piece.)
- Creating an Outreach Database with a (close-to) comprehensive list of places, communities, and contacts potentially interested in hosting Burning Man art and artists throughout the year.
- Experimenting with Community Currencies specifically designed to support local artists. (Money, after all, is a conceptual art project.)
- Embedding artists everywhere we have institutional access; businesses and municipalities and retirement homes and civic groups should all have artists in residence! Their purpose would be to render in art the culture of the places in which they’re embedded, and assist with the challenges they face. There’s considerable evidence showing that this can have a significant impact.
Maybe these don’t seem like good ideas to you, but they are ideas; they are things we can try to do, now, together, to both support working artists and to spread Burning Man’s ethos of art being a birthright we all share. It won’t be easy, all of these will take work, but together we can develop new ways to better support working artists that also benefits us collectively. My greatest regret of my time formally working at Burning Man is that we didn’t try to leverage our institutional clout to support people who wanted to do things like this.
But it’s not too late. And of course nobody needs our permission.
Thinking Even Smaller
But until people start taking up such measures and they start bearing fruit, what can individual artists do to address this creative tension right now? Since that series came out I have published two books related to Burning Man (one of my books is published by Burning Man Project), and I’ve been going around doing book events for books that I want people to buy but that I don’t want to commercially promote for fear of violating our community principles.
As a result, I came up with much smaller scale experiments, honed through events in different communities, to try to square this circle. I’ll talk about what those are — and whether they worked — in the next post.
Cover image of “No Money But Play Money” (Photo by Scott Stallard)