Editorial of January 22th 2009

Fabien Danesi
mass for marcel mauss : gifts, exchanges, and potlatch in contemporary art


Christian Joschke the gift of art and the gift of self

Seminar of January 22th 2009
Christian Joschke is an Associate Professor at the Université Lumière (Lyon 2). After studying Art History and German Studies, he defended in 2005 at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales a dissertation entitled Les yeux de la nation. Photographie amateur et société dans l’Allemagne de Guillaume II, which will be published by Presses du réel (Dijon) in 2009. He has been an “ATER” instructor at the Collège de France (the European Chair occupied by Professor Hans Belting) and then at Marc Bloch University of Strasbourg, as well as a postdoctoral fellow at Paris’s Centre allemand d’histoire et de l’art and then at the Marc Bloch Center of Berlin, where he continues to be an associate member. He has published, among other texts, “Aux origines des usages sociaux de la photographie,” Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 154 (September 2004): 53-65 and “La photographie, la ville et ses notables: Hambourg, 1893,” Études photographiques, 17 (2005): 136-57. Joschke has translated Horst Bredekamp’s book Les coraux de Darwin (Dijon: Presses du réel, 2008).

the gift of art and the gift of self

       The logic of gift giving is of a piece with artistic creativity. Did not one, in times past, compare the relationship between the artist and his work to the love relationship wherein one gives more than one can hope to receive? But what do artists give when they give art? The material and immaterial goods Daniel Spoerri, Thomas Hirschhorn, or Félix Gonzales-Torres give when they stage an act of giving or of spending lavishly have hardly any commercial value. The examples Fabien Danesi mentions show this rather well. When he gives, what the artist transmits, in an appreciable and sometimes violent way, is his critical sense, his willingness to call out to viewers about the commercial economic system. To give is above all to show; it is to render apparent the protest, expressed in the donor’s gesture, against the rise of utilitarian thinking and the triumph of commercial calculation. He who views such an action is forced to accept a network of interdependency he has not chosen, and that person finds himself obligated without any real assurance that he will one day be able to honor, or even show respect for, his donor. But a change that has taken place over the course of the second half of the twentieth century may be observed. What fascinates in the act of giving has itself evolved. By the 1990s, gifts were no longer being likened, as they had been during the 1960s, to potlatch rivalry or to sacrificial spending. They were no longer considered acts of submission on the part of beneficiaries to donors. Nor do they pertain any longer to a form of utopia involving a “total social fact” in which the gift would accomplish several things at once (invocation of the gods, mediation, matrimonial alliance, contract, etc.). Gifting is now considered an act whose aim is to revitalize or to create social relationships, dissolved within a general economy of social gestures. The artist’s act of giving often manifests itself through a sharing of authority and a renunciation of a part of the ownership of the work. Henceforth, what artists do is give themselves to the viewer.

