“Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?” Chicago based curator Mary Jane Jacob asks in her contribution to What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art (2005). To ask this question means that the equation of generosity with reciprocity is not that self-evident. It is a question. What is actually the relation between generosity and reciprocity? How can they go together?
Since two decades through collaborative, participatory art projects situations have been created in which both artists and audiences give and receive. Time and again these situations produce a strange incongruity. Through these practices artists strive for generosity, for giving, for art-as-offering. They do this by inviting the audience to participate. Because of this invitation reciprocity is stimulated, the urge to make a return is enforced. Consequently the offer is no longer unconditionally generous, it asks for a response, expectations come up, the gift gets compromised. This strange, paradoxical effect is in fact the underlying issue that Mary Jane Jacob addresses with her question mentioned above: “Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?”
When she formulated this question, in 2005, a long-term project just had come to an end, titled Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness, which Jacob co-organized with Jacqueline Baas. In this project artists, curators, critics, and philosophers explored a framework of thinking and practice in which the question “Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?” would evaporate. A like-minded, recent project is the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit, co-initiated by artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert, of which a laboratory is running these months at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In these projects interconnectedness is explored, a key Buddhist concept, which according to Jacob “provides space for situations that are not “either/or; it permits coexistence” (Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, p. 168). Simultaneous, even conflicting or contradictory states are embraced instead of opposed, she explains. In this framework of thinking reciprocity as the urge to return a gift, back-and-forth between people, is cast off as it were as an illusion. The same happens with the idea of opposition between generosity and reciprocity. Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija: “Not having expectations, not wanting to predetermine, trying to be blank. You can receive more if you are empty” (ibid., p. 173).
Jacob, Tiravanija, and Lertchaiprasert form part of a wider tendency in art theory and philosophy to try to go beyond oppositional, either/or, dualistic thinking. Dutch philosopher Ilse Bulhof told me in an interview I had with her about art-to-encounter: “Let’s break loose from all those interpretations and judgments. A decreation, run-down, to become empty and open”.
This requires a radical shift of mind for some. For others it is already in line with their current practice. Whether you’re Buddhist or not, these thoughts indeed stimulate to think in a different way about the question if generosity itself can be a reciprocal practice. Maybe indeed the answer lies in trying to step out of the framework of thinking that makes us ask the question.
Mary Jane Jacob, Reciprocal Generosity, p. 3-10 in: Ted Purves (ed.), What We Want is Free : Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art. (State University of New York Press, Albany, 2005).
Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) gives an impression of the Awake project (Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness, 2000-2004).
Follow the activities of the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit at: 31century.org/in-chicago-eng