The Arts, The Work and the Gift Economy

Hi. This is Andy here. Jeremy’s been hassling me to write something, since I’ve been essentially MIA for a few months. Here’s some loosely aggregated thoughts we’ve been kicking around….

There’s been a lot of talk lately about supply and demand, trying to place market economic models on the arts. Which is all well and good except for the fact that the performing arts don’t exist in a barter or mercantile economy, they exist in a gift economy which has very different customs, rules and regulations. Until we start thinking about arts funding in terms of a gift economy, we can’t really start addressing the problems.

As a gift economy, the arts are predicated on the idea – and this is something I believe – that there is social benefit to the enterprise. Support of the arts is a form of altruism in the best of circumstances or a way of conveying social status in less ideal scenarios. Still, that status is conveyed by the fact that in supporting the arts one is “doing good.” Part of the reason that we see conservative states cutting arts funding is that conservative politicians fundamentally reject the notion that the arts is a socially valuable enterprise.

It is helpful then to look at the arts through sociological rather than economic models; to understand the arts as an organic ecosystem that evolves, grows and changes along with society as a whole. The arts is not a singular, monolithic entity, nor is it a commodity. The performing arts in particular is not about the creation of objects for sale in a marketplace – it is about human beings creating meaningful, transformative experiences for other human beings. Ideally there is some positive social function to this endeavor – the performing arts as a laboratory for lived experience that somehow makes us more expansive and compassionate, more aware and more conscious. It is predicated on the notion that the examined life is valuable. The arts is a means of cultural enrichment, lifting us beyond the mere struggle of existence and into a realm of considered, thoughtful presence in the world: increasing interconnectedness, compassion, awareness and communication.

If we accept that the arts are not mercantile in nature, then we no longer can usefully apply ideas like supply and demand, especially since you can’t regulate supply of the arts. Artists’ creative impulses aren’t going to be stopped by the seeming overabundance of work. And artists are going to continue to make work regardless of whether they get paid or not. That’s the nature of being an artist – you have something to say, you have something you need to communicate about the world and your place in it, and it needs to be articulated. Art is going to continue to be created whether or not it is subsidized. And as much as it would be great if all artists could make a living from their art, history suggests that this is rarely the case.

The question when it comes to funding isn’t about supply and demand, it is about gatekeeping – who gets to decide which work is supported institutionally and through grants and whose work is deemed important enough to warrant resources. This is where the conversation becomes difficult. Because funding structures are complicated, institutional structures are complicated and there is no assurance that those decision-making processes are going to be transparent. And because there are going to be winners and losers.

As far as gatekeepers go – curators and funders are just people. They have likes and dislikes, both aesthetically and interpersonally, and as such are subject to taste, fashion and ideological sway. Funders’ money comes from the corporate world and most large funders operate like large corporations – they emulate the organizational processes of big business. In some ways this is an advantage – they are capable of developing long-term strategies for amassing and distributing capital that allow the artistic infrastructure to survive through good times and bad. In some ways this is bad – large funders are not necessarily nimble enough to respond to changes in the artistic landscape quickly. They are also frequently risk-averse, seeking to fund that which is already known. The artistic gatekeepers are those people on the arts side who are capable of developing trusted relationships with funders, “taste consultants” that insure that resources are going to viable projects that will serve funders’ strategic goals.

To my mind this is where the ideals of the gift economy come into conflict with the reality of logistics and business management. The day to day process of arts administration and funding is so time-consuming and complicated that it is easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. What is the social good we are all working for? What are the ideological underpinnings that determine merit for funding? What are the long-term strategic goals of arts institutions and funders? Who influences the gatekeepers? What conversations are they having that inform their choices of who to fund and why?Why aren’t we discussing the role of the arts in creating a better society, what does that society look like and why should we even bother?

Communication between gatekeepers and artists seems to have broken down. We have lots of discussions about the logistics of how to find funding, how artists can be more entrepreneurial, etc. But funders and curators could do a much better job of articulating their vision for the arts landscape – how they see their role in fostering the entire ecology. Artists often make work according to some inner vision but if funders and curators are the stewards of the entire system, then we need to have a better sense of how that system should be working under optimal circumstances. It is not just about money but about systemic, ecological health. And the stewards of that system should be able to build models of a healthy system that fulfill the positive social value and promise of the arts.

