Friday, February 18, 2011

The Metamorphosis of Art and Money, Michael Howard


Like many artists, I exhibit my work so that other people can experience it. Most artists also use an exhibition as a way to sell their work and thereby support themselves, or at least cover their expenses.

I have always shied away from selling my sculptures and paintings, not because I have any less need of financial resources for my work, but because the idea of ownership and attributing monetary value to art is so foreign to my experience. For me, a work of art is a meditation for inner contemplation, not an object to possess. Art is to be with, not to have.

In this short essay I outline why my drawings, paintings and sculptures are not for sale. More importantly, I explore an alternative way of thinking about art and money. In this context, I introduce my thoughts about a Community Art Association that would serve the artistic needs of the community in new ways by applying the principles of Community Supported Agriculture to Community Supported Art.

I offer these new ways of thinking about art as a stimulus to new ways of thinking about the dire social and economic challenges of our time. To all but the most entrenched they are a clear signal that we must begin in earnest to transform our economic thinking to serve the fullness of human life rather than the other way around in which human beings are expected to conform to the narrow demands of economic thinking.

The same inner spark that moves me to create new artistic forms also moves me to create new social and economic forms that are more in harmony with the spiritual intentions of my art.


Natural artistic capacity is often referred to as a gift. For someone with an artistic gift it is unthinkable to not exercise it, for that would be to squander one’s gift.

One gift often inspires another gift. That is why those with an artistic gift have a deep need to share the fruits of their art with others. In the first instance, artists want nothing more than to share the spiritual experience of their creative work. Because of this, artists can be spiritually fulfilled simply in having other people show interest in their work-- authentic expressions of appreciation never hurt.

However, artists cannot live and work by appreciation alone; they must find ways to cover the costs of their materials and gallery expenses and to support themselves and their families. The idea of selling artwork is born from the simple chemistry of economic necessity and the fact that paintings and sculptures are physical objects. It is the union of these two factors that leads us to regard visual works of art as commodities.

Some artists see no problem in selling their work, while others, such as myself, feel extremely conflicted. This inner conflict seems to be rooted in the tension between the spiritual and physical dimensions of art. For much of my life I have assumed it was some shortcoming in me that blocked me from adapting to the ways of the world. The present economic upheavals embolden me to think that perhaps in reality the shortcomings lie more in the ways of the world, including the ways of the art market.

The convention of selling works of art assumes that there is some intrinsic relationship between their spiritual value and their monetary value. In reality, these are two distinct matters that have nothing to do with each other. We buy and sell a work of art, as with most other things, as a way to transfer the rights of ownership from one person to another. This transfer of ownership is facilitated by the exchange of an agreed upon monetary value. In order to determine the monetary value of an artwork both parties must quantify not only tangible factors, such as its size and materials, but also intangibles, such as spiritual quality and value.

There are two problems with this commonplace approach to selling works of art: the idea of ownership, and equating spiritual value with monetary value.

To understand this we need to take into account not only the perspective of the artist, but also the vital role of the viewer of art. It is widely recognized that the greatest masterpiece is incomplete as long as other people have not seen it. Simply by opening him- or herself to the spirit of an artwork, the viewer completes the creative activity of the artist. In contemplating a work of art the viewer both receives a spiritual gift and, at the same time, gives a spiritual gift to the artist.

A meaningful experience with a work of art, even when challenging, stirs in most people some feeling of gratitude and appreciation. Sometimes a work of art can so resonate in us that we may want to buy it so that we can experience it again and again. Most often we do not act upon this because our financial resources constrain us. However, even if someone can afford to buy a work of art, is ownership the only or best way to express our appreciation and support? Are there alternatives?

We do not readily apply the idea of ownership to a play, a musical composition, a poem or novel. If we enjoy a play, musical composition or a novel, we may see it performed a number of times, or buy a recording or printed copy. Often there is an original manuscript that someone owns, but usually this is approached in a spirit of public or communal stewardship. The idea of stewardship conveys better than ownership the sense that a performing or literary work of art is a spiritual gift belonging to human society as a whole and not a commodity to be owned by an individual.

The only explanation I see for our treating a visual artwork as a commodity for individual ownership is our inclination to attend to its physical properties more than its spiritual qualities. If the spiritual qualities of a painting or sculpture were our primary focus--and their physical properties were secondary--then we would regard a visual work of art as a kind of performance similar to a concert or play. As our experience of visual works of art focuses more on their spiritual quality then their physical properties, we are likely to feel more disposed towards stewardship then ownership of artwork.

One of the main advantages of stewardship is that it allows the spiritual and physical dimensions of art to be brought into harmony.

If an individual or community expresses interest and appreciation in a work of art, it is conceivable that the artist--or a representative of the artist--would give them the artwork for an agreed upon period of time. Such an arrangement would be founded on the understanding that their transaction concerns the transfer of spiritual stewardship and not physical ownership.

