The joy of giving

Although I have worked for this esteemed newspaper for quite a few years, I know next to nothing about money. Well, I know about the daily-grind “getting and spending” – and despite that memorable phrase in Wordsworth’s sonnet, it sounds as if that was the extent of the poet’s financial sophistication too.

So it is only as an amused outside observer that I watch the changing ways in which money is talked of. And this does change, markedly. We are in a moment of highly emotive money-talk. And this surely indicates something about our relationship to money, which is perhaps even more impassioned during recessionary times.

As words go, I feel a little protective about “culture”. It can be pretty annoying – pace the sociologists of the 1970s, and the capacious range of meanings they accorded the term – that the word “culture” is trotted out whenever bankers’ behaviour becomes especially egregious, as a palliative to describe practices in which sheer greed has trumped both reason and humanity.

But “culture”, in the more focused usage that is the remit of this column, has reared its head in one of the most entertaining money rows of recent months: l’affaire Depardieu. When Gégé the corpulent screen-god gave an eloquent Gallic gesture to his country’s new supertax and flounced off to Belgium (after being courted by Russia, apparently with the offer of becoming minister of culture for Mordovia, home to Russia’s most brutal prison colonies), the language in his abandoned homeland became emotive in the extreme.

In some quarters his actions were justified simply because of his “culture”; in others, from high-flown evocations of ships and storms to guttersnipe name-calling, the French went for it – including the wit from Libération whose cover line (recalling both a Brussels statue and a certain event aboard an Air France jet in 2011) dubbed the fiscally challenged star “Le Manneken Fisc”.

So much for the jollity. More interesting, amid all the brouhaha, was that you could spot something fascinating about the way the new tax rate was being described, both by and to the public, as well as to the few thousand people affected by it. Not as a Cyprus-style bank heist, no: rather as a help to one’s beloved country in her (temporary) time of trouble, as a noble contribution to the public polity and to social cohesion, as a means of saying thank you (in Gégé’s case) to the place that nurtured you with her whopping public subsidies to the arts. Almost a privilege, in fact, to be given such an opportunity to give.

Which, for people who see the übertax as nothing but a rich-hunt, may cut very little ice. But it underlines something about our feelings towards money that is urgently relevant to the arts just now. Something about giving, rather than being made to pay. Here’s where the emotional language comes in.

One of the great treatises on the subject, Richard Titmuss’s The Gift Relationship, showed how a voluntary system of blood donorship ensured a far more reliable and better quality supply of blood than any amount of payment. The point is that nothing is more emotive than blood, and nothing extracts it from us better than a chance to give it freely, to feel good while we are doing it, and to be able to track the results. Very unlike paying tax.

This deep-rooted set of feelings is the basis for the huge success of crowdfunding schemes in the arts (just two days ago, a new festival called Alt-Fest announced that it had scooped double its target amount from Kickstarter). And it leads the thinking of the UK’s newest crowdfunding initiative, the National Funding Scheme for the Arts and Heritage – more snappily to be known as Donate.

You can make donations on the hoof to projects of the first six member arts organisations via your mobile phone: a method which, as interim chairman Robert Dufton puts it, catches people “at the point of emotional engagement”. As the fund’s blurb points out, it “allows donors to give at the moment of greatest ‘connection’ – after having attended a performance or exhibition. Research ... has shown this to be when supporters are at their most generous.”

Admen have been researching this effect for a century, and although the “exit through the gift shop” mentality might not be the most elevated way of extracting our hard-earned, at least these “hidden persuaders” are in the open. Not only is it an excellent way to pull in small donations from the greatest number of people, it’s a perfect scheme for the Twitter generation, who get out their mobiles to tweet an event almost before the experience has begun. Just as long as it can be done in 140 characters.

Peter Aspden is away. Listen to our weekly podcast of this column at

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