One question we all can and should be asking is WHAT MAKES GOOD WORK GOOD? A healthy arts infrastructure doesn’t meaning supporting ALL artists at ALL levels. It means supporting the petri-dish level in one way and then continuing artist support as they develop along the path – it means identifying and supporting good artists who are making important work. One of the problems is that few of the gatekeepers actually articulate the criteria for what they think is good. From an artist’s perspective it can seem more like a popularity game or an essay-writing game than predicated on actual merit.

So it would be incredibly useful if gatekeepers could actually speak articulately, openly and candidly about why they choose what they choose and how that fits into the larger arts ecology.

But let’s talk about the work for a minute. What distinguishes really good work? First off, I’d posit that it is important to actually have something to say. Not everyone agrees with me on this count, but personally I’m attracted to work that speaks to something outside of itself, that resonates with something in the larger world. I really enjoy work that feels important and vital, where the artist has honed in on a particular viewpoint or idea and is relentless in the pursuit of its articulation. I like work that feels urgent, that speaks to something we all know but maybe didn’t realize we knew. That’s just my taste. Some people like work that is speculative, abstract and unemotional. That’s okay – its just not my taste.

Another aspect of good work is rigor. Regardless of the level of passion in the work, one should expect a level of rigor in the performance and the investigation. I was recently watching a series of work samples from different artists for a panel and it was immediately evident when an artist was rigorous in their practice. It doesn’t necessarily refer to precision, though that can be evidence of rigor. Rather it is the conceptual unification of the piece – an awareness that every word, every gesture, has meaning and the artist has taken the time to insure that the meaning is served in every moment of the piece. Sometimes I will see a piece that doesn’t resonate with me emotionally but I can see the rigor and attention to detail in the work and I can appreciate that intellectually.

Good work also has intentionality. There is a desired effect or message which is being served in every aspect of the piece. There is nothing extraneous or distracting – there is an aesthetic wholeness to the piece that informs the audience, that directs their attention and thought processes.

Good work is not predicated on subject matter. A healthy arts ecology is like a healthy democracy – it should reflect a multiplicity of ideas. Creative freedom is intrinsically linked with personal and political freedom and the more dynamic the arts landscape the healthier we are as a society. We need to support living artists who are creating work NOW, not just repertory companies, ballets and symphonies who offer presentations of work by dead artists.

The system is dysfunctional not because of the lack of funding or the misallocation of resources but because we, as a field, have fundamentally lost sight of why we do what we do in the first place. In a gift economy the entire enterprise rests on social benefit. We have to keep that in mind and make the argument over and over and over again. And we need to believe in it. If we don’t believe that there is some socially redeeming value to the arts then we might as well pack it in. The arts is not a marketplace for entertainment product, we are tasked with something much higher and more important than that. We are engaged in building a better world through the belief in the power of the human imagination. We are responsible for celebrating what is possible when we support the creative visionaries and unique talents among us, when we allow the artists to unleash their imaginations and show us the way.

6 thoughts on “The Arts, The Work and the Gift Economy”

  1. jenabrams says:

    Andy, thank you so much for this. Really smart and useful.

    Regarding the issue of criteria for funding and what makes good work, I wonder if there is some way to get a few funders (who make grants directly and not via a panel) to respond. I wonder if this is what they think they're doing.

    Regarding the issue of the gift economy – I think the point you make is salient, I just want to point out that there are other kinds of gift economies. A gift economy can be any relatively defined, long-lasting group of people who help each other out in general anticipation that what goes around comes around.

    I think the arts community could benefit from thinking more expansively about these kinds of economic models, and finding solutions that are better suited to the nature of what we're doing. You're pointing out a tension that is inherent in a market economy. Are there ways to sidestep that entirely? Are there ways that we can invest in each other through mutual support rather than competing with each other for scarce resources? (Obviously I have a dog in that fight 🙂 ).

    My two cents. Thanks again for a provocative article.

  2. smaxfield says:

    Thanks for this post, Andy. I've been thinking and writing a lot lately about these issues. Recently, I've also been thinking that this same idea applies (or should) to politics and other forms of public service. The founding leaders of our country were not professional politicians. They were people who had other jobs (farmers, bankers, journalists, etc.), yet they dedicated a portion of their valuable time to public service. Over time, in America, our cultural narrative has evolved to a widely held belief that only when a person is paid (and paid well) for what they do does that work count. This has in many ways destroyed the integrity of our public service sector, which includes the arts, government, education, fundamental health and housing services, child care, elder care, etc. I think as artists, we can lead the way back to a healthy public sector, by voicing the value of participation in these gift economies.

