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the gift

...a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, (...) works of art exist simultaneously in two 'economies', a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.

This is the premise of Lewis Hyde's 'The Gift' (1983). Part anthropology, sociology and economics and part literary criticism, the book is hard to categorize, let alone summarize. But, as Hyde points out, that's part of its point. His thoughtful, circuitous approach offers a wealth of detail, and while he reaches no clear-cut conclusion there's plenty to ponder on the way. For instance, the book contains a very interesting chapter on the history and morality of usury, a subject which has acquired new relevance in today's global financial woes. It's just one of many seemingly disparate themes Hyde brings together to support his main argument: a passionate plea for valuing art and creativity on their own terms, as gifts.

The first part of the book is devoted to exploring the concept of the gift economy, while in the second part Hyde gives two detailed case studies of "the commerce of the creative spirit", of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. In explaining the gift economy, Hyde draws on the classical anthropological work by Marcel Mauss and others - notably his book 'Essai sur le don' (1950), which in English is also called 'The Gift'.

Mauss described a type of society, found in North America and the islands of Polinesia, based on intricate systems of gift exchange. Not to be confused with barter, nor with simple altruism, gift economies stem from the belief that wealth must be kept in circulation to retain its value and thus, that its circulation is what keeps the community alive. In a very real sense, gift exchange is the community. As Mauss stated:

...everything - food, women, children, property, talismans, land, labour services, priestly functions, and ranks - is there for passing on, and for balancing accounts. Everything passes to and fro as if there were a constant exchange of a spiritual matter, including things and men, between clans and individuals, distributed between social ranks, the sexes, and the generations.

The reason for this is more than just "balancing accounts" in a practical sense. It is because:

...to accept something from somebody is to accept some part of his spiritual essence, of his soul. To retain that thing would be dangerous and mortal, not only because it would be against law and morality, but also because that thing coming from the person (...) exert(s) a magical or religious hold over you.

Thus the most basic 'rule' of gift exchange is that a gift received must be reciprocated. We still recognize this idea on a personal level, but when it is extended to entire communities - when the person you give to is not necessarily the same person you receive back from - it creates a tightly-knit system of mutually dependent relationships. A remnant of this old system is the obligation, or virtue, of giving alms in many of the world's religions.

In 'primitive' societies, the circle of gift exchange includes the gods as well. As they give life to the community - human life as well as the abundance of crops and animals - so the community gives to the gods, in the form of sacrifical offerings. Far from being wasteful or destructive, sacrifices served as the concrete reciprocations of man to "the true owners of the things and possessions of this world".

Of course modern market economies are based on mutual dependencies as well, but the crucial difference is that the relationships it creates are not personal but anonymous. With money, contracts and commodities, gifts have been replaced by transactions, and the community and personal ties that come with gifts have given way to individual freedom. In fact, in our market-based society gifts are often suspicious and in many situations forbidden, in business and in politics - exactly because they create personal ties that threaten to muddy up the impersonal, 'free' transactions.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the difference between the two systems is that in a market economy the most powerful individuals are those who accumulate the most wealth, whereas in a gift economy they are the ones who are able to give the most wealth away. Again, this is not just altruism - extreme examples of 'competitive giving' were found in the potlatch festivals in the Pacific Northwest of America. Summing up their function, Hyde states:

...a circulation of gifts nourishes those parts of our spirit that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, the group, the race, or the gods. Furthermore, although these wider spirits are a part of us, they are not 'ours'; they are endowments bestowed upon us. To feed them by giving away the increase they have brought us is to accept that our participation in them brings with it an obligation to preserve their vitality.

So, from this anthropological background, Hyde develops his argument to view works of art in a similar way, as gifts. By now we can see how this is true on several levels. Firstly, Hyde reminds us that artistic creation is above all a gift to the artist. Modern man may have differing views on where this gift comes from, but the basic fact is still engrained in our language: a talent is also called a gift.

An essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that 'begging bowl' to which the gift is drawn. Remember Meister Eckhart: 'It were a very grave defect in God if, finding thee so empty and so bare, he wrought no excellent work in thee nor primed thee with glorious gifts.' It is the artist's hope that we may say the same of the creative spirit.

Secondly, a work of art is a gift from the artist to his society. Even when an artist earns money with his art, it is still intuitively clear that the price of a work has little to do with its intrinsic worth. Or to put it in Marxist terms, there is a difference between the work's use value and market or exchange value. Here Hyde returns to the "spiritual matter" which is at the heart of the gift economy. Even when all else has been commodified (i.e. reckoned in terms of market value), art still retains its much older value of being "not entirely personal", of something that nourishes the group. Hyde eloquently describes this spiritual function of art:

The work of art is a copula: a bond, a band, a link by which the several are knit into one. Men and women who dedicate their lives to the realization of their gifts tend the office of that communion by which we are joined to one another, to our times, to our generation, and to the race. Just as the artist's imagination 'has a gift' that brings the work to life, so in the realized gifts of the gifted the spirit of the group 'has a gift'. These creations are not 'merely' symbolic, they do not 'stand for' the larger self; they are its necessary embodiment, a language without which it would have no life at all.

Fittingly, it's Whitman, the poet, who is able to voice all this much more concisely:

Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.

The introduction of 'The Gift' is online, as is the new afterword Hyde wrote for the 2006 reissue, which nuances his argument in an interesting way. For more background on Hyde, see this long NY Times article, 'What Is Art For?', which also touches on his new project, a book about the cultural commons.

Recommended:

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A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. Or I gue… Read the full post »

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