The three spheres of artistic gift exchange. Tobias Sternberg, Berlin June 2013.
I will start with a reference to a book I got recommended, which initiated the thought process I map out in this text; Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, by David Graeber. In it (page 44, and also in another book by the same author, Debt -The first 5000 Years, page 146) he describes how in certain tribal societies which use systems of gift exchange instead of money, something like several spheres of value, which are not interchangeable, exist. Typically, the lowest sphere consists of foodstuff and everyday necessities that everyone needs but that they could also produce themselves if they really had to. Exchanging gifts of these kinds of things levels out temporary shortages or over-supply among the different households, swaps shoes for potatoes etc., but maybe even more importantly, creates social interaction and ties at an everyday inter-community level. The second sphere is of prestigious items that lack practical value but that counts heavily in establishing your reputation among peers. In the famous example of the African Tiv, this would be bundles of brass rods or tugudu cloth, which could be used for trading expensive luxury items but were mostly part of political deals, paying for magic or cures and for gaining entrance in secret societies. The third sphere, which intuitively feels most strange to us, is mainly there for trading wives between the villages, but can also be used to settle blood debts. If this sphere is seen as the kind of trade which we are used to in our society, we immediately interpret this as slavery, which wouldn’t be entirely correct. It should rather be seen as a system of ensuring the continuous habitation of all the villages of the tribe. In a society of small and distinct centres of population, where by custom the bride moves to the village of her husband, it becomes important to keep count of how many wives have moved between which population groups to ensure the balanced growth of all of them. The research of earlier anthropologists have shown that the exchange of goods between the three spheres is not done, so that one can never buy a wife with food, no matter how much food one enters into the bargain. What Graeber added in his Debt, the first 5000 Years, which made my mind make a leap and tentatively apply the same concept to the internal workings of the art game, is that even though one is on principle not meant to be able to trade between the three spheres, there always seems to be tricks with which those who dominate one sphere can translate that power into value in one of the other spheres. Those old men who hold a lot of fields and produce an abundance of necessities, can always find people in need who have brass rods or tugudu or political clout to trade, and with a surplus of political influence and prestige one can much easier influence how and when pawns for wives are exchanged, thus manipulating and taking control over a system that is put in place to guarantee that humans are never traded like goods.
The reason why I made this connection at all, to how the economy in the art world functions, when reading a text about gift exchange in pre-monetary societies, is a curiosity of the art market that differentiates it from other markets we are used to. Art works can be bought and sold, and continuously are, and monetary success is one of the markers of how important an artist is, but in total disparity with other markets there is no reliable way to invest money in making art that can then be sold for a profit. Of course, producing art costs money, and artists cannot work without some kind of basic economical security, but hiring an artist to produce work, or as an artist, investing the time and resources to produce work, is in no way similar to what an investor does when he buys land and hires workmen to build a house that he then hopes to sell or rent out at a profit. Both these kinds of investments can succeed or fail, but the rules that govern the outcome are utterly different. Let me expound my analogy on my own experience as an artist.
Like everyone else in this society, I need money to live. Rent, food, health insurance and other necessities cost money. This is the first, and lowliest sphere of artistic exchange. Note the suspicion with which money is regarded by the art community. It is seen as something necessary, but at the same time possibly corrupting, and above all something that if you were really a successful artist, you wouldn’t have to worry about. We all need it, artists often desperately, but this very need marks us as not belonging to the artistic aristocracy. The consensus within the art world that money alone cannot create or even guarantee real artistic value can also swing in the other direction. An art personality that is too obviously talked about and credited for his economical success will always be suspected of having tricked the system, and in reality being empty and false. One is supposed to earn ones money as a self-evident side effect of being an important artist, but the money should be neither the cause for or the drive behind this artistic greatness. Within this sphere one can trade one’s artworks for money, mostly mediated through a gallery, or getting paid artists fees for projects. Stipends and residencies also often contain elements of this sphere, but all these are mostly considered valuable for other reasons. Within the art economy, considered as a system of gift exchange, money is often seen as a supplementary resource that some few players happen to have access to, and that can be given to those who are both needy and worthy. Take for example the dean of the College, who directs a certain amount of the funds he controls (but doesn’t own) into the pockets of poor but talented artists by offering them rather comfortable teaching jobs, or the wealthy patron who awards a generous commission, or the gallerist that forwards money he has absolutely no guarantee of ever seeing again, or the director of the art institution who insists on always hiring young artists for all those small jobs around the institution, from invigilating to transporting and building exhibitions and let us not forget all the outreach and teaching positions around museums, instead of just getting the best applicant from the general public. Why Are Artists Poor? by Hans Abbing, is a great book full of examples and analyses elucidating the extraordinary relationship most artists have to money, also emphasizing that they are also expected to have a strange relationship to money.
