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Applying for an art grant is the opposite of artistic: With its forms and procedures and judgments, and despite all good intentions, it is completely deadening. And grants go to the few, not the many. If we relied on grants alone to inspire art, we would be surely an almost entirely art-free society. This is the baffling wrong redressed by something called Arbitrary Art Grants. This summer alone, Arbitrary Art Grants have generated 94 sculptures, 150 works of graphic design, 34 dances, and one short story written by 200 writers. Eighty new performance artists and sixty first-time art dealers have appeared on Seattle streets because of the Arbitrary Art Grants.
Here's how they work: A call goes out online for, say, the Arbitrary Art Grant in Dance, or Sculpture, or some such: "Dance like you're being shot at" or "build a sculpture inside a grocery cart created from only the store inventory" are the only rules. Applicants then post videos of their bodies flailing from fictional gun-downings to YouTube or send photographs of their kaleidoscopic arrangements of produce to a website. For the writing grant, a story about the adventures of a ping-pong ball was written like a blog, with some 200 comments building on each other for the duration of a single workday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (on August 7).
Then the "judges"—meaning a Seattle guy named Greg Lundgren, who thought up the Arbitrary Art Grants, plus a couple of friends he enlists for fun—get together and think up a clever way to pick a winner. Like: Ping-pong balls with names written on them are tossed downriver, and whichever one reaches the finish line first wins. Or: The winner of the Arbitrary Art Grant in Performance Art—which called for performers protesting performance art on the street outside On the Boards, where the New Works Festival was opening—was chosen because his face passed through the viewfinder of a preset gun scope at the right moment. Lundgren hands the winners $500 cash, in small bills, from his own bank account.
What matters is not the winners—it's the hot, swirling planet of art that gets generated. Of course some of it is shit, but there's always something worth seeing, too. This colossal creative mass will be shoved into an exhibition of videos, photographs, two-dimensional art, sculptures, a book, and performance props at Bumbershoot this year.
Plus, three new competitions will happen during the three days of the festival, one per day. Fabric, a seamstress, and hair and makeup stylists will be available to anyone who wants to enter the fashion-design competition. For the Arbitrary Art Grant in Photography, you take a photograph, any photograph, inside the gates of Bumbershoot, titled Why I Came to Bumbershoot. In the architecture contest, you'll get a single sheet of card stock, plus tape, scissors, and glue, with which to build a work of architecture that you can then set on a faux landscape of green rolling hills made of felt. As in every round of Arbitrary Art Grants, the arbitrarily selected winner on each day gets 500 bucks.
"It's not about showing the best artists in the world," says Lundgren, who conducted his first round of Arbitrary Art Grants back in 2000. "It's about how to inspire people who are not normally involved in the making of art."
Not all grants should be arbitrary: That's a given. But the Arbitrary Art Grants take the usual public-service rhetoric of (public) arts funding and do it one better—motivating people not just to sit in an audience but to actually make things. Given the precipitous 20th-century slide away from production and into consumption in the arts, this is a tiny revolutionary blowback that looks like nothing more than fun.