Since I started this series, I’ve gotten a few messages from people saying (more or less): “YES, I want to be part of a decommodified culture! But also, I need to fundraise for my art project. Does that make me a bad person?”
No. No it does not. It means you are struggling to do something that’s difficult given the world we live in.
There’s nothing immoral about fundraising. Artists require resources to create, and a culture of Decommodification is not the same thing as a vow of poverty. If you can’t go to your community and say “Hey, I have a vision, can you help me with it?” then what kind of community are you in? Sure, maybe they can’t help, or just don’t like your idea, but they should understand that this is something we can do for one another.
We want to belong in communities that support their members.
But the fact of needing money isn’t what makes commodification so dangerous.
What makes commodification dangerous is the impression it creates that you’re not really a community. That you’re just a collection of resources to be exploited. The danger with fundraising isn’t that money is some kind of cursed object that should not be gathered by artists, but rather that often the process of asking people for money makes them feel that they themselves have been commodified. That they are not really your friends or members of your community, but people-shaped ATMs. That they are not being invited to play or participate in something amazing, but are being dehumanized by somebody who needs something.
It’s the difference between a close friend asking you to help with a project that you know they’re passionate about, and being asked for money by a guy who you only hear from when he needs money for one more damn project.
They’re completely different experiences, and not only do they get a very different reaction, they should get a very different reaction.
There’s nothing wrong with money. But there is something wrong when money mediates human connection. There is something wrong when we need a commercial excuse to relate to one another as human beings, and when we let monetization limit our ideas of what’s possible.
When that happens, fundraising hurts individual people and makes authentic community more difficult, or even impossible.
The default world has not developed any tools or approaches that really help with this. But over time, Burning Man culture has.
How Do I Participate in Your Art Project?
If you’re trying to find a way to keep a project you’re fundraising for from being commodified, your go-to Principles are Participation and Communal Effort.
I mean, obviously “Decommodification” is relevant here, but if “Decommodification” is what you want to end up with, Participation and Communal Effort are how you get there.
Because here’s the difference between fundraising for a project that feels commodified and a project that feels decommodified: is there a way that someone not involved in the project can participate in it besides consumption?
Let’s take “Generic Project X,” which is not only a project you’ve encountered before but which I was pitched just last week by a friend.
Here’s how “Generic Project X” works (this is how it always works): some artists decide to do something cool. They need to raise money for it. So they crowdfund and ask all their friends to get involved.
And what does “getting involved” look like? Well, you can contribute to the fundraiser!
And if you can’t or won’t do that? Well, then you can pay for a ticket to see the project when it’s finished!
And if you can’t or won’t do that? Well then, you can watch the project for free on its social media channel, or when it’s open at Black Rock City or a Regional for a couple of days.
And that’s it.
Do you see the issue here? Do you see the problem? If you’re not already an artist on the project, then there is no way to be involved with the project except through consumption — either the active consumption of paying for something, or the passive consumption of sitting back and watching it.
There is no Participation outside of consumption, and there is no meaningful Communal Effort.
Now — again — there’s nothing morally wrong with this from a conventional standpoint. This happens all the time. It’s how the Metropolitan Opera, Marvel movies, and Major League Baseball all function. And we don’t get upset with them just because they won’t let me sing an aria at the Met, play third base, or get a cameo as Ant Man’s second cousin. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But they are also examples of very explicitly commodified art. And the reason they’re commodified is not that they take in and spend money — it’s that the only way for someone outside the project to relate to it (and most people inside the project) is through consumption. Money and passive viewing mediates everything. That’s it. That’s all there is.
If you want your art project to be part of a decommodified culture, even when you’re fundraising, then you need to find ways that people — both your friends and strangers who come in off the street — can participate in ways that don’t involve consumption.
Your fundraiser is decommodified (or at least less commodified) if you’re offering people ways that they can participate without contributing money.
That’s all. But it’s often harder than it sounds.
Fundraising Is Not the Point of Art
The first — and saddest — objection that people have to this is that decommodifying their art project will interfere with their fundraising.
“If I give people another way to engage with the project, then some of them will do that and then my fundraising won’t be as successful!” they say.
And yes, yes they will. That is exactly right.
But that’s also the point. As I said in the previous post in this series, about reaching decommodification by subordinating money to play: you can’t create a decommodified culture if you always prioritize money first.
I mean, obviously. You obviously can’t do that.
If you want to put the money first, go do that! God bless, and good luck! Make that art, and make that money! But it isn’t a decommodified project, and it doesn’t belong in a decommodified culture.
Putting everything else through the prism of money, giving people no permission except to consume, is the essence of commodification.
There’s no way around that. I’m sorry, but there isn’t.
Be a Teaching Guild
The next issues people have with this are practical. “Yes, I want to make my project decommodified! But … how do I do that? How else can people participate?”
Those questions are not only valid, they’re harder than they ought to be precisely because we live in a culture that often reduces participation to consumption: we’re implicitly taught that they’re the same thing.
But in fact there’s lot you can do.
In some ways the gold standard is the participatory guild model offered by groups like the Flaming Lotus Girls: anyone who wants to participate in creating the project can come in and will be given a place on the project. If they don’t know how, they’ll be taught. They’ll learn how to weld, how to wire circuitry… whatever they need to do. And if they can also offer support in the form of people wrangling or fluffing or bookkeeping, fantastic!
Notice — this is important — that none of that participation is contingent on people buying into the project, or even getting a ticket to Burning Man. You get to participate and help if you want, and it has nothing to do with commerce.
Turning the entire project into an opportunity for inclusive Communal Effort is about as Decommodified as I can imagine a project being, even if they fundraise for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2016’s Art, Money, and the Renaissance series, we asked if theme camps would be the new Renaissance art guilds. This is in many ways what we were getting at:
Though rarely seen as art themselves, a case can be made that it is Theme Camps – not mutant vehicles, not giant sculptures, not dub-step – that are the most original and fundamental form of Burning Man art.
They are also a new, and incredibly flexible, form of social organization. In many ways they serve the function of artisan guilds in the Renaissance, but they are formed around a common artistic vision, not commercial utility. Some have membership dues; some have work requirements; they have a variety of different governance structures; but at their core, the basic premise is always the same: “we are organizing a community around a shared vision of art and whimsy that we can give to the community. Do you want to be part of it?”
In that sense, the more you can make your art project like a theme camp that anyone can join, the more Decommodified it is likely to become. Don’t think of it as a single project, think of it as a guild to teach people how to do this kind of thing and then support their vision of art in the world, too.
That may be the gold standard, but there are other ways to decommodify art projects by creating more opportunities for Participation and Communal Effort.
If there’s not enough room on your project for more people to usefully help, can you offer to help other people do versions of your project? Or is there a way you can extend your project if people are willing to help out?
Can they make art about your art project? Create stickers, images, videos, memes, poems, essays about what you’re doing? (This already happens in many commercial projects, but that’s always unauthorized, and the way fan art is treated in our culture is much closer to “fans seizing the means of production” than it is “participating in the project.” Can we do better?)
Participation can take so many forms — the important thing is that it’s active, not passive; connecting (and therefore communal), not isolating; and productive, not consumption.
More generally: it works if it does not look to money and consumption for permission.
It’s not universally true, but it’s mostly true, that when you decommodify permission you also decommodify everything around it.
Cover image of Thunderdome (Photo by Mark Nixon)