  3. Annie Dorsen says:

    Andy, I'm wondering very much about this idea of the gift economy. (your piece is very well-written as always, by the way.) But it seems to me there are several questions raised. For example, the number of artists as a percentage of labor force has increased dramatically in the last two decades. What does this do to the claim that art production is not implicated in the so-called "law" of supply and demand? Put another way, when you write that "artists are going to continue to make work regardless of whether they get paid or not," I think you ignore several forces, maybe even the key forces, that incentivize artists to make work. There may be artists who are driven by their own internal creative urges (whatever that means) entirely independent of market forces, but I never met one. And there may be artists who work solely for money, but I never met one of those either.

    I'm talking about cultural capital, symbolic value, immaterial commodities, etc etc, however you like to put it. It seems to me that rather than try to remove artistic production from our discussions of the market, we should be trying to understand more clearly the particular place/function of artistic production within the market.

    I'm also somehow uncomfortable with the idea that the rock-bottom purpose of art is "social good." Mostly because I have absolutely no idea what "social good" is, whether your idea of it has anything to do with my idea of it, and so on, and I would certainly be totally stumped if asked to make a piece that was supposed to increase it.

    (I could make a joke here about how I'm an artist because in late capitalism art-making is a high-status job for a well-educated middle-class woman that doesn't require a PhD. It allows me mobility unimaginable for previous generations, autonomy to an extent almost unthinkable in this neo-lib economy, and a way to spend my life researching the things that make me curious and sharing them with others. In short, a life of extreme privilege that has nothing to do with a high income.)

    To finish up these somehow scattered notes, I am wary of any analysis that appeals to shared values — i.e. generosity, cooperation or social good, etc. Because those values are also of course produced by and defined by the marketplace, but also for one other reason which I'll take just a few more sentences to try to formulate.

    When we agree that the justification for artistic production is social benefit, we capitulate to an instrumentalism of our work – albeit a somewhat unmeasurable and abstract instrumentalism. I would not like to apply for a grant or try to sell a piece on the grounds that it produces "social benefit." Nor would I like critics, audiences or fellow artists to use "social benefit" as a criteria for their discussion of my work. How could anyone judge this? It brings us back to the question: what kind of social benefit are we talking about? We very quickly admit ideology in through the back door. And I think there we find a big mess.

    Thanks, Andy, for writing this. Was great to be provoked a bit, it's precisely the conversation we should be having.
    xo Annie

  4. culturebot says:

    Hey Annie –

    Thanks for the thoughtful response! When I talk about "social good" I don't mean that artists should only make work with positive social impact or to say that the only justification for the creation of art should be for the betterment of society in some kind of clear, material or moralistic way. I am saying – or trying to say – that I believe that a healthy, democratic society should foster dialogue, freedom of expression, enlightened inquiry and intellectual progress.

    In my mind, one of the hallmarks of a healthy society is an active, engaged and relevant artistic ecology. I don't see "social benefit" as a benchmark for analyzing or evaluating the quality of work-in-itself, but I think the "value" of artistic production in a free society resides in its ability to foster the free exchange of ideas.

    The visual arts creates objects to which monetary value is assigned, the performing arts creates experiences that are harder to quantify in dollars and cents. There is value in analyzing the economies of arts production, but when we talk about what the value of the actual "product" in economic terms, I think that's really a slippery slope – and that's what I'm reacting against. I suppose one could say it is the creation of intellectual property that can be commodified and repackaged as product – that there is the creation of something that can be bought and sold in a marketplace. But I don't think the creation of art needs to be justified in terms either social or commercial.

    I think what I'm trying to get at is that the pursuit of art for art's sake, the inquiry and investigations of creative endeavor, are valuable in and of themselves, that they provide "social good" in the sense of fostering an intellectually engaged and open society.

    Of course I can't even begin to tackle the issue of privilege and access here – but I think that one of the failings of our system is its elitism. Access to resources and creative legitimization is often limited to those people who already have the resources to attend elite universities, who create work that appeals to grant panels composed of other people from within the elite system. In that sense the ability to create or participate in "art for art's sake" is completely inaccessible to many.

    In terms of what motivates artists – I am sure it is as ambiguous and multifaceted as people themselves. However if you're looking to make money, as a general rule, the performing arts ain't the way to make it. Many of the artists I know are, in fact, motivated by some inner drive to express something and often spend a lot of their own money to make it. If they waited for grants or outside funding they'd be waiting a long, long time.

