Art and the Sharing Economy

How today’s sharing economy is influencing the production and consumption of art.

“We couldn’t have existed ten years ago, before Facebook, because people weren’t really into sharing,” one of Airbnb’s founders, Nate Blecharczyk, has said. He has a point. People are willing to share just about everything today: renting a room in someone’s home through Airbnb or a bike with Divvy, Chicago’s “bike sharing system;” others are content sharing pictures of lavish vacations or unique experiences on social media. This sharing mentality coincides with today’s sharing economy, which is upending production and consumption behaviors in the arts.

Helen Molesworth, an art historian and curator, made a compelling observation between art and the post-war American economy in her essay, “Work Ethic.” She argues that post-World War II avant-garde art corresponded with the changing post-war American economy, from a manufacturing economy to a post-industrial one grounded in services and managerial labor. That is, from producing goods to overseeing the labor of others, she explains, and offers this example: Conceptual artists relied on language and directions for others to complete, thereby functioning like a manager; other artists gave themselves tasks, and performed them. Renouncing traditional artistic materials to produce an art object, “artists came to see themselves . . . as workers in capitalist America.”

From “me” to “we”

Economic terms have changed since post-war America — and so have the arts. Lynda Gratton, author of the book “The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here,” explains in a 2011 article in The Economist how the “traditional working role” has developed from a “parent-child relationship” to an “adult-adult” one. This evolved relationship coincides with an unprecedented spread of technology, which has helped move society from an individualistic culture towards a sharing one.

Technology appears to be a major reason for the turn in today’s economy, since it makes sharing easy. The internet connects individuals around the world and makes information readily accessible. Smartphones and social media enhance this process: people willingly contribute everything, from personal details to business advice on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. More still, millennials growing up sharing information, files and knowledge help propel this culture shift, Rachel Botsman argues in a 2010 Ted Talk. This mentality is permeating into most realms of life, including the production and consumption of art.

It’s a point made clear as more and more creatives, artists and even those in science and math-based industries use computer code for creative expression. Using code in art exemplifies today’s sharing economy: it is common for programmers to make projects open source, meaning that the software’s source code is available for the public to use, improve or alter.

The willingness to share code is wide-spread. New media artist and programmer Zach Lieberman is the co-founder of openFrameworks: an open source, creative coding tool. Of its many goals, openFrameworks aims for collaboration, and claims to be “driven by a ‘do it with others’ (DIWO) philosophy.” Such an approach suggests the sharing of information. Karsten Schmidt, a computational designer that combines design, code and skills in art and crafts, also contributes to open source projects, as does Future Cities Lab, an “experimental design studio, workshop and architectural think tank” in San Francisco. The question is: why are programmers so willing to share their code?

“Making the source code public allows for study and collaboration between artists, programmers and enthusiasts,” artist and coder Alka Cappellazzo says in an April 2015 The Creators Project article. “Art is knowledge, it is not good to build jealously, but to share so that it can live and spread.” Some, like Cappellazzo, realize the benefit of working with others to help solve a problem or come up with a solution. Oftentimes, altruistic reasons are cited: having benefited from others’ open source software, people feel the need to give back. Or perhaps those making projects open source have a similar motive as people posting news and pictures on social media: to self-promote and build an audience.

“Access over ownership”

Today’s economy is also revealed in what society is consuming: valuing “access over ownership.” Put another way, experiences trump the ownership of things. “Once, the well-heeled bought fancy stuff. Nowadays they spend more on things to do and see,” claims an August 2015 article in The Economist. The article goes on to explain how millennials in particular are sharing these experiences through social media “to make their friends jealous.”

The experience sought today is revealed in several art companies that understand these new buying trends. ArtMgt allows customers to buy, rent or commission a piece of art. Conceivably, leasing an artwork for a period of time provides the experience of being an art patron, without the commitment of owning it or having to come up with a substantial amount of money to buy it. This flexible strategy coincides with consumer behavior today, as Botsman puts it: “I don’t want stuff. I want the needs or experiences it fulfills.”

Sedition, a company that advocates “art for screens,” already has the sharing patron in mind. Limited edition works by Damien Hirst, Bill Viola and Yoko Ono, among others, are available for purchase, and are accessed on digital devices. Being digital makes it convenient to share a newly purchased artwork with others. Sedition also seems to anticipate today’s experience-driven motive by promoting buyers to “watch your editions appreciate in value” and encouraging them to “own, enjoy and resell” original edition artworks.

The internet and social media are just the beginning. The use of robots, improvements to virtual reality and the implementation of the Internet of Things will likely upend economies worldwide. As the physical and virtual worlds continue to collide, it can only be assumed that the economy will change again, and so will art production and consumption.

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad