Posthumous Philanthropy

I would like to fund my work with the money of the dead.

We have an idea of freedom. But in the arts there is very little freedom. And perhaps one reason for this is that we all need to eke out an existence, begging, fundraising, applying. We look to those with money – institutions, individuals, businesses – to raise funds, and we are presented with two problems: first, through the concrete social interaction that is the exchange of money, we enter into a political system; and second, through the exchange of money we enter into relationships that persist over time, inhibiting our ability to alter identities.

At the nexus between the individual and the society-at-large, the exchange of money is a particularly political site – and this is the primary problem. Only without money and without a need for money can we approach something like an apolitical existence. Money is what ties us to each other and what ties us to a hierarchical funding system in the arts. Art is political too. More specifically, its creator moves in the direction of the apolitical (above, smooth) and the work (object or experience) moves in the direction of the political-poetic. It is embedded in politics through and through, though it is slippery until society settles on what it means, and owns it. Artists create objects, histories and experiences that can enter politics (ambiguously) on their behalf, precisely so they don’t have to. That the artist is tied to politics through money is an unavoidable problem. Just as we hope our works never have a settled meaning, so we wish that we did not have to be in politics to make art. Unfortunately, there is no escape. Society consumes us and owns our work.

The second problem concerns the temporal aspect of politics and funding. We find a source of funds and through this exchange we develop a relationship that persists over time. The course of this relationship shapes and stabilizes our identity. We build loyalties. A stable identity is more efficient than an unstable one. Loyalty, in this way, always constructs continuity and aims at the boring side of progress. Conservative identities in the arts are killing us, and killing art. It’s not “out with the old,” it’s out with relationship that makes you old, that turns you old right before your eyes, just because you have a mistaken conception that being an artist is also a possible career path.

I propose that we fund our work with the money of the dead. I propose that we source our project-funds from those living, on the premise that the work will only be made public after the person who gave money is dead. The terminally ill can give money knowing that there is no chance they will see the final production. Healthy people could give money knowing they are investing in a distant future they will never know and not be a part of. This bridge between life and death may be the only place where money can exit politics.

But we have loyalties with the dead just as we do with the living, you say. Yes, but there is an important difference between loyalty relationships with dead and political relationships with the living. Loyalty with the dead is productive, it is poetic, it enables change, it is smooth and adaptable. We move on, and they stay dead. Our relationship with the dead cannot be political, it can only be poetic.

We used to nurture relationships with the dead. The dead would be present to us, aiding us, guiding us, ambiguously. That we cannot sustain a relationship with the dead is a sign of how literal, how unpoetic we’ve become.

It would be best if we found money on the ground and picking it up, thought, “This money belongs to no one, apparently. Perhaps I should make art with it as a way of sublimating it, using it produce ambiguity and to make the world more complicated, more beautiful. Perhaps with this money I can be free to create, not out of duty, but as a return gift to an entity I will never know.” This will never happen, save the odd $20 bill. But perhaps one could convince a living person to give money knowing that this money will enable life and art after her death. I would like to think so.

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