I am a practitioner of the can-I-have-its, a collector of things. I am the sort who walks through antique shops touching everything, wondering what place these objects could hold in my life. I flip through the ikea catalog and salivate, just a little. I am, indeed, firmly ensconced in the material culture. As a result, I have a lot of stuff, a LOT of stuff. And as an artist, it's worse, because there is always some potential use somewhere down the road for that quirky rusty, something-or-other. In the last months I have been exploring the place of the gift in our culture, and the relationship between faith and fear and abundance and scarcity. I believe that the structure of artificial scarcity is not only self-perpetuating, but in fact, self-catalyzing. What happens when we believe that there is enough? What happens when we act on that belief? So in the spirit of the gift, I am embarking upon a mission to give away the things that I do not need. It is a practice of faith, and an act of rebellion against dominant capitalist culture. Is it a little crazy? Probably. Is it going to be hard? Absolutely. But here I go.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On the Nature of Needing

I've continued digging through the kitchen and now the floor and counters are strewn with tupperware lids, teapots, special little dip bowls, and more. I'll get to talking about that soon, but I want to take a little tangent for a moment. In my description of this project, I said, "I am embarking upon a mission to give away the things that I do not need". That immediately begs the question of how one defines need, and as I've worked my way into this project, I've found my notions of that concept beginning to change--or at least become a little slipperier, a little harder to pinpoint. Without getting so existential and abstract that I begin to question my need for clothes or forks and spoons--though that question is there, I had an uncle who lived with a single fork, spoon and knife, a pure and admirable rejection of material culture. Most of us can't do that though... right? Or can we?

Ok, I said I wasn't going to go that far, at least for today. So taking as a given some physical material essentials, clothes, dishes, a pot, a pan, silverware, etc... what does it mean to need? And how many different kinds of needs are there? My life is slightly easier since I bought that middle-sized pot at goodwill a couple of weeks ago. It serves a concrete purpose in my life, makes my life easier. But I'd be hardpressed to say I need it more than the doll that I've had since I was 4, who still lives in my bedroom closet, or my photo albums.

But what is it to need? What exactly is a need? I often think of Maslow's Heirarchy, though I don't completely buy it.

Here's how Mirriam-Webster defines need:
need noun \ˈnēd\
1 : necessary duty : obligation
2a : a lack of something requisite, desirable, or useful
b : a physiological or psychological requirement for the well-being of an organism
3 : a condition requiring supply or relief
4 : lack of the means of subsistence : poverty

need verb
1 : to be needful or necessary
2 : to be in want

What immediately strikes me is that need is defined as a lack. Therefore, is it a stretch to say that we only need what we don't have? That need is a desire, a wanting? We cannot, by definition, need the things that we have. Something about that construction of our language fascinates me. A need is something that is forever suspended in the external. In order to exist, it is and must remain perpetually out of reach.

So, if I am giving away the things that I don't need, am I giving away everything I own? No. Far from it. So far I'm defining the things I need as the things I have use for, the things I love, the things like that gravy boat that contribute to real joy and meaning in my life, the things that allow me to share that joy and meaning with others. Silly maybe, but I will certainly keep one set of extra blankets so that I may provide for guests.

In any case, part of my intention here is to try to allow room for that definition to start to wiggle around, and after some time and poking and prodding, we'll see what it morphs into. Most of all though, I'm trying to investigate the feelings of desire, attachment, and fear that seem to be so deeply embedded in our relationships to things.


  1. I understand more now what you've been saying about the strangeness of the definition, that it implies needs are "forever suspended in the external." So... anything you'd need if you didn't have? Slippery. I'd need a boat if I wanted to go fishing. But I don't need to go fishing. So do I need a boat? I'd need the extra set of sheets if I had guests over. But do I need to have guests over? Makes me feel like retreating to Maslow's list. We need very little. Perhaps the conversation is really about ways of judging what we want? Fear seems like a key part of the conversation, as you've said. Interesting.

  2. Love your project Shelley - I have been involved in my own culling, dubbed project MNMA (minima) a few years back.

    I tend to classify things under the banner of 'distractions' - which I further classify as clutter. Unwanted mental, physical, emotional, time, environmental hurdles that impede ones movement toward a more remarkable experience.
    As I have a family - I cannot shed a lot of the things that I would if I was single. Oh if I was, I would cut to the bone :)I want to know just how much I can do without.

    For me - the letting go is about freedom, from outmoded desires, states of being, etc.
    I want to let go of everything that is not love.

    This quote sums things up quite nicely - from the master of minimalist architecture himself:

    "Some people are dreaming about what they have not got, I am trying to forget what I have already had." ~John Pawson


  3. 'For me - the letting go is about freedom, from outmoded desires, states of being, etc.
    I want to let go of everything that is not love.'

    Beautiful, Kelly. Thank you.