the gift

Walt Whitman and Bill Duckett 1886. Photographer unknown. Not in Saunders. Courtesy Ohio Wesleyan University, Bayley Collection

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World
author: Lewis Hyde (b. 1945)
published: 1983

I can’t lie and say that when I read the subtitle of The Gift I did not expect the book to have some self-help chapters. “Ways to Market Yourself” or “Even Van Gogh Had Two Jobs.”

Part of me was hoping for a 12-step program. Being someone drawn to producing art, I am realizing this tendency is not often a profitable one. Every artist, if they are true to their soul’s calling, battles with this dilemma of how to make a living while at the same time remaining pure.

The gift Hyde talks about in this book is multifaceted. The first half of his writing explores a gift like we think of a Christmas gift. Hyde starts simple and then builds on the complexity in the concept of gift giving. What is a gift? When we give a Christmas gift what are we actually doing?

We can say with some agreement, as Hyde does, a gift is something given without the assumption of a return.

Hyde has made me think of the gift a lot like pure love. Loving someone means not expecting the love in return, but instead a selfless giving. You cannot give a backrub to your spouse only because you hope to get one yourself. You give it because of your feelings for the person’s well-being and in hopes that this act of affection will raise their spirits. In the same sense, if I give you a book for Christmas and expect the same in return, are we not just making an exchange? An exchange in this instance is moving towards a commercial transaction and away from what Hyde establishes as a gift economy.

I mentioned love purposefully to bring up another point Hyde makes or a way he builds on the theory of the gift. For instance, when we give a back rub we, like I said, hope to raise the spirits or health of the person we are giving the massage to. The gift of the massage then grows into something else or flows into your spouse. We have the ability to love inside us and if we don’t let it out and let the gift of love flow then, Hyde would say, we’ve cut short the movement of the gift.

The concept of the gift grows in complexity, but Hyde does a good job pulling myths and tales from ancient cultures whose economies were rooted in the act of gift giving and helps to explain the important roll gifts have played throughout societies and not just in two people giving massages or Christmas presents.

The flip side of the gift economy is the market. If you don’t want to give your wife a massage, or you’re just not good enough, what do you do? You buy a gift certificate. You exchange your money for the service of a paid masseuse. With this purchase you are entering the market and there is little relationship between you and the masseuse and also not as much relationship building between you and your spouse.

In the act of commerce there is an inherent separation of those involved. The market is rooted in this separation. This is why we say you should not buy a used car from a relative, or why one should separate business from pleasure. In our modern world there is a blending of these economies. We have company picnics and outings, or business parties where the guys who sign checks sip drinks beside the guys who receive the check.

Hyde more eloquently defines the differences between these two economies in order to transition into the second half of the book exploring how artists navigate the mixing waters of these often contradictory systems.

The book is literally split in two. In the second half Hyde takes two poets (Hyde is a poet himself) and uses their lives and work as a way to transition from the historical background in the clashing of the gift and market economy into a contextualization of an artist’s struggle.

Hyde’s choice of Walt Whitman, who is consumed by the emotional weight of the natural and manmade world around him (a gift), and Ezra Pound, who is driven by an intellectual passion for politics (a gift), is pure genius.

Through the first half of the book I was curious as to how Hyde was going to make the move from a deep philosophical evaluation of the two battling economies into real examples of an artist as the foot soldier.

Hyde’s genius lies not in his ability to draw up a 12-step program for how not to fail as an artist in the modern market, instead it is more his ability to draw from these creator’s lives and their perfectly chosen words evidence of how they wrestled with this well-defined ancient clash of interests, to pay rent or create art.

I had hoped for more of a map on how I can navigate these conflicting realities as an artist, but Hyde doesn’t draw one up. He doesn’t presume to know the answers. He comes straight out and says how every artist’s journey is different. There is no solution for such a diverse group.

Reading The Gift as an artist is like going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting expecting to instantly stop drinking. There is hope in knowing others who have gone through the same pain and suffering, in learning from that pain, but most importantly that there is a history of people who have survived the trials of life without having to resort to a drink.

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