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'The Gift' - essay


This 1925 publication is a key foundation of the thinking on the giving and receiving of gifts.  Drawing on cultural research the author examines many societies in which ‘prestations’, ‘potlach’, and other complex forms of obligation and reciprocity were fundamental.  To the modern market-driven eye these customs look old-fashioned and the behaviours irrational.  But Mauss’ investigations have relevance to contemporary art, especially its performance and participatory forms. 

My interest in ‘The Gift’ is in relation to my art works involving collaboration with other people, and how reciprocity operates in that exchange.  When commissioning someone with the specific skills to complete a work – as Jeff Koons does on a grand scale using sub-contractors like Carlson & Company or Damien Hirst following in Warhol’s Factory footsteps with his Science operation - the financial transaction is clear and formal.

However, when an unpaid volunteer contributes to my art work, what do they get out of it?  In the case of my work for ‘Immurement’ at The Crypt Gallery, I offered my participants at the Private View a photograph of the finished work.  This went down well.  When I sent a personalised email with it a week after, over 26% of the 47 collaborators replied with universally positive feedback.

Detailed analysis


In his introduction to ‘The Gift’, E.E. Evans-Prichard makes a provocative statement: “Nowhere does this come out more clearly than in the ‘Essai sur le don’ where Mauss is telling us, quite pointedly, in case we should not reach the conclusion for ourselves, how much we have lost, whatever we may have otherwise gained, by the substitution of a rational economic system for a system iin which exchange of goods was not a mechanical but a moral transaction, bringing about and maintaining human, personal, relationships between individuals and groups.”


Relating this to the art world, I wondered if we may have moved back a bit towards the lost culture referred to? Considering the current position of most artists, who generally find it impossible to survive economically by the sale of their work alone, perhaps this is not a completely ridiculous idea.  Their reality is that they make huge investments of time and materials in their artworks without any guarantee of an economic return.  In many respects they are donating their work.  Some of them do succeed in getting exhibitions in commercial galleries which result in sales.  However, for nearly all of them the income derived is not enough for them to subsist on.


Most artists are small business people running a portfolio of jobs which, if they’re fortunate, are all in and around the world of art, and thus mutually reinforcing.  There is also a great deal of collaboration within the artistic community which is based upon reciprocity rather than monetary payment.  Groups of artists club together to put on exhibitions.  They network with each other and make connections with curators and galleries who might select one or more of their number for a show.


Clearly the urge to create is a very powerful one and the lottery of the art market in which only a very tiny percentage win the jackpot cannot be the main driver.  For many artists the approbation of family, friends, art teachers, and in some cases art critics is what drives them on.  In a way the artist enters into a social contract with the people to whom their art is shown: the investment of time and materials is given in exchange for feedback, and hopefully praise, if not a sale.  And the viewers seem comfortable with this idea even if it often involves being a little economical with the truth in terms of their real feelings about the art on view.


As Mauss notes: “The most important of these spiritual mechanisms is clearly the one which obliges us to make a return gift for a gift received.”  The same sentiment was expressed in more cynical terms by Renata Olins of London Marriage Guidance when she said: “Every gift has a price tag.”  The suggestion is that it’s impossible for someone to give something without a desire for reciprocation.  For example, an anonymous donor may not have their name emblazoned on the wall of the museum, but inevitably a few highly influential people at the top of the institution know perfectly well who has made the new wing possible.  And the donor will benefit in many subtle and not so subtle ways as a result of their philanthropy.


But what of artists operating in the live art realm?  When Yoko Ono invites people to bang a nail into a wooden board to complete her work, what’s in it for the participants?  In that case, in the 1960s, at the very inception of this kind of art, the reward for being involved in such an outlandish activity as an 'early adopter' was enough.  However, nowadays that kind of novelty has largely worn off, and I wonder if participants might need more?


If, as we have seen, most artists are effectively donating their art in the expectation of praise, and in the hope of an occasional sale.  But what of performance artists?  Their work very often takes place in situations where entry is free.  While there is usually a photographic and audio-visual record of these events, the market for these artefacts is relatively small, and almost non-existent outside the major galleries and museums.  If spectators, and in some cases participants, are getting the benefit of a free art experience, how are they fulfilling their tacit obligation to the artist?


For the guests at one of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s events at which he cooked and served a meal, there was a very tangible, and appetising, benefit to taking part.  However, it’s doubtful that any of the gallery crowd who were there had hunger as a major motivation for their participation.  Increasingly we have seen the reward for involvement in this kind of immersive art as being the experience itself.


This can lead to accusations that the artist is more in the leisure and entertainment business than art, and Carsten Höller’s ‘Test Site’ in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall may have fallen into that trap.  Yes, sliding down the helter-skelter had all the fun of the fair, and doing it in a major art gallery was unusual.  However, it’s unclear whether there was much more to it than that.  If the participant has taken a slight risk in propelling themselves down the chute, maybe the reward could have been more than just an adrenaline rush?  Surely the physical enjoyment should have resulted in more of an intellectual point?


Mauss anticipated this issue when he wrote: “It appears that the whole field of industrial and commercial law is in conflict with morality.  The economic prejudices of the people and producers derive from their strong desire to pursue the thing they have produced once they realise they have given their labour without sharing in the profits.”  Art has now become a major leisure industry with Tate Modern being the UK’s top visitor attraction.  It seems possible that this mass-market activity, driven by the ‘experience economy’ will lead to an increase in participatory art. This may result in greater scrutiny, both by artists and audiences, of the value exchange.


Writing in 1954 Mauss pointed out that: “It took a long time for artistic, literary or scientific ownership to be recognised beyond the right to sell the manuscript, invention or work of art.  Societies have little interest in admitting that the heirs of an author or inventor – who are after all, their benefactors – have more than a few paltry rights in the thing create in the things created.  These are readily acclaimed as products of the collective as well as the individual mind, and hence to be public property.  However, the scandal of the increment value of paintings, sculptures and objets d’art inspired the French law of September 1923 which gives the artist and his heirs and claimants a ‘right of pursuit’ over the successive increments of his works.”


Slowly but surely the ‘right of pursuit’ has been strengthened, though the USA has yet to comply.  The Artist’s Resale Right (ARR) 2012 affords the creators of original works of art, which include graphic works, paintings, sculptures and collages, the right to a royalty when their work is resold through a qualifying intermediary, such as an auction house or art dealer. The right to this royalty lasts for the same period as copyright which in the UK is life plus 70 years.  Royalties are payable on a sliding scale and apply only on re-sales of works above €1,000 and are capped at €12,500.


Currently these royalties are only traceable and payable on works sold by the major auction houses and galleries. However, it may well be that as technologies allow, the ownership of many more works of art will be able to be tracked, and thus there could be a small but significant income stream for the mass of selling artists.  As ARR becomes more widely applicable, and better known, this may have implications for participative art. Its practitioners will need to consider how best to deal with this legislation.  More importantly they may have to reciprocate with their participants and collaborators in a more concrete manner, over and above of the art experience that they create together.


Take the situation where 100 unpaid volunteers made 40,000 terracotta figures for ‘Field’ by Antony Gormley.  As he said himself: “My name in big letters, it’s rubbish, this work is a collective work made by the collective hands of a collective people.  It was made by people who did it just for the sake of doing it.”  Fine words indeed, but try Googling the names of the volunteers…  Perhaps in future these volunteers will require more in the way of reciprocity?

To return to Marcel Mauss 'The Gift' click here

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