30 Sep


Lewis Hyde, 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.”

“We rightly speak of ‘talent’ as a ‘gift,’ for although a talent can be perfected through an effort of will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance. Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift.”

[Note: Hyde categorises the creation and care of culture or of other people as traditionally feminine or feminised “gift” professions, and points out that even women in “hard”, traditionally masculine professions like law or banking may still not be paid as much as their male counterparts for doing the same clearly defined and non-gifting labour. Depressingly, this is still true decades after the book was first published.]

“But if we could factor out the exploitation, something else would still remain: there are labors that do not pay because they, or the ends to which they are directed, require built-in constraints on profiteering, exploitation and – more subtly – the application of comparative value with which the market is by nature at ease… ‘Female’ tasks – social work and soul work – cannot be undertaken on a pure cost-benefit basis because their products are not commodities, not things we easily price or willingly alienate. Furthermore, those who assume these labors automatically inhibit their ability to ‘sell themselves’ at the moment they answer their calling. Gift labor requires the kind of emotional or spiritual commitment that precludes its own marketing. Businessmen rightly point out that a man who cannot threaten to quit his job has no leverage when demanding a higher salary. But some tasks cannot be undertaken in such an adversarial spirit. Few jobs are pure gift labors, of course – although a nurse is committed to healing, she is also an actor in the marketplace – but any portion of gift labor in a job will tend to pull it out of the market and make it less lucrative – and a ‘female’ – profession.”

“There are three primary ways in which the modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood: they have taken second jobs, they have found patrons