The second sphere of gift exchange in the art game, involves what is considered important by its participants, and of which one can also talk freely without any risk of loosing prestige – opportunities. Taking part in the creation, fulfilment and distribution of opportunities is rather seen as one of the main activities of an artist or art world personality. The more opportunities one is offered, to exhibit, curate, write, travel, lecture etc. the more one displays how desired ones talent is, and how extensive and honoured one’s network is. The exchange of opportunities also mirror a traditional gift economy much more than the first sphere, in that recommendations, invitations and nominations are given without any outspoken expectations of reciprocity. Furthermore, the relationships that are established when one gives or receives opportunities carry a possibility of mutual gain in prestige, while purely economical exchanges at its best promises to be not blatantly taking advantage of one of the parties. Commerce is a game where one is always trying (or at least where one always should try) to get the best deal possible for oneself, always more or less on someone else’s back. Networking is a game which is best played by associating oneself to other successful individuals and institutions and promoting the mutual growth of the entire network. I always thought of this in relation to the petty competition that is sadly all too common in many art schools, about who is the most talented student and who gets most offers straight after College. When some fellow student of mine was jealous about what one of the class mates managed to achieve, I always thought, – Isn’t it much better for you if someone who you know fairly well and who also knows you, is getting ahead in the game, than if some complete stranger from some other College gets that opportunity? I believe there is often an element of friendly and supportive competition behind successful artists groups, like among the YBA of the nineties. However, opportunities are of course not only gained because of successful networking, but often because one has managed to create captivating artworks or run interesting projects and exhibitions. But the likelihood of someone noticing your talent is much greater if you have previously worked together, or passed something in their direction, or taken part in the same project, or recommended them for something, or any of the above but with some of their friends. A sign that passing opportunities in each other’s direction (or in the direction of each other’s friends) really is a currency in a system of gift exchange, is that even though it is often possible to get opportunities on the back of talent and hard work, one can also get them without, but then almost exclusively via networking channels. It is also so self evident that it hardly needs to be stated – opportunities cannot be bought. If you have to pay for a show, it is not a show but a vanity project, and everyone around you will consider it as such.
The third and most exclusive sphere of exchange is that of the very essence of cultural success, of recognition. Recognition, or fame, is a diffuse and mystical substance, a bit like the mana of Polynesian tribal societies, (as described by Marcel Mauss in, A General Theory of Magic, page 133-140). Some artists, or institutions, have recognition. It is not something they know or do, but rather what other people know and think about them. Just like mana it also rubs off. Working with a famous artist or institution gives yourself more recognition. On the other hand, showing bad judgement in choosing your collaborators can quickly flip over and drag you down. Recognition is in my view very consciously traded by the actors of the art game, but not explicitly like money is. An artist who is lucky enough to get offers of shows, teaching jobs, residencies, stipends etc. always makes a conscious judgement before accepting or rejecting the offer. – Is this offer suitable for me? This fuzzy question has a lot to do with practical considerations like money, time, further possibilities and more, but also very much with how you think accepting the offer will affect the way other players see you, i.e. how it will change your reputation. Exhibiting in a “good” gallery will increase your recognition, while exhibiting in a “bad” one will damage it, where “good” and “bad” has to be seen as completely relative values as compared to your own reputation. And how do you, as an artist, know if a gallery is “better” or “worse” than you? Simply by looking at which other artists have exhibited there. When an artist says something like, -I wasn’t sure I wanted to be associated with what that gallery represents, what he really means is, he thinks the other artists shown by the gallery are below his level. When an artist says that he was offered a show by a serious gallery, he means that they have shown artists of good repute. The coin flips the same way for galleries. An artist with a record of exhibitions in famous institutions will be more positively considered than one without. Showing an artist that no-one knows can of course be a long term hit if that artist turns out to become the new cool thing, but if not, and especially if the audience didn’t turn out in numbers, it might really dent the reputation of the gallery. This trading in reputation is a fairly transparent game, a bit like poker with open cards. Since the game is about associating yourself with institutions that associate themselves with artists that are better known than you, or at least on the same level, a strong subjective element in how you compare yourself to other artists will play in, but the facts about who has been showing where are by their very nature always out in the open.
