Flash Points

The value of didactic art and the gift economy—from object ownership to object affiliation


Anti-copyright graphic on Latin-American Solidarity, by the Beehive Collective (https://www.beehivecollective.org)

There is quite a tradition around visualizing information that reaches beyond the more familiar pie charts and quantifications used in science and commerce, dealing with the communication of complex thought and circumstance. Here’s a small sampling: Pioneer Otto Neurath developed a pictorial language to aid education. Both Alfred Barr and Fluxus founder George Maciunas mapped their art worlds. Graphic designer Edward Tufte coined the term “cognitive art.” Artist Mark Lombardi was an early proponent in the arts; of a younger generation, Ashley Hunt crosses between art and activism, and the Beehive Collective explicitly produces non-art, activist works. Socially conscious graphic designers populate and run a number of firms worldwide, for example Piece Studio in Baltimore, creating edgy products like the Good Sheet.

Be it termed art or design, created independently, on spec, or for a client, what is produced is intended to make a cognitive impact by mediating complexity. That intent can be termed didactic, and as such it is much maligned in visual arts discourse, at its worst as boring indoctrination that neglects formal concerns and fails to transcend issues of the day. Looking at the works linked above, it should be clear that those criticisms don’t need to apply. I would love to reclaim the didactic for the arts, as part of their range. Didactic refers to the art of teaching. In conservative terms, teaching may be framed as authoritative instruction, perpetuating canons and control, but progressive concepts of education center on a give-and-take that supports critical thinking—the capability to evaluate provocations and propositions in context.

Why the resistance, then? Isn’t the art world largely progressive? Should provocative, didactic work not be supported, particularly now? Cognitive linguist George Lakoff holds that US liberals tend to fund down by aiding those who can’t help themselves and conservatives fund up in support of preferred ideological infrastructures. That leaves liberal US intellectuals and artists in a bit of a pickle. While they certainly can help themselves, their capacity to help create a more just and equitable society does not receive the extra support it could.

The opening screen for “The Story of Stuff,” sponsored by Tides Foundation and Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption (https://www.storyofstuff.com)

The opening screen for “The Story of Stuff,” sponsored by Tides Foundation and Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption (https://www.storyofstuff.com)

A project that was able to gain some support, The Story of Stuff, seems to be a success. This is work that wants to be given away, distributed freely. We have the technology, a large and growing audience has access to it, but how can we arrive at schemes to fund the creation of this work? We need improved models of state support, new collective and entrepreneurial models and appropriate forms of sponsorship. Mr. Landesman might want to consider creating a visual think tank—maybe starting with a funding category for cognitive arts. Collective and entrepreneurial models are under discussion around the world. As I am writing this, an Artist Run Credit League is getting ready to launch in Chicago.

In thinking about sponsorship, anthropology offers a pattern. Studies cite examples of twin spheres of economy, a swift and finite economic exchange that trades goods against currency, and a ceremonial exchange of gifts that relies on accumulated memory and tracks the movements of goods and the modifications of reputations of all three elements: the gifts, their makers, and their temporary custodians. The well-known Kula exchange is an example. Each time it is handed off, an object both receives and imparts status. The transaction gives rise to social negotiation.

Transposing that negotiation onto the art market with its collections, galleries, auction houses and museums, the distribution of art objects among art world players has similarly sought after social effects, on the objects, their makers, and their holders. With each move along the chain of custody, artworks accumulate exhibition stickers, artists acquire resumes and reputations, and collectors both share in and add to the status of artworks, their makers, and presenters. Economic exchange and ceremonial effects are intertwined here, but the elements are clearly distinguishable – the more so in cases when the amounts of money changing hands clearly point to the presence of the absurd.

Purchase model, sponsorship model, A. Mers

Purchase model, sponsorship model, A. Mers

Can that balance be refocused by shifting the financial input to another place of the chain, namely to the beginning? For works of art that are to be distributed freely, without copyright or under copyleft protection, can object ownership be replaced with object affiliation? By allowing those willing not to commission, which is an ownership concept, but to financially sponsor the making of non-market, didactic works to directly attach their names to the objects created, their reputations are yoked to both the makers and paths of the object, impacted with each click, view, or download. Who is ready to ante up?

Adelheid Mers is an artist and Associate Professor of Arts Administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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