Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Sorting Through the Muddled Politics of the Gift : Open Thread

I have no idea whether any of this makes sense...I feel like I'm writing in circles...still, I'll put it out there if only as fresh meat for you to shred and hopefully for me to learn.

When Jen and Bill first started talking with me about their plans for #class, they framed their thinking in terms of the queasiness many people feel about that place between the view of art as a "gift" (as in "gift to mankind" a la Lewis Hyde) and art as a "commodity." Reconciling those two views would appear, for many people, to require a fair dose of what Sloterdijk called "enlightened false consciousness," but to be honest, I kind of consider that resulting anxiety a self-absorbed indulgence.

To me, before it's anything else at all, art is a product of work. It an unusual type of product in that, if done well, it can generate among its viewers an astonishing range of emotions (from awe to inspiration to desire to possess [think Smeagol] ), but it is something the person who produced it owns until he/she gives it away or sells it or destroys it. Like anything any human can create.

The declared status of "gift" (as in "gift to humanity") that art objects can attain is not unidirectional. Meaning it's not only the artist's decision as to whether that status is bestowed on their work. It is also (in my opinion) based on the art's ability to generate awe or inspiration or desire to possess among others.

Now, I know this gets messy when you consider the desire among some artists to put their work out there for the world to enjoy for free or at very little cost. That's great so long as it's worth anyone's time, but it's worse than litter when it's not. It demands your attention [unlike litter] but doesn't provide awe or inspiration. In other words, the desire on the part of the artist to subject the rest of us to the work isn't what makes it a "gift" either.

Indeed, if an artist makes an object and no one wants it, I'm sorry to say, I don't know that you can call it (at that time) a bona fide "gift." Of course, if an artist creates something than none of his/her contemporaries value, that doesn't mean future generations won't. And so, whether an object is a "gift" to humanity or not is place/time-determined and subjective. Such views can and do change over history.

This being the case, the only unassailable constant, it seems to me, is that an art object is a product of work. Therefore, the queasiness over the "commodity" issue seems to be a by-product of an anxiety among those who feel the object is a "gift" over whether or not the object is viewed as a "gift" by others, and fretting over whether others agree with your position is a self-absorbed indulgence.

Personally, I feel the "gift" status of an art object is mostly independent of its "commodity" status. People will pay untold hundreds of thousands of dollars for "antiques" that were considered totally disposable when first made. What we're willing to pay money for is based on desire to own, which is one of the contributors to the "gift" status for art, but not the only. Treating art as a commodity says nothing more about the object than people wish to own it and that its current owner (whether artist or collector) is willing to oblige them in return for something of agreed-upon equal value. I can't see how this changes its ability to awe or inspire at all. Therefore, I can't see how there's anything to invoke queasiness over the duality of some art as both a gift and a commodity.

Related: The issue of giving and philanthropy in the art world gets a reality check in this New York Times profile of Eli Broad. Well worth a read.

Labels: art appreciation, open thread


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to attend. This show has so much potential, can't wait to see it met.

----ondine nyc

2/09/2010 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger words in a line said...

"Indeed, if an artist makes an object and no one wants it, I'm sorry to say, I don't know that you can call it (at that time) a bona fide "gift." "
I believe J. R. R. Tolkein had a name for this kind of gift. He called it "mathom" for the stuff people give each other that fills no need.

2/09/2010 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger joy said...

great post Ed -- am putting on my syllabus for my 'open source + art' class, for when we dive into Lewis Hyde. :-)

2/09/2010 12:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Queasiness over the commodity issue ...
I think this queasiness is tied up in our attitude that the value of art lies in the artists intent. If the artist is motivated by market forces, then their intent is perceived as "contanimated". Possibly we see this as being contanimated because art to me, appears to work like play does. It is a "evolutionary" strategy where we use a suspended reality to learn something of our world or our paradigms of this world. We stand outside the quotidian in order to see our everyday reality. If we can't accept art in a similar attitude as play (because it isn't spontaneous as it was done for commercial reasons), then we can't as aficionados allow free rein to our imagination to discover whatever we can there.

We need to see art in the same way as we as a society use play, to suspend reality and discover with our imaginations and creativity. Maybe this is why when commodity forces intrude, we get huffy, it makes it harder to perceive the source of the art as in the spirit of play and so we a reluctant to regard it in that openness of spirit.

I'm not saying play equals art, I am wondering though if we learn of the world in similar fashions in both contexts. Suspending reality and moving freely to arrive at whatever conclusions we may of the world.

2/09/2010 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

"... the only unassailable constant ... is that an art object is a product of work."

