Monday, October 11, 2010

Music and the "Gift Economy" 6: Problems with Free Art

Previous posts in this series:
Music and the "Gift Economy" 1: An Introduction
Music and the "Gift Economy" 2: Examples
Music and the "Gift Economy" 3: Commons, Copyright, and Radical Politics
Music and the "Gift Economy" 4: Personal Versus Impersonal Transactions
Music and the "Gift Economy" 5: Supporting Artists

Lewis Hyde and others have suggested that art and other forms of creative expression (I'll include music here) should be given away. Justifications include:

1. It's ennobling for giver and receiver.
2. It's impossible to put a true price on creativity.
3. Creativity shouldn't be judged on financial value.
4. More people will be exposed to art if it is free.
5. If it is easily reproducible, why not?
6. The culture should have access to all art.

In my last post, I pointed out that many of the "gift economy" concepts don't address how to create a more equitable society. The system depends on the money makers to support the gift givers in some fashion, so there tends to be a built-in class structure. The rich support the poor.
Whether it's being done in honest ignorance, blind obedience, or cynical exploitation of the market, the result is the same: our ability to envision new solutions to the latest challenges is stunted by a dependence on market-driven and market-compatible answers. ...

Chris Anderson [author of Free] has analyzed where all this is going, and — rather than offering up a vision of a post-scarcity economy — advised companies to simply leverage the abundant to sell whatever they can keep scarce. ...

Higher sales reports and lecture fees serve as positive reinforcement for authors to incorporate the market's bias even more enthusiastically the next time out. Write books that business likes, and you do better business. The cycle is self-perpetuating. But just because it pays the mortgage doesn't make it true. "Economics Is Not Natural Science." Douglas Rushoff. Edge. 8/11/09.
There are people who propose to reduce dependence on market economies, even going so far as to suggest someday we can eliminate monetary transactions altogether. I will get into those ideas in the next post, but for now I want to bring up some of general snags in the free art concept. Consider it food for thought.

If it is free anyway, is it really a gift?
Free culture has gotten a big boost now that we can copy files and distribute them for little or no added expense. But the very fact that they don't cost money to reproduce and pass along may take them out of the gift realm. No sacrifice is involved. Similarly, freely giving away your music/writing/photos/design in order to gain exposure is not gift giving. (We do not, for example, consider broadcast TV a gift, even though viewers don't have to pay for it.)
  • ... gifts are alienable; this means that when you give a gift, you give up ownership of it. Ownership of the gift is transferred to the person to whom you give it. "The Gift of Generalized Exchange." Ira Nayman.* Version 17.0, February 2001.

  • A gift costs the giver something real. It might be cash (enough that we feel the pinch) but more likely it involves a sacrifice or a risk or an emotional exposure. A true gift is a heartfelt connection, something that changes both the giver and the recipient....

    Free doesn't make something a gift. Free might be a marketing strategy, free might make a generous present, but free doesn't automatically make something a gift. "Gifts, misunderstood." Seth Godin. 6/19/10.
  • A Christian explanation to differentiate gifts from merely free would be: "Not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice." In other words, you actually have to be giving up something of value -- to you -- for it to be a true gift.

    If you give it away, does it have any value?
    We have become so conditioned to the idea that money determines how much something (which can be either tangible or intangible) is worth to people that when there isn't a price tag, we are left wondering if it has no value. This experiment, for example, shows that perceptions are affected by price tags.
    Twenty people sampled five Cabernet Sauvignons that were distinguished solely by their retail price, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. ... $90 Cabernet seemed to taste better than the $10 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine. How We Decide. Jonah Lehrer. 2009.
    Here's another case where people perceive something tastes better when they pay for it than when they get the exact same product for free: "Why Does Bottled Water Taste Better?" ADDED 11/18/10.

    Not accepting that money equals quality, some artists have made a statement by not charging for what they create.
    The Free Biennial began in late January, 2002, with a call to artists offering a few simple parameters: the work should be nonmonetary, meaning that no money changes hands (no admission is charged, nothing is bought or sold), the work should take place in public space (very widely defined as anyplace a stranger can enter, including the broadcast airwaves, telephone system, and the internet), and it should be perceptible to someone in New York City during the month of April, 2002. Any artwork meeting these criteria could be in the Free Biennial. "Free Words to Free Manifesta: Some Experiments in Art as Gift." Sal Randolph. In Ethics & the Environment, August, 2003.
    Another "free art" exhibit:
    Known as the Artists for Social Justice, several members recently participated in a one-night performance entitled “Free Free Market” in Chinatown focusing on aesthetic exchange and participation as an alternative to the object-driven art market. ...

