It’s a driving question and it’s about more than just subsistence because it also tends to be the way we judge the success of our art. One of the first questions you’ll get asked by another artist is “do you do this full-time”? So few of us achieve that heady goal that its very scarcity makes it all the more desirable. But it is a very divisive tendency and one to be avoided. It just generates envy and discord amongst artists, whose natural tendency otherwise would be to collaborate and co-create.
It is also, I’d like to demonstrate, a very old school way of looking at things. The economics of scarcity is well recognised and deeply embedded in our thinking. Apparently, we will all pay more for something that is rare. But economics is not a pre-scriptive tool. Things don’t have to be that way. It is a de-scriptive tool. It simply tells us that most people, in most circumstances, will behave in that way.
So, it is extremely interesting to note that there are many voices now; many artists, environmentalists, theorists, in fact people in all walks of life, who are succeeding in persuading people to behave differently! It is aided by, but not exclusive to, the internet and social media. It is strongly linked to the revulsion that many feel about how we exploit and despoil our planet and comes from the camp of holistic ecology and environmental responsibility.
It has been coined by Charles Eisenstein, as Sacred Economics but in fact many of its characteristics were laid out as a kind of manifesto for artists as early as 1979 by Lewis Hyde (The Gift).
Hyde argues strongly that to exchange or barter something for a fixed price is to “kill” the cultural, artistic and spiritual value of the “thing”. It is cancelled out, removed from universe, from the common good. Whereas, when something is given freely, each transaction will increase its worth, value and benefit. And it will continue to increase as long as the gift keeps moving. Both Eisenstein and Hyde therefore argue strongly in favour of Gift – giving your services away.
But how can this work?!! How does this make the artist’s subsistence any more tenable? Now, I’m aware that, being a recent convert to these ideas I’m behaving like an AA “two-stepper”. I’m all excited about the revelation and now want to go and tell others all about it, before I’ve done the hard work and all the steps in between. I haven’t proved it can work yet. But I’m also aware that many people are making it work and I’m conscious of wanting to emulate some of the openness and vulnerability of Amanda Palmer, one of the most successful proponents of this approach.
Amanda, a musician, is famous for having cut out the middle man and for her profound and direct connection with her audience through social media and crowd-finding. That is, if she has one, her business model. She just asks her fans for their help.
So, I’m sharing my thought process with you, just like Amanda does. I want to keep the conversation open as I continue to research, explore, discuss and trial how this might be.
Here are some of the things that I think are important to developing a Gift approach and a Sacred Economy, particularly in theatre and the performing arts:-
1) I think it is ‘sacred’ and important to give your work away but to ask people, in an easy, fun way to return the gift if they can/want to. This means extending your performance into Q & A or some other activity that includes the audience. It means not sending them away at the end of the show but, rather, finding some way to celebrate their participation and facilitate their gift. Afterall, if your performance is a gift then their return gift should be part of the performance.
2) I think it also means finding new and interesting ways of Asking. Sometimes things will have to be funded up front or you simply won’t be able to move forward. Amanda Palmer famously raised over million dollars through KickStarter crowd-funding for a planned tour. The successful norm is for much smaller amounts though and often projects fail to meet their mark all together. The difference that Amanda makes is her direct and profound connection with her audience. She gives herself up to them entirely, that connection and communication is part of her art.
3) It means changing your view of what success is. Like many artists, I’m interested only in making enough to continue being creative. Profit and excess have very little meaning for me. But as I’ve mentioned many will measure your success as an artist by your income. It’s hard not to feel pressured by this. I find that the concept of “Right Livelihood” helps. This means finding a livelihood that DOES NO HARM. It allows you to be the artist you need to be but also requires that you make enough return not to do yourself or your loved ones any harm – in other words, to gain a reasonable and responsible income. Right Livelihood feels like a worthy and achievable goal.
4) It means being aware of your own Gift. It’s no mistake that artistic talent is referred to as a Gift. We are all familiar with those moments when we’ve created something that seems to come through us, rather than from us. In order to successfully share your Gift and ask others to help you support it, you have to know it, explore it, develop it and bow into its service. This means not changing or corrupting it to someone else’s vision. James Stenhouse tackles some of this in his excellent blog How to make a living as an artist where he exhorts us to never “… let ANYONE tell you what kind of work you should be making. EVER”.
5) Finally, I think it requires a community; a minimum number of individuals who understand and value the concept of Gift enough to keep it moving, to return it and gift-it-forward so that we can all then know that we are part of the whole. The greater that community is, the more successful the approach will be. I may be wrong in this. I’d be interested to know what you think.
That seems like a great place to end. But I’d love to keep the conversation open. Please leave your thoughts and comments and I will endeavour to answer each of them.
Eisenstein, Charles 2011 Sacred Economics. Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition. Evolver, Berkeley, USA.
Hyde, Lewis 2012 The Gift. How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World. Canongate, Edinburgh, Scotland.
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer in love with her landscape and her life. She is a founding member of Interwoven Productions CIC and the creator of the Squilometre tool for sustainable community engagement. JoJo writes here on landscape, art, community animation and working in the gift,