Art, Faith and Money –  conversations between makers and the market

The first in a series of thought pieces in response to questions from the artist community. 

“…when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price. […] The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own. The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition.” – Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde writes that there are some categories of human enterprise that are “not well organised or supported by market forces”, namely “family life, religious life, public service, pure science, and of course much artistic practice”. What is it about art that makes it something more akin to family and faith than trade and commerce? Using anthropological studies, fairy tales, anecdotes and the example of two American poets (Pound and Whitman), Hyde spends 300 pages developing and explaining a theory of gift-economy. His argument is simple, “a work of art is a gift, not a commodity”. Or “to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two’ economies,’ a market economy, and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.”

When I decided to study fine arts I hoped to circumvent anything financial (and in my eyes soul-destroying), but how artists navigate the world of the market has become something intriguing instead. Hyde’s book The Gift was recommended to me by Craig Bartholomew and was one of the first works I ever read that articulated clearly the tensions I felt between the gift of art and making a living in the modern world. As with many artists, I am terrible with money, consciously and subconsciously resisting the capitalist system and struggling to ask ‘market-prices’ for my work. My most recent project was collecting second-hand art and giving it to the poor (which apparently upsets the market and its efforts at standardising and monetising art). I ask myself, is it because art’s current relationship with commerce (I give you a painting, print, sculpture, and you give me money), profoundly fails to acknowledge the “social, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious and mythological” character of gift-exchange we sense to be part of art’s nature?

Since the 1980s when The Gift was first published, more and more alternatives to the traditional market-system have presented themselves – patronage, crowd-funding and community-funded work in non-profit organisations. Or perhaps these subtle gift exchanges have always been part of certain aspects of our lives, as in the list mentioned at the start. Most of the important things in our lives (like parents, mentors, friendship, insight), cannot be monetised (‘I am x amount of Rands worth per hour’). Nonetheless, the bottom-line question for many of the artists in our community remains the same – how do I pay the bills.

Over the next few weeks I hope to seek the counsel of artists and theologians on this topic, while exploring the ideas presented by books such as The Gift and others of a more spiritual slant. Faith adds hope and complexity to this discussion. For instance, is artmaking a form of worship, and if so, can we take objects offered to God through our artistic practice and sell them? Should the institutional church be providing patronage or, alternatively, Christians living in communities (Hyde uses the example of the historic Shaker communities) with gifts being exchanged freely between individuals? The book Christianity, Art and Transformation by South African scholar John de Gruchy comes to mind for finding some answers in this regard. Because in the context of South Africa’s extreme rich-poor divide, art plays a precarious role. I have been in heated conversations where believers feel art is ‘part of our cultural commons’ and should be freely available to all (‘why can’t all art be like public art and murals, beautifying our world?’). Artists, on the other hand, often feel misunderstood by Christian organisations and churches wanting to share in their gifts but never giving back in ways necessary to pay the bills. Perhaps the faith-economy simple functions with different rules. And whereas art is relatively easy to talk about, adding ‘money’ and ‘religion’ into the mix unfortunately creates much opportunity for offence, defence and hurt. Speaking, for instance, of artists’ struggling to make a living’ when most of those I refer to are part of the privileged few with qualifications, connections and family wealth to fall back on, seems presumptious to those on the other side. As you can see this is tricky terrain.

Anyhow, my aim is not to set artists up as as victims of an unfair capitalist system, nor to provide easy advice on how to ‘make it financially’ as an artist in the world. It is merely to ask what can be done and how one can think clearly about this. My initial sense is that the relationship between an artist and their money is as unique (and as confusing) as between a person and their spouse and their money. The well-meant advice by friends and family, (‘you have to market yourself better’ or ‘get a deal at this big gallery’) disregards the fact that what makes art meaningful is its subjectivity, its living, breathing humanness, its greasy handshake in a way. Art doesn’t want to be controlled, and money seeks to control things to an extent. Someone asked me recently why most artists seem to ‘want to be poor’. Part of the answer might be that artists recognises that money (according to Hyde’s argument) objectifies and disaffects – it wraps living, human things in ‘impersonal plastic’ in order to keep both parties in the transaction ‘safe’. But art isn’t safe, and it resists sanitation.

Some of my artist friends get paid in dollars, some use crowd-funding and others teach. Some receive help from their communities, and others from parents. Some have frequent buyers and patrons, other do part-time freelance jobs on the side or work in galleries. We do whatever we need to do to be able to make art. No easy answers exist in this regard, but not talking about it doesn’t help either. The beautiful thing about art is, like with grace, that it increases in the giving away, whether we get compensated for it or not. Hyde writes “To have painted a painting does not empty the vessel out of which the paintings come”, instead “giving the first creation away makes the second one possible.”



Photo by Katie McNabb on Unsplash