    “Free Free Market” involved dozens of ASJ member projects that focused on gift economies, the exchange of aesthetic and social experiences, encouraging dialogue, and inhabiting spaces that are nontraditional for art (such as public space, strip malls, and classrooms). "Between Art and Anarchism." Sue Bell Yank. Journal of Aesthetics & Protest. Issue 7.
    Yet another "free" art experiment is the Fine Art Adoption Network.
    FAAN is an online network, which uses a gift economy to connect artists and potential collectors. All of the artworks on view are available for adoption. This means acquiring an artwork without purchasing it, through an arrangement between the artist and collector. Our goal is to help increase and diversify the population of art owners and to offer artists new means for engaging their audience.
    Performance art grew out of a desire to challenge the notion of "art."
    From Allan Kaprow's first Happening in 1959 and the Fluxus performances in the 1960s to the body-based works by Carolee Scheemann, Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, or Hermann Nitsch and the non-site performances by Dennis Oppenheim or Richard Long, performance was made plot-less and site-less and distanced from theater. The ephemeral was central to the concerns of these many artists who sought to challenge the assumptions and rules of art-making by second-guessing its materiality and permanence. To be here one second and gone the next, they implied, could make art – and our habits around consuming and appreciating it – free from the market and the museum and, ultimately, into something new. They were clear cases of "you shoulda been there." The Legacy of Performance Art Anthony Huberman.
    Theoretically performance artists could charge for their shows like musicians do for theirs, but America's most famous performance artist, Marina Abramovic, sees her performance in service of a higher calling:
    “The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, and to elevate the mind.” ...

    Ms Abramovic has never sold her performances. For years she scraped together a living through teaching and commissions. She didn’t acquire gallery representation until 1995, when she was signed to New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery. Nowadays, her income comes mainly from selling photographs, often in editions of seven, made in collaboration with Marco Anelli, a photographer. "Performance art: The artist was here," The Economist, 9/15/10.
    Unlike business people who advocate giving away something for free as a way to increase demand for what is scarce, and then to profit from those who have the money to pay for that scarcity, the "free" artists generally are attempting to strip class structures out of art economics. Those with no money are as able to enjoy the art as those who are able to pay. Those who give away their art, but have no means of support for themselves, are essentially martyrs for the cause.

    Will people take care of it if they didn't pay for it?
    Sal Randolph, in his free art experiments, has uncovered another dynamic with free art.
    Giving away something for free makes its value indeterminate — the individual recipient decides its value, rather than the market. ... Is this object precious? How careful should I be with it? The eventual fate of every object without resale value is the trash. The next level up is the thrift store, the junk store, the flea market. And in fact tons of amateur art circulates in those low markets and can be had for prices ranging from $0.50 to $100. I’ve seen free art treated both preciously and casually — framed carefully and preserved, but also thrown in boxes, stacked awkwardly, left in drawers when interest fades. "Beautiful Money (Art as Currency, Art as Experience)." Sal Randolph.
    Randolph's observation has relevance to music and other digital art. If you got it for free and it is easily replaceable, does it have any value to you as a possession? Is it now disposable art? Lately there have been discussions of about how copyright is hampering archiving of old books, music, film, and photographs. However, it may turn out that it is the cheap/free items that aren't being saved, rather than the ones deemed valuable from the beginning:
    Experimenting at Ebay, I've discovered an interesting law of economics. (Perhaps this is well-known, but I had never heard of it before). The less the intrinsic value of a mass-produced object, the more likely it will become valuable over time as a collectible. (Their lack of intrinsic value means that few people will save these objects, which means that they will become rare. And the fact that they were mass-produced will mean that they are imprinted on the consciousness of many, and thus subject to nostalgia by association, and hence will be in demand.)

    As a result, I can get more money selling a fair-condition bottle cap than selling a 100-year-old book that's in fine condition. "The psychology of auctions and collectibles," eBay Guides, 9/10/09.
    If it is true that we tend to abandon what we acquire for free or cheaply, and then value it more later on because society didn't bother to preserve any copies, then the destruction of popular culture is necessary to create its future monetary worth.

    If we judge purely on the quality of the art, why does it matter who created it?
    Another variation on how perceptions affect our appreciation of art:
    Why is a set of photos worth millions if they were shot by Ansel Adams, and next to nothing if the photographer depressing the plunger was a nobody? After all, the images remain the same. To the extent that art is about appreciating aesthetic objects for their own sake, is it right to put so much stake in the question of who did the drawing or painting or snapping?

    The basic market definition of value is perfectly reasonable: A work is worth what someone will give you for it—an amount usually determined by the intersection of desirability, scarcity and the expectation that there will be someone down the line willing to pay even more. But isn't art supposed to have value that transcends the market—something inherent in the object itself?

    ... what would happen if Vincent van Gogh had died an utter unknown, without any of his paintings ever having been seen or saved. A hundred years later "The Starry Night" turns up at a yard sale, a grimy orphan. Would it be recognized as a masterpiece?

    The answer is, regrettably, probably no. "Ansel Adams, Caravaggio and Other Art Authentication Fights: Does a Famous Name Make Anything More Beautiful?" Wall Street Journal, 8/13/10.
    An oft-cited story is this one where a talented classical violinist was ignored while playing for tips in the subway.
    Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

    ... In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. "Pearls Before Breakfast," The Washington Post, 4/4/07.
    What if people don't understand reciprocity?
    One of the fundamentals of gift giving is the idea that people will return the favor, if not to you, then to someone else. But sharing or giving gifts is not something left to our innate sensibilities. First, as children we are taught about sharing, and then about giving gifts to friends and family. Then, as we grow older, we learn about tipping protocol. And perhaps when we are even older, we learn about hostess gifts and business gifts.
    We live in social groups that have rules about gifts and gift giving. These rules and customs serve to assure that things will come out fairly — that when one gives away something, one will get something in return. While this may sound crass and may not be necessary in an affluent society, it is essential for survival in social groups where resources are scarce. "Gift-giving rules vary with the social subgroup." Vivian Friedman. Raising Children. Vol. 2.
    If we hope to support artists involved in a gift economy, we need to establish that either we will give them gifts (and hopefully in some form that covers basic survival needs) or that some institution or patron will.
    Gift giving is puzzling from an economic perspective because it is inefficient -- givers spend money on gifts differently from the way receivers would -- and it seems to be necessarily so. "Gifts as Economic Signals and Social Symbols." Colin Camerer. The American Journal of Sociology.Vol. 94, 1988.
    In other words, by its very nature, gift giving isn't supposed to replace economic transactions, so for it to do so, we'd need to set up some new societal rules (just as we have to done to make sure tips augment a service person's income).

    What if people don't want your gifts?
    This probably the biggest problem with gift economies. Even if we want to encourage gift giving, and we will somehow support creative people who give away their art, we will still have to deal with an oversupply of gifts. Right now, for example, we have millions of artists/bands uploading their music. They freely give it away, but most of it will not be downloaded and saved.
  • ... if an artist makes an object and no one wants it, I'm sorry to say, I don't know that you can call it (at that time) a bona fide "gift." Of course, if an artist creates something than none of his/her contemporaries value, that doesn't mean future generations won't. And so, whether an object is a "gift" to humanity or not is place/time-determined and subjective. Such views can and do change over history. "Sorting Through the Muddled Politics of the Gift," Edward_ Winkleman, 2/9/10.

  • Even the most hardened skeptic of the self-expression free-for-all has to admit that plenty of nonprofessional creators, ignoring the wants and needs of the market, have produced priceless gifts for the rest of us to enjoy. On the other hand, even the most ardent enthusiast of giveaway culture has to admit that a lot of what’s on offer is not only free but worthless.

    ... a product of the gift sphere may be pure, but even a sharing economy depends on somebody’s wanting what’s being offered — or at least not dismissing it ... "Valuing $0." Rob Walker. New York Times, 5/16/10.
  • For a good look at the problems in receiving gifts, check out this paper: The Shadow Side of Social Gift-Giving: Miscommunication and Failed Gifts

    In my last post in this series, I'll cover some proposed ideas on alternative economies which may allow for more creative expression and the support of artists. Music and the "Gift Economy" 7: Alternative Economies

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter


    1. $90 Cabernet seemed to taste better than the $10 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine.

      this make me think: from a psychological point of view, do a pirated mp3 sound better than a free one?
      maybe, even if you want your music to spread for free, the best strategy might remain the hypocritical one: putting your music for sale at the highest price you can, just pretending that you don't know that it will be pirated.

    2. Yes, making someone go to the extra trouble of pirating it might make it more valued than just giving it away for free.


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