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.

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