Do ut des*

Today, professionalism means the ability to act economically. But in the art system (as in the systems of law, politics and science) one has to keep one’s sense of self-worth distinct from one’s economic calculations in order to survive. The autonomy of art is, in any case, something that calls for proof, and, as Michael Hutter has written, one of the things that would have to be established in this respect is its immunity to market forces. Art belongs to the category of goods that benefit not only those who produce and procure them, but also others. The beneficiaries of artworks are the viewers, regardless of whether or not they own those works. Even reproductions enable artistic enjoyment, the accumulation of knowledge and insight. Like science, art is an unconditional basic investment. Anyone capable of drawing social or economic capital from the perception of culture can profit from it.

In his tripartite classification of society, Rudolf Steiner defines cultural production, and hence artistic creativity, as an economy of giving, which differs from the situation of employees, who hire out their labour, and employers, who might for example exchange their products for money. In East Asia it is customary not to give things of enduring value as presents. It is said that only ephemeral gifts earn friendship. Thus one gives flowers, or sweets, and pays careful attention to elaborate wrappings, which constitute the most ephemeral part of the entire gift. The recipient perceives the lovingly wrought wrapping only for an instant before destroying it, for the present is what it contains. This custom acknowledges that enduring gifts can be used to measure the distance between friends; they become the yardstick of friendship, demanding compensation when the scales are unbalanced. The end of many a friendship has been marred by a comparison of profits and expenses, even though the friends were aware from the start that friendship could no more by bought than the justice they now demand.

Polynesians throw their presents in the dust at the recipient’s feet in order to demonstrate the worthlessness of their offerings. This custom demonstrates how a present can become a declaration of war, for the recipient has to accept the gift in the way he would a gauntlet of challenge, and likewise he has to return it. In his book Sacrifice: its nature and function, Marcel Mauss describes how, in their potlatch ceremony, the Indians of the North American West Coast would often bankrupt themselves. In their ritualised gift giving, the higher ranking figures, the chiefs, and entire tribes had to outdo one another in their largesse. For it is generosity that demonstrates authority; only those who know no alternative resort to violence and brutality. Georges Bataille regards the potlatch as a social arrangement for making profitable use of surpluses, for the obligatory reciprocation leads ultimately to the relinquishing of power, and hence to rotation in the hierarchies.

To give a twist to an old German proverb, the wise man submits until he has become the fool. There comes a day when one’s laboriously accumulated wealth has to be given away, for he who does not give willingly will be cleared out posthumously by his heirs. At least the person who gives voluntarily can choose his moment of largesse. But even the economy of giving has to be learnt. It isn’t every sponsor that manages to erect a successful monument; not every artist who commits his or her life to art gains a place in the annals of art history; and it isn’t every gesture of neighbourly love that earns a place in heaven. These people only reap the gratitude of their fellow humans and of God when the latter consider they deserve it. The criterion is: selfless action – even when one knows how the action will be rewarded. Calculation might be essential to economics, but anyone who calculates in the economy of giving is sure to fail. Only those who give unconditionally receive the gifts they wish for.

*Latin proverb: "I give, that you may give." zurück

Michael Hutter: "Kann der Staat Kunst fördern" in "Kunstförderung in den Alpenländern", editors Clemens-August Andreae and Christian Smekal, Tirol 1992

Rudolf Steiner: "Die Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage in den Lebensnotwendigkeiten der Gegenwart und Zukunft", 1919, latest edition, Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach, 1976

Marcel Mauss: "Le Don", 1924, latest editon: Editions de Minuit, Paris 1968

Mauss, Marcel "Sacrifice: its nature and function", University of Chicago Press, 1964

Georges Bataille: "La Part Maudite, 1: La Consummation", Editions de Minuit, Paris 1949, latest edition 1967

Translation: Peter Cripps

"Do ut des" was written for the catalogue: "Daily Services", published 2003 at Vice Versa, Berlin