This reminds me of that old saying, "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration." Which is true as far as learning your craft goes. But looking at my finished pieces, I know they're not the result of work anywhere near as much as they're the result of play and discovery. They're neither gifts nor commodities by nature (those are just means for sending them out into the world), but rather exist as invitations to others to join in on my play and discovery - using their eyes.

2/09/2010 01:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Any artwork has the potential to become gift or commodity depending in which hands it falls and who or what controls the artwork's destiny.

In fact, it is beyond the artist's intention. Moreover, artist's intention can easily lead to non-art if the consensus rejects the artistic potential of a production.

And the artist's intention is only available for a while. A lot of art lasts longer than intention, and that's only because other intentions than the artist's
are at play.

Cedric C

2/09/2010 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Jen Dalton said...

What I got out of Lewis Hyde's book that (among other things) I wanted to explore in #class, is not that art is a "gift" as in "gift to humanity" (though I believe it often is).

Rather, it's that art is a "gift" in that what is most crucial about art exists outside the marketplace and can be experienced without participating in the market. We can experience and even consume art without owning it. When we are in the presence of art that moves us, we feel as though we received a gift from the artist. We may even feel that we are in the artist's debt. How we artists and art-lovers reconcile that sacred feeling with the profane concerns of money and ambition is one of the things I would like to examine.

2/09/2010 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I guess I don't understand the assertion that the so-called profane concerns of money can change what occurs outside the marketplace.

Do you know what the first person who bought Guernica paid for it? Does it influence how you feel about that painting?

2/09/2010 02:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Jen Dalton said...

If I substituted "terrestrial" for the more loaded word "profane" would that help, Ed?

And it would change how we all feel very much if that first person who bought Guernica had holed it away in his basement or destroyed it (which he had every right to do with his own property) rather than allowing its gift to continue to reach other people.

2/09/2010 03:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I see this as pre-show jitters. That's when I read between the lines (because if I read it literally I get quite confused, lost and want to rant on some assumptions). Giving up the gallery space (even if only symbolically) during the height of the Art Fairs must be nerve-racking. I look forward to the forums it could provide and the opportunity for exchange among artists, maybe that will extend to touch collectors and viewers too, but maybe not. Will the art in it be a commercial success? Tough call. It may fall on either side of a divide between message and product or at best the product becomes the message.
Gift? I have never considered the term "gift" in relation to a work of art. I'm trying to give it consideration based on the earnestness of which Mr. Winkleman is using it here. I much more see art as that energy bubbling below within the artist and being forged and shaped by experience and reality. Some can suppress it and some cannot. There is perhaps a closeness to sexuality in how I am expressing it here and I hope it does not come across as too masculine. I can see "gift" in the sense that art, as in individual pieces of art is not exactly asked for; it comes best as a surprise. So to the collector, dealer, and viewer it may seem to be a gift. To the artist (speaking from my own personal perspective) it is a natural form of expressing, like speech, or like song. There are numerous other courses a person can take in life and many find themselves in the artist route, and I don't think it is a fully conscious choice (invoke destiny if you like). In terms of indulgence: it's all indulgence. The artist indulges in his or her craft and the dealer indulges in his or her preference. How can that reconcile with destiny?- We (humankind of privilege) have developed to such a degree as to meet our most basic needs yet we require more.

"Do you know what the first person who bought Guernica paid for it? Does it influence how you feel about that painting?"
The Spanish Republican government commissioned Guernica, not one person. It remains owned by Spain. The commissioners help add meaning to the work in my mind- who else but those who suffered under tyranny would commission a cry against it.

2/09/2010 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I like Jen's interpretation. Art has to be alive outside of the marketplace, it has to possess the ability to engage and enthrall the audience first, before it has a chance of becoming a commodity. The initial audience will be small and receive this 'gift of experience' from the artist. When the artwork enters into the culture it becomes a commodity as acknowledgment of its acceptance as a gift.

The commodification process confers monetary value onto the artworks cultural worth (as a gift of experience) at the time of the transaction. Other factors influence the monetary value but it starts with the artwork being seen as possessing aesthetic worth, the gift of experience, initially or it will fail in the marketplace.

This is a really messy topic because it involves a number of factors simultaneously, any one which can shift the equation markedly.

2/09/2010 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger joy said...

If we are to speak in terms of goods == property -- we can say that art is quite wonderfully weird, as it is at once excludable (an object that can be bought or sold -- owned -- the owner thereby preventing others from owning it by owning it himself) and non-excludable (you don't have to own it to experience it, which is to "own" in the most important sense. Indeed, in the real sense of ownership. Its the experience of a work of art that we each own, each of us slightly differently if we are to believe in Duchamp's adage, and we do that outside the marketplace (a la Jen's comment).

2/09/2010 05:29:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

as art goes it is a gift the artist receives from the ultimate source, the manifestation of our participation in divinity.

the detritus that remains can communicate that experience as a text, one the viewer can read if they are literate in the language it is written in.

2/09/2010 06:58:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Unfortunately, I'm afraid all the pre-show ( it didn't start out as a "show" did it?) buzz is subtly changing the direction of the original intent of the "project". Having just spent last Sunday perusing the Outsiders Art Fair, I know there are folks out there who make art for many reasons having nothing to do with the marked. You can see as soon as they start trying to turn their "thing" into a commodity it looses its mojo. Perhaps it's time to lower the expectation bar. Lets wait and see what actually happens when it happens.

2/09/2010 08:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Thanks for your insight and wisdom you provided in your post, Edward. I especially appreciate your final paragraph.

Regarding the related article in the NY Times, with the profile of Eli Broad, I found it intriguing in part, but also biased. Ms. Steinhauer interviewed his critics, which is to be expected, but their comments about Broad revealed a whining and unappreciative stance. Yes, the 6 million he may have owed is significant, but when compared to the 44 million already paid by Broad, I think this is a cheap shot at Broad's integrity. As to Broad's possible micro-managing of the LACMA logistics, the specifics mentioned were not convincing. Broad's concern about weather stripping and the placement of temp controls is a significant issue -- whether dealing with moderately-priced pieces, or multi-million dollar collections.

All in all, Steinhauer's choice of which critics to interview for this profile read like a dramatic and imbalanced moan, against a generous man, and the city of Los Angeles.

2/09/2010 09:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I see the problematic that Jen raises as an artist's dilemna.

Most artists try to compromise between commodity and gift. In the context of a commercial gallery, there isn't even a choice. You have bills to pay (#class is not a project you expect to find in a commercial gallery, so that says about how much a context like the art market creates expectations about productivity).

I think you have many artists who both want a rich collector to buy their work, but then also have them show the work in a museum, or receive an invitation in a museum or biennial to work on a special project that isn't about making a sellable product.

The issue might be highly sensitive for an artist where a dealer might not see it important or relevant. And neither a collector.

Cedric C

2/10/2010 04:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Nic Rad said...

I'm mad for this discussion and humbled to be participating in #class. This blog has fed me, freely, for years. Whether the contribution of my efforts is a gift, or it is intellectual litter, fits into the category of artistic risk-- not to be confused with actual risk. I applaud Ed for the actual risk; and for having the courage to host William and Jen's project.

To that end, my official contribution is on another topic. But I'd like to hazard a few thoughts towards this one:

In November I painted and gave away 99 personally "rebranded" copies of Lewis Hyde's 'The Gift.' Was it benevolent? Was I co-opting his ideas? Did I benefit? Was I desperate for attention and conversation? Yes, in all cases. Desperation is misery eloped with desire. It is entirely an indulgent state when we are not discussing basic needs.

There's a short video of this gift project here.

I don't think desperation is a inherently bad motivator for an individual artist. That would seem to involve a separate discussion about personal ethics and morals. Art is not moral. It is not ethical. In many cases, I believe, it serves to affront both.

Ed made a very excellent point: "I feel the "gift" status of an art object is mostly independent of its "commodity" status."

Here is a bit from Lewis Hyde discussing the scientific community, original research, and the marketplace:

"Free-market ideology addresses itself to the freedom of individuals, and from the point of view of the individual there often is a connection between freedom and commodities. But the story changes when approached from the point of view of the group...
when all ideas carry a price, then all discussion, the cognition of the group mind, must be conducted through the mechanisms of the market which--in this case, at least--is a very inefficient way to hold a discussion. Ideas do not circulate freely when they are treated as commodities."

I believe this is the something of the point Ed and Jen were debating on Guernica.

So the question is: do you think the art marketplace as it exists encourages or inhibits valuable conversations to take place culturally? Could it be more efficient? Can an open call for thinking, drawing, writing, blogging, possibly over educated urbanites, actually 'effect change?'

I do not know the answer to this. I have my suspicions. Here is the problem with aggressive pragmatism: all is reasonable, all is horrid--all at once.

2/10/2010 04:46:00 AM  
Blogger HMNA said...

The commodity part of art reminds me once of when a company I was working for whom collects art regularly had bought a painting by an artist I really liked, It was up in the lobby for about 2 months then as I was leaving through the warehouse area to get to my car I saw a maintenance man wheeling it on a cart with a tag on it back into the vault where they keep their collection.

It made me sad because A) I like the piece B) I think about all the great works that are bought up and stored away for only a few eyes to ever see.

Its the disconnect between the visual art object and something like writing that can be shared so easily.

2/10/2010 06:42:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

Maybe the word Jen was looking for is 'mundane'? The money part is mundane, while the experience of art is not so earth-bound.

The thing that I took away from Hyde is that we need to balance the gift and the commodity. He makes a great example of buying a wrench in a harware store: you pay with money and hence you are free from any further obligation to the hardware store owner. In a pure gift economy you might have to enter instead into an hours-long conversation about his family, or worse, invite him over to dinner in exchange. A relationship with multiple threads of obligation is born. A cash exchange, in this case, means freedom from all that.

So interesting to apply that line of thinking to an artwork. Once viewed, a relationship is born.

As tipped toward the commodity as our society is, we still treat art differently: we need it to be bivalent.

2/10/2010 08:48:00 AM  
Blogger Zachary Adam Cohen said...

Somewhere between Free and diamond skulls, lies the answers we are seeking but can never really find.

What i took away from Hyde's idea of the Gift, or at least one of his ideas, was that a gift was something that was given without specific remuneration expected. But that doesn't mean it was free. Accepting a gift from someone leaves you in their and the COMMUNITIES debt. You've got to share knowledge, money or the actual peace pipe with someone or something else. It all circles back. This tribe gives to that, and they in turn pass it to another. Maybe the gift comes back, or maybe not. But the power is passed. And that is what binds the communities together.

The reason this issue has now come to the fore in such a way as #class is that its clear the market is not sustainable. Artists lose, galleries lose, collectors lose, consultants lose, art loves loser, critics lose, journalists lose, and perhaps most important the next generation of artists REALLY lose.

So it is incumbent upon those that want to remake, that want to tear down, or repair, or do all of the above, to begin taking serious steps, taking the risks, leaping off the cliff, committing career suicide. Drastic measures are needed. Are we talking collective? Are we talking about finding a new sustainable system? Are we talking about a new breed of dealers, artists, collectors, critics, journalists, lovers, institutions that literally stand up and say NO MORE. "we won't participate in this lottery system that degrades us all"

oooh ive got the chills. also im bringing a gun to #class

2/10/2010 01:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally I thought one of the beauties of Lewis Hyde's book was the way he reconciled art as a gift with art as commodity. Perhaps what I am getting at is exemplified by the older title of the book, "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property."
Hyde also talks about the fact that not all gifts are welcomed by the receiver. Despite that, an unwelcome gift is still a gift, just as bad art is still art. (the dilemma of finding a non-qualitative definition)
Its a pity I don't have a copy in front of me to find more concrete examples, but I remember coming away from that book feeling some kind of resolution about being able to find meaning and purpose in the creative process without being overly burdened by worrying about the way the objects of the creative process circulated in commerce.
Perhaps that is what Jen Dalton means by being able to participate in the gift without participating in the market? True enough, but I still think buying art is an important way to support art, and everyone who loves art should be doing it. That's just the reality of our modern world, artists need support!

2/10/2010 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger Ben Gage said...

"..art object is a product of work." An artist is like a lawyer or doctor. It's a practice, sometimes good, real good, or not so good. We all have been to the doctors/ lawyers or heard stories about their trades and understand what a practice means. For the artist, ART is the reward of our practice however/ whenever it happens, not everything we make is Art.

2/10/2010 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

also im bringing a gun to #class

Meet Igor...he's the 6'-7", 300-pound, ex-KGB agent I've hired as bouncer for #class...he's looking forward to your pending cavity search, Zach


2/10/2010 02:31:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

An artist is like a lawyer or doctor...

Not quite.

2/11/2010 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Zachary Adam Cohen said...

i'll make sure to wax

2/13/2010 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous -krasicki said...

Like others here, I have never viewed my art as a gift and, quite frankly, don't know any artists who do. So I find the discussion to be a false choice.

Nor do I understand the sustainability argument. Art is going to be bought and sold no matter what any of us think. Art is a commodity.

And one can wrap themselves around a circular logic than results from thinking about art as a gift, art isn't a gift unless it's an, um, *gift*.

The confusion seems to be that we have to assume that artist's operate in a cloud of hubris and assume every bead of sweat poured into the thing of art is an epiphany to a viewer. It can be but not often.

The larger issue seems to the ribbon and not the gift. The art community has grown exponentially while truly worthwhile art remains scarce. And so all of us emerging artist's would like to break free of the ribbons that tie us down and bind us to galleries and provincial ideas and sewers of empty vision. But to mistake our work as a result of those bindings is a mistake.

- Frank Krasicki

2/15/2010 10:06:00 PM  
Anonymous marco said...

I think you're trying to sum up something Marx wrote about.

Marx analysed the "commodity" in terms of 'USE VALUE' and 'EXCHANGE VALUE'. use value was defined by the use and enjoyment of a commodity in everyday life, where as exchange value was defined by its worth in the market.

3/17/2010 08:15:00 AM  

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