    I disagree with you that values are defined by the marketplace. I think that's what late Capitalism would have us believe – that everything is a response to the market. I just can't accept that, personally. It is too relativistic and venal. I don't believe that everything – and everyone – is a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand. This is just me – I'm not trying to make any vast statement about the world at large, just my own belief that there are things in the world more important than buying and selling. I'm not a huge fan of ruthless, conscienceless corporate capitalism and I cling to the outmoded notion that there are values that transcend the material.

    But I could just be on glue.


    1. Annie Dorsen says:

      nah, you're not on glue. at least i don't think so…
      i think perhaps the key part of your reply to my reply is when you say you are responding to those who try to justify art-making by virtue of its contribution to local economies, and so on. In other words (if i understand correctly) at a certain post-9/11 moment arts advocates began making the case for the arts on the basis of the benefit to "revitalized" downtowns, boons to local restaurants and hotels etc etc – and it's THIS trend that you are critiquing.

      I'm of course coming from a totally other perspective, a NYC artist who knows well both the downtown and uptown scenes, and has lately started making work in europe. (where there is also a super fucked up situation, but with a somewhat different economy and discourse.)

      I'm no fan of the continuing commodification of all life as we know it – so when I say that we need to understand artistic production as operating very much within the market, I'm not being boosterish. Ha! I'm more trying to be clear-eyed about how things work…I mean, it would be an amazingly good trick if we could find a way to detach art-making from the market. There are several quite precise experiments in that direction, and generally the various trends towards non-product oriented artistic production (everything from old-news relational work in visual art to the equally old-news fetishism of "research" in the performing arts) are basically all about this. But of course what we find is that most of these efforts have the unintended consequence of opening new and more and more abstract kinds of products/labor to the same market forces artists were trying to destabilize.

      You know, one can justify artistic production on the grounds that it drives gentrification, or on the grounds that it promotes good values (i.e. "healthy dialogue in a free and open democratic society"). To which i would say: Yikes to both!

      Because I'm reading Lacan at the moment, I will give him the last depressing word: "I won't say that even the slightest little gesture to eliminate something bad might open the way to something still worse — it ALWAYS leads to something worse."


  5. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    First off, I have to say that, as per usual, this conversation is so big it's hard to make simple summations for arguments. I think overall its important, and I have to admit, Annie, that I had some of the same qualms about what Andy has to say that you did. However, I think there's a big difference between the FINISHED PRODUCT and the WORK that goes into making it. Andy's point is most salient with regard to thinking about how we value the work of art, and he's starting from the perspective (and I think he's right) that we often lose sight of the value or lack thereof, depending on the piece, by concentrating so heavily on the practical realities of making work. This leads to arts people making big claims about this and that, because from inside the arts, we don't usually go around acting as though we should be telling this person or that person to stop because we don't value the work they're making. Instead, we just sort of dust the end product under the carpet and have big conversations about "the Arts" or the "Performing Arts," as though a LORT theater in the MidWest doing a production of "You Can't Take It With You" is fundamentally in the same field, creating some sort of complementary product to, say, "Hello Hi There."

    That said, I still don't see any value in talking about supply/demand in terms of experimental or non-risk-averse performance work. I mean, let's face facts: the demand is damn near zero. ALL work in this sphere is subsidized, because likely if it wasn't, and had to actually be made up through ticket sales, you couldn't see enough at the price you'd have to charge to make up the cost. So in the end, we're always creating an "over-supply," and it's only artists telling themselves lies of consolation ("If only people knew about my work we'd totally sell out an extended run!") that supposes that any amount of audience development is going to shift the economics.

    And that's ok. I don't want to see the experimental space given over more than it already is to finding audiences. Some of the most important work plays to very small–but often ultimately important–audiences. Most Broadway playwrights don't go into it wanting to be Neil Simon, most filmmakers aren't hoping to be the next John Hughes. Those aren't the drivers of innovation which does ultimately spiral out into the more popular arts and entertainment, as well as the larger social discourse. So insulating the space and creating opportunities for taking real risks is crucial, and that's always, inherently over-supplying a good. No market mechanism actually exists to determine how much of this sort of work should be made. And that's why I do think we need to discuss the end-product as a function of talking about support, compensation, programming, etc. In this sphere–this entire economy and ecology, or whatever you want to call it–exists for the purpose of advancing the arts, not the artists.

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