Giving it away – Seeking Relief in a Money-mad World.

Since the 1960s and the birth of minimalism, see land art and conceptualism, drugs artists have been involved in creating works never intended to be shown in a gallery/museum setting. In two manifestations of this idea: street art, and mail art, the artist simply gives their work away. The two artists who’s work I examined, created artistic practices that sought out ways to connect to a community. Dave Warnke, a local artist, creates paintings and stickers and posts them in public places locally and around the globe. Ray Johnson (1927-1995) created a correspondence school in which a network of fellow artists shared collages and drawings through the mail. What would make an artist want to give away his hard work, with no expectations of earning a penny from it? To answer this question, we need to examine our current art landscape.

With the explosion of the American art scene after World War II, art was quickly transforming into a viable commodity market. Artists were beginning to make generous livings from their art and were obtaining star status. The art market today continues to grow. Despite a steady stream of declarations throughout the last few decades that painting is finally dead, the art market has never seemed hotter. Art Fairs are sprouting up and multiplying at an astounding rate all over the world. The works of living artists such as Peter Doig and Damien Hirst are fetching record sums at art auctions. Private collectors like Saatchi in London, Carlos and Rosa De la Cruz, The Rubell Family in Miami, and Don Fisher in San Francisco are snatching up entire gallery exhibitions to add to their enormous, investment driven collections. As an artist, it’s hard to not wish for a tiny slice of the pie. But having dollar signs in the eyes can blind an artist from their artistic intensions and have detrimental affects on the quality of an artist’s work.

Art looses its power when it becomes too much a commodity and not enough of a “gift”. As Lewis Hyde discusses in his book: The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, an artist who begins creating artwork with the market in mind can’t possibly make the same caliber of work that he would make if he created work solely from the perspective of creating. Once the freedom of creation is removed, the second strength of art; communication, is lost too. In “The Society of the Spectacle”, Guy Debord illustrates the ways in which the spectacle has perfected human separation. A sense of human connectedness that once happened naturally in non-consumer societies is thread-thin in our world.

Dave Warnke seeks connections through giving away paintings, drawings and stickers. His paintings can be found throughout San Francisco and Oakland pinned to telephone poles or pasted on newspaper stands. He is interested in transforming graffiti into a positive, publicly accepted art form. By choosing more non-destructive methods of posting his art, he not only gives people opportunities to take his work home for free, he helps transform street art into a more acceptable form. He also benefits by reaching the general public with his art. He is able to get his art into the homes of people who don’t normally go to galleries or can’t afford to buy fine art. Warnke also teaches a street styles art class to teenagers in San Francisco. His class focuses on improving formal aspects of graffiti design as well as introducing teenagers to alternative means of displaying their art in public. His students swap stickers with similar classes around the globe, giving his student’s artwork more exposure while introducing them to new people and new styles. The kids build new communities and find solutions for legitimizing their art.

Ray Johnson had been sending mail art since his days at Black Mountain College in the 1940s. He is famously known as the “father of mail art” and founded the New York Correspondence School in 1960s. Johnson created a network of artists who would send each other gifts of mail art in the form of collages and drawings. Artists were encouraged to modify or add to previous pieces. Johnson was constantly pushing boundaries and breaking rules by bringing into question the importance of singular authorship and of preciousness of art materials or original imagery. His collages were an array of movie star photos, newspaper clippings and advertisements for commercial products. Many people have called Johnson a sort of choreographer of community. He was always trying to bring people together.

Both Johnson and Warnke exhibit((ed) and show(ed) their works through galleries and other traditional public art institutions while maintaining their “free” practices. The distribution of free art had an added bonus; they made their mark on the world through shear volume. They went about disseminating their works like skilled viral marketers. Both artists maintained a signature style, easily recognized if seen on enough occasions. Ray Johnson’s bunny face, which appears on a majority of his works, began to take on logo-like qualities. Dave Warnke had become well known for his “Hello, my name is… DAVe” stickers.

In our times, art is often valued by the world at large by its price tag. Expensive means good in our materialistic society. But some artists place very different values on art. Since the dawn of man, we have been creating and sharing art. Expressing universal human ideas, building strong community bonds, giving and receiving gifts as an expression of affection, these are possibly the original ideas that the first forms of art sprung from. As western civilizations grew and expanded, the purpose and meaning of art has changed drastically. Ray Johnson and Dave Warnke seem to be trying to tap into our base needs as artists; the need for a community, the need for leaving our mark, and the need for public expression.

Johnson, Ray. Ray Johnson : correspondences, exhibition organized by Donna De Salvo ; edited by Donna De Salvo an. Columbus, Ohio : Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999.
Hyde, Lewis. The Gift New York: Vintage Books, 1983 (Originally Published 1845)
Purves, Ted. What We Want Is Free, State University of New York Press, 2005
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle (1931). New York : Zone Books, 1994.