Art Gift Economy

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Discussed by Saul Albert in essay, Open Source and Collective Art Practice.


Saul Albert:

" The art world has practitioners far in excess of the number of commissions or residencies it can sustain. Therefore, in order to survive on the proceeds of their work the artist must gain a strong reputation within the art world to attract enough lucrative commissions and residencies.

There is therefore a direct incentive to allow artwork to be seen without asking for payment from the proprietor of the gallery or from the professional art public (*4). It is even more likely (even inevitable) that these people will attend if there is free alcohol too. The fact that this gift giving is common practice at private views, and also that for these events invitations are sent to select lists of the "right" people(*5) , demonstrates that this "gift economy" is robust enough to command investment and trade in reputation (*6).

• The aim then of the artist in the gift economy is to have their work shown, to the betterment of their reputation, and to receive feedback so that they can improve on it. The problem is that in order for their work to be appreciated, they must squander resources of money and energy providing these "gifts", with no guarantee of return. The commercial gallery may provide for this, but only in return for extortionate shares in any profits, and contractual restrictions on copyright. In any case, hardly any artists, even extremely well known can survive on sales of their work alone.

With pressures of the day job (teaching part time in art schools for the lucky and successful) and financially motivated pressures from the gallery, a high quality of work is difficult to sustain. By high quality, I mean quality as assessed by the gift economy in which the artist functions. This relies on maintaining a novelty value for the media, satisfying critics, and impressing the professional art public.

• With this analysis of the art gift economy, I do not mean to de-value the notion of good craftsmanship, and the satisfaction gleaned from the completion of a good project, but it is the word "good" which makes this a troublesome notion.

"It appears that any craftsmanship culture ultimately has to structure itself through a reputation game"

Eric S. Raymond argues that, assuming that good craftsmanship is the ultimate aim of the craftsman, the incentive is to maximize opportunity for craftsmanship and the quality of the results. He shows that this in no way conflicts with the idea of a "reputation game" as the currency of a gift economy.

"How can one maximize quality if there is no metric for quality?"

If market forces do not determine the value of an artwork (supply of artworks is far in excess of demand) then what other metric is there other than peer review? This peer review is again subject to the difficulties of an art gift economy regulated by distribution, exposure, and finance." (