To Reconcile Art and Commerce, Take Them Less Seriously

My first post in this series explored the way in which Decommodified art can do things that commodified art can’t. That it’s not just that one’s “free” and one “costs money” — the act of decommodifying something create a difference in kind as well as accessibility. 

The second post was a closer look at why this is and how it works.

The third post examined a social paradox that everyone who has ever wanted to make lots of art has encountered: we want to live in a society that produces a lot of high-quality decommodified art, but to do that you need artists to be able to make a living. And how the hell do artists make a living if we want their art to exist outside of commerce? That post offers some collective experiments we can try to make this better. 

In this post, I’m going to offer up my own personal experiences trying to find ways to reconcile “making money from my art” and “being part of a decommodified culture” as I went on book tours while creating decommodified spaces where nobody was selling anything. Here’s what I’ve found helps:

Subordinate Money to Play

While creating events for Turn Your Life Into Art, I decided that since I wanted these experiences to be decommodified I wasn’t going to sell the book at my own book events. There would be no point of sale. If people wanted to buy the book they could do that outside the event, from their local bookstore, or online. 

I expected people would appreciate the effect this had — and they did. But what I hadn’t anticipated was that there would be pressure going the other direction. Yes, people were glad that the experience was decommodified, but many people still wanted to buy the book here and now! 

Was commerce really so important? 

No, I don’t think so: the book really was easily available elsewhere, and sometimes for cheaper than I was selling copies directly. This wasn’t about the acquisition of an item.

What people actually wanted was a chance to have an experience with the author, a moment with the artist, and a keepsake from the experience, that you don’t get if you purchase their art elsewhere. They wanted the moment of conversation, they wanted the experience of having the book signed, they wanted a story to tell, and they wanted to offer support in a way that was more satisfying than getting the book from a third party. 

What they were trying to do was not to have a commercial experience, but to use commerce as an excuse to have a human experience. They wanted connection, and they wanted to play. As I noted at the very beginning of this series, we are conditioned to need a commercial excuse to do things that aren’t really commercial at all. 

I tried to reconcile these competing impulses by creating a system in which people could give me money, but as a playful gesture rather than as a genuine fee-for-service. I added a raffle to each event, which was explicitly to “support the artist” (me). I had a designated volunteer sell raffle tickets for $10. Any winning ticket would get a book. 

But would it be this book: Turn Your Life Into Art? It could be that book, but it could also be one of my other books. Or it could be a random book that I’d brought from my shelf at home. Or that I’d stolen from a friend’s house minutes before coming here. So yes, by all means, shell out money and join the raffle if you want, but even if you win you’re probably not going to actually get something valuable or worthwhile. 

Furthermore, they weren’t actually “tickets” that people were buying — they were post-it notes, on which you were supposed to write a name. Whose name? I don’t care! It could be yours, it could be a friend’s, it could be anybody! Whoever’s name is on the post-it note (if it’s picked) gets whatever book I happen to have on me. We’ll try (though only so hard) to get it to them if we can.

Whenever a question came up about how this was going to work or what was going to happen, we didn’t respond with the answer that was most efficient or remunerative for me — we responded with the answer that was the most funny. We made it clear, at every step, that while money was involved in this offering, that we were making money subordinate to play. When somebody asked if they could pay for their raffle ticket in chocolate bars they had in their bag, we said yes. Why? Because that was the funnier answer. 

The results were a smashing success, both in terms of money raised and in terms of the way people reacted to it. People enjoyed the opportunity to participate, supported me as an author, and then had a hilarious time during the raffle itself as they discovered how weird the book selection got. People put down friend’s names on their own tickets, and as far as I know it enhanced the experience that everyone had. Neither I nor my co-organizers ever had a single complaint that we were commodifying the experience. 

For me, that was a giant step forward, and offers a clear lesson on one way that limited commerce can safely exist alongside decommodified spaces: make sure that commerce is subordinate to play. 

This can’t just be lip-service, though: it doesn’t mean “tell people a joke when they buy something” or “do a little dance in line.” That’s creating an artsy gloss on what is still a fundamentally commercial experience. You have to be able to put play where people are expecting money, and that means potentially sacrificing. Anything short of that is not decommodification but bullshit, and not really play but hustle. 

High Contribution Nonsense

A related strategy that I’ve seen work well is to create an absurd and stupid, even unpleasant, experience that no one would probably want, and then offer it up for an expensive amount of money right here, right now.

The best example of this that I’ve seen doesn’t come from my work, but from the Poetry Brothel troupe, first out of New York City. At this event (which to be clear is not decommodified) one can purchase tokens which can then be given to wandering poets for a private performance of original compositions. 

But if one wants to blow over 100 bucks, one can get up on stage and have all the poets read a different poem to them at the same time! It’s an absurd, terrible, experience … I mean, it’s the exact opposite of what poetry should be … but sometimes somebody just has to try it. I had to try it. It immediately heads off concerns about commodification because you’re buying something no one could really want, but it’s incredibly entertaining for everyone else at the event, and you’ve gone above and beyond to support the artists.

Getting more stupid and more playful … especially when it’s pointless … can often yield fantastic results that make people feel good about money being involved. There’s a frontier here to be explored. 

Respond to the Crowd You Have

Going through the motions is not the same as earning trust. 

In each and every case, only the barest pre-existing structure was brought into each new event. Everything else was determined — often on the fly — by what worked with this particular group of people at this particular moment. We never assumed that what seemed decommodified to Boston would feel decommodified to San Diego, or that it would feel right at a completely different space in Oregon. Much in the same way that subordinating commerce to play required us to make whatever decision seemed funniest in the moment, rather than sticking to a pre-set script, keeping a commercial art event decommodified meant figuring out what felt like marketing and sales to the people who were participating in this event right now, and keeping away from that. The issue is never whether you are technically decommodified based on some set of abstract rules, but whether the people you are with here and now feel that they are having an experience that is outside of commerce. Although a lot of the big picture issues will be the same, the experience is going to have to be individually tailored every time. 

Separate the Artist From the Ask

The more book events I did, the more I appreciated having volunteers who could handle money oriented tasks. This wasn’t just about freeing me from one more thing to do — though certainly that. It was because, as the artist, I was setting the tone of the experience: I was the person people had come here to see (alongside their community friends) and was generally the center of attention. The more time I spent handling money and sales myself, the more the event became centered around money. The more time I spent creating art experiences, interacting with people, and connecting in ways that were outside of commerce, the more outside of commerce the experience as a whole became. 

It mattered that other people were collecting the money for the raffle and giving out the tickets. It mattered not just that there wasn’t a point of sale here for my book, but that other people — not me — could explain how to buy the book if someone wanted a copy. It mattered that people who didn’t want to engage in commerce, who didn’t want to buy my book, didn’t have to turn away from the artist or have an uncomfortable moment where they overtly weren’t supporting me. It mattered that someone could fully participate in the event without having to deal with commerce. When commerce is truly optional and no-pressure, it becomes less threatening. But to do that you have to de-center it. 

Separating the artist from the commercial aspects of an event and having someone else — especially volunteers — do it allows people who are interested in supporting the artist to engage without having it mediate their experience of the artist, and it allows people who don’t want to contribute to still be fully present and not have to make excuses or put up walls.

It’s a Start

These are all tactics, not strategy. They are approaches that help around the margins, but aren’t going to change the dynamic of artists struggling to make a living. They can, however, do significant work at squaring the circle between making a living as an artist and working in a decommodified culture. They suggest that something is possible. There may be breakthroughs if we play with it more.

Which to me is the key insight here: we can never reconcile art and commerce if we take either of them too seriously. Only playful absurdity works. 

(Cover photo by Bill Klemens)

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

4 Comments on “To Reconcile Art and Commerce, Take Them Less Seriously

  • Nicola Dreamcoat says:

    I’m loving this whole series but this one is dynamite. Let’s explore those frontiers!

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  • Chanel says:

    The more absurd the better. I invented the Cheese Game on the spot just to do something with the group I was with. Only requirement was that you could not be an artisinal cheese maker or purveyor. Basically you go around in a circle naming different cheeses. When someone cannot name one they are out. Continue going round and round until only one person is left. Then everybody gifts them something. Of course, this game can be played with any number of choices. Maybe sounds boring but it is surprising.

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  • Kokoe says:

    I like these ideas, but now I am getting worried about the fundraising events we do to support our burn. Costs are going up to throw the event, and costs are going up to go to the playa. Our event is a lot more fun and playful than going to a bar for a drink, but the ticket prices keep rising. Our events usually sell out. Does that make them a commodity?

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  • Joseph Smith says:

    And yet,it isn’t free. It costs a lot of money to produce burning man’s art. How about a blog about whether at some point it becomes morally exploitative? How about all the donated labor? Is it really all just a loving playful gift to the community? Shouldn’t the artists who create all these amazing experiences have more say in how the org is run?

    I like your writing Caveat, but a lot of it tip toes around the deeper issues in our community.

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