Clearly the artwork cannot be given away indiscriminately; therefore the artist or artist’s representative would retain the freedom to decide who will or will not receive the artwork and for how long. But having determined that an individual or a community is worthy of such stewardship, the significant aspect of this transaction is not so much in the outer arrangements as in the thoughts and feelings brought toward it. As one steward to another, each will experience the transfer of the artwork as freely given by the artist and freely received by the art recipient. The giving and receiving of the artwork are done in the spirit of a gift exchange.

If, for any reason, economic support were not an issue, then the transfer of the artwork would be complete through this purely spiritual gift exchange. This would be the case even if there were reason for both parties to sign a contractual agreement defining the parameters of the loan. However, if economic support is an issue, how can this be addressed, if not by selling the artwork? How does the idea of stewardship help us in this regard?

The transfer I described above can be understood as a form of lending rather than selling an artwork. The idea of loaning works of art gives both the artist and the art recipient more flexibility about agreeing to a temporary transfer of the artwork rather than a permanent one. It also suggests a familiar economic structure. Friends may loan something without introducing any economic considerations, but as strangers we usually expect to pay something. We call this renting. We pay not only to purchase and own a house or car; under certain circumstances we are prepared to pay a rent for their temporary use. So instead of selling or loaning it is conceivable to rent a work of art.

While renting art is a workable alternative, it does not adequately harmonize the economic exchange with the spiritual exchange. For this we must explore the feasibility and desirability of approaching the spiritual and economic exchanges as two distinct matters rather than bringing them together as we do when selling or renting a work of art.

The idea of stewardship guided us with the spiritual exchange of the artwork; it can also lead us to a new possibility when it comes to the economic exchange. When taking up the economic side of an art exchange, it is not helpful for the artist and art recipient to discuss the spiritual value of the artwork. The spiritual value of the artwork was implicit to and resolved in the spiritual exchange—where, by the way, economic considerations should not play a part. Now, however, it is appropriate for the art recipient to inquire about and for the artist to share a picture of the material costs, the amount of time spent in creating the work and other similar factors. The artist might also ask about the financial parameters that the art recipient is working within. Such a conversation could lead the artist to propose a level or range for the economic exchange.

Based on some variation of such interest in the actual costs involved in creating the art, including the artist’s livelihood, the art recipient who is motivated and guided by the idea of stewardship could regard making a financial contribution to the artist’s on-going work as part of that role. Rather than paying a certain sum in order to buy a work of art, through stewardship the art recipient could approach the economic side of the exchange also in the free spirit of gifting. A truly enlightened steward could offer economic support with the insight that he or she is not paying for the artwork already completed but is supporting the creation of new work. In this sense, the economic support is a gift into the future without regard for personal enrichment.

To outer appearances such an exchange of artwork and money may not seem so different from selling or renting. However, the inner shift from the attitude of ownership to stewardship is of the greatest significance because it allows both parties of the exchange to participate in an entirely different spirit.

Stewardship allows the artist to freely transfer the spiritual gift of his or her art to someone else. Likewise, stewardship allows the art recipient to freely receive the spiritual experience of the artwork and to freely give back their appreciation for its spiritual value.

Through stewardship the artist freely dedicates the physical and economic resources needed to create the work of art, and the art recipient freely contributes to the artist’s economic costs and livelihood.

When the spiritual give and take is treated independently from the economic give and take, the spiritual and physical dimensions of any art exchange are harmonized by being given and received in freedom.

A true work of art can be born only as a free creative deed. When the possessiveness inherent in ownership and the quantification of spiritual value into monetary value are layered onto a work of art, an unfree element is introduced. For a work of art to fulfill its spiritual service and find its rightful place in human life, the economic support of art must also be born as a free creative deed.

As a practical matter, it may prove burdensome for artists to negotiate the transfer of stewardship in every case. For this, it would be desirable for individuals who have the capacities and interest to take on the administrative activities related to the circulation and funding of the artwork within the community. This could be accomplished through a Community Art Association based on the principles of Community Supported Agriculture.

Such an association could come into being only if there is an unmet need living in the community from two sides:

Artists who are looking for new ways to serve the cultural/spiritual needs of the community. Individuals in the community who want to cultivate a deeper relationship with art and artists.

Artists who want to explore new social/economic forms for circulating and funding their work. Individuals in the community who want to explore new ways of supporting the arts.

I am hopeful that the time is ripe for exploring new ways for art to serve community life. I have every reason to believe there is a mutual interest and need living in non-artists as much as artists to make the arts a more vital and essential part of human life.

The prospect of forming a Community Art Association provides the immediate opportunity for artists and friends of the arts to come together for open and heartfelt conversation about the place of art in their lives. This would surely lead to an on-going collaboration in the sphere of art that would enrich the community as a whole.

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