One very important note on the trading of recognition. I am not saying that the ebb and flow of their recognition is the only, or even the most important, consideration for an artist choosing to accept or reject an offer. The monetary rewards, old friendships, the fear of falling behind, the joy of getting to do a creative project, sympathy for the institution, and much more probably play a considerably larger role in the decision making, but the trading within the third sphere will take place anyway. No matter why a famous artist puts on a show in an unknown, regional gallery, for old times sake, or love, or cash, or even out of rebellion against the rules of the art game, people will still wonder what on earth he is doing there, and the reputation of the gallery will invariably increase, no matter how good or bad the show was, just as future artists and audiences sees the famous name on their website. The trading on the third sphere is just one of the many factors influencing the choices of artists, but it is traded in a currency that cannot so easily be substituted for something else. You can’t just stick money in and get famous. There are certainly many clever things you could do with money that will in the end get you known, but you can’t just buy the name of an artist or institution, even should they happily agree to it! Unlike opportunities, fame is also not something you can give to your friends or pass on to someone in hope they will later remember you the next time they jury a competition or are asked to nominate someone for an award. The trading and rubbing off of mana is something that happens every time you publicly associate yourself with another player, no matter how, and because of this often becomes an important consideration in the art game, even if far from the only. Trading and association is also not the only or even the main way of getting recognized, but lets talk more later on about interesting parallels between artistic success and mana or magical prowess.
So if these three spheres of value could be a fruitful allegory for thinking about how the art game partially (or to a surprisingly large degree if my intuition is right) functions as a gift economy, it should be possible to apply Graeber’s assertion of how some players will manage to break the rules of the game and cross-trade over the boundaries of the spheres. That the art game really exchanges its gifts in three separate spheres, and that most players expect and require them to be kept separate, but that these rules are also frequently broken, seem obvious to me every time I gossip a bit with my colleagues. When you meet up with your friends and ask them if they have done any interesting work lately, you of course don’t mean teaching at a community centre, or invigilating a gallery, or working in a bar, but if they have made any good artworks. They will then invariably enthuse a bit about what they have cooking in their studio, before complaining about how little time they have for it, and how hard it is to focus, because they have to work. This leads to a brief objection about how tough it is to survive as an artist, how unfairly the rewards are spread, and finally how unappreciative society in general is towards the arts. However, there is surely someone we both know who can spend all their time in the studio working away at their art even though they are not more talented than our other friends (which suggests that it is undeserved) just because someone else is supporting them. The fact that an acquaintance is lucky enough to have a spouse or parent subsidizing them so that they can spend their time doing what they love, is often sneered upon. This resentment is more than just the normal envy towards our betters, since it also suggests that an unfair advantage is being exercised, allowing someone who in reality is not more talented than other of our friends, but because they don’t have to worry about money stress can focus on their work and get ahead, are getting better opportunities and receiving more recognition. The sentiment that, -It is not so hard if you don’t have to… suggests that it should be hard, and that the economical freedom that eventually comes with artistic success and then allows the artist to fully focus on their work, is only an honest proof of artistic talent if it had to be won against the odds, while struggling with a day-time job and making though compromises in one’s private life. This is one clear example of how strength in a lower sphere can not be used to gain privileges in a higher one without polluting or watering it down.