The Gift of Art and the Modern Artist

       It is important to recall that the economy of gift giving as applied to the fine arts in the context of European courts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was one of the constitutive elements of the freedom of the artist and of his sovereignty over the execution of his work. The transition from the medieval system of artisan corporations to the system of court artists placed artists in a new context, one where works made for sovereign rulers were no long done so on mere commission but as gifts from the artist to his lord. Rather than intervening in the work by prescribing its desiderata, the Prince ceded to the artist his full freedom to choose its forms and contents as well as the manner in which the subject would be treated, granting him an income and honors and sometimes even a title of nobility in compensation for his best talents. This was, according to Martin Warnke, an important moment in the advent of the modern artist--who is said to have gained in this way his autonomy by joining in a system of gifts and counter-gifts peculiar to court culture that assured him full freedom over the thing given and guaranteed him full sovereignty over his art.
       In a later context, and more specifically in the treatise on painting written by Leon Battista Alberti in 1435, the idea of the gift of art was combined with a reflection on Aristotelian ethics. There, artistic productions are likened to giving without expectation of return, which is characteristic of love relationships and maternal relationships. Recently, Ulrich Pfisterer has shown that, despite what numerous commentators might have assumed to be the case, Alberti’s comparison of the artist to the character of Narcissus did not have a “mediological” meaning, but rather an ethical one. In his Nicomachean Ethics, which was translated in 1246-47 by Robert Grosseteste and which Alberti had been able to study at the highly Aristotelian University of Padua, Aristotle develops a surprising parallel between the notions of friendship (amicitia) and benevolence (benevolentia), on the one hand, and the arts, on the other. In the same way that a benevolent person gives more love than he receives, an artifex invests more love in his work than that work would be capable of giving back to him, had he given it life. The work of an artist appears here therefore as an act of unrequited love. Moreover, the feelings of amicitia and benevolentia are, again according to Aristotle, awakened by the sight of a beautiful thing or of a beautiful person. So, says the philosopher, there exists a comparable relation between beauty and love, both in feelings one has for persons and in the emotion produced by works of art.
       The ethic of gift giving and the idea of the disinterested gratuitousness [gratuité] of art continued to be associated with artistic practice in the decades that followed. But it sometimes found a justification closer to the themes of Christian devotion than to those of the classical humanities. This was the case, for example, with Michelangelo, who, complaining about pontifical commissions and the permanent haggling he was compelled to engage in, formulated a theory of art as a gift and as an act of love in his letters to Vittoria Colonna (either 1538-41 or 1545-46). He made for her a drawing, a new kind of pieta. Now, as Alexander Nagel has shown, the very subject of this drawing refers back to the main justification of art as a gift: Christ gave of himself freely, without calculation, and that gift cannot be paid back in full but is, rather, an appeal to generosity. For Michelangelo, art is one of those gifts that is inspired by divine grace. Nagel clearly compares this theory to a reformed view of devotion, which rests on two principles: (1) the privatization of devotion (here, as with the relationship to God, the relationship of donor to donee is a private relationship, and the work that is given is a token of love or great friendship); and (2) the incommensurableness of the act of devotion, modern devotion being distinguished here from medieval devotion, which, along with the sale of indulgences, established an accountant-like relationship to God (whereas here the gift of a work of art cannot be appraised or measured). What is incontestable, then, is that the theory of art’s disinterested gratuitousness is constitutive of the artist’s own emancipation. It is because the artist gives freely, without calculation, and because he cultivates a personal and chosen relationship with the beneficiary of his work that he is free and sovereign.
       It is all the more paradoxical, then, that the advent of a market for art would be the second factor in the autonomization of the artist’s condition. The artist’s ability to choose between the commercial economy, commissions, and the system of gifts and counter-gifts allowed him to play one system against another. This was the case with Albrecht Dürer and later on with Rembrandt, who supplemented commissions with the market in order to free himself from dependence on patrons (Koerner, Alpers). Yet while the growth in size and significance of the market in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a nonnegligible factor in the rise of the modern condition of the artist, this change also led to the ouster of the beneficiary from the work and thus impoverished the meaning of art. Thenceforth, artists committed to staging the act of gift giving directed their efforts against the market and against consumerism. And from then on, to give was to criticize the system of commerce.

Gift Giving, Ownership, Possession

       Fabien Danesi has shown quite well that avant-garde movements’ reception in the 1960s of Marcel Mauss’s essay on The Gift oriented artists toward spending and sacrifice. In taking back up the formal contrast Mauss had made between a gift economy and a monetary economy, Lettrist artists and the New Realists staged gift giving in order to take on the role of primitive societies and to challenge the self-evidence of monetary and market relations. Potlatch is a gesture of excessive spending and a violent one when made within the context of the normal operation of an economy based on regular exchange. But in the course of the last two decades, artists have put forward some new reflections on the matter. Relational aesthetics and free art are two emblematic examples. These two art forms make the viewer intervene in the work as a part of it or as those who share in its creation, thereby giving to the work an existence that extends beyond the moment of its execution. Art is also to be found in the shadow of the gesture of the artist who creates art and in the context that comes to life and survives in the exhibition of the artist on the arts scene. It is interesting to note here that those two forms of art had a common origin in conceptual art and came into being at the very moment when the status of the author was being challenged. Everything happens as if, in assuming his own death, the artist makes a gift of himself to the viewer, thus imparting to the latter new responsibilities in an unprecedented situation. In opening up his work to alien gestures he has stopped trying to master, the artist gave a part of himself. The relations between ethics and aesthetics thereby end up being modified. Critical art has given way to consensual art, which is deemed by some to be overly idealistic (Bishop). The work thus became the object of a staging--a staging not of the sacrificial violence of potlatch but of the interdependent network involved in the gesture of gift giving. This occurs either in the moments when the work is conceived as an act of gift giving that has been turned into a performance or when the artist offers his work as merely a framework for free interventions on the part of others. Having become a collective creation, the work was thus subjected to a voluntary act of dispossession. In trusting the viewer, who has become a creator in his own right, and in reversing the relation between the production of art and its reception, the artist has made a paradox of the symbolism of gift giving, which had guaranteed his autonomy at the end of the Middle Ages. The economy of gift giving was at the foundation of the freedom of the artist and of the mastery of his art. That same economy today involves a reverse logic, fully granted by the artist himself, that involves a renunciation of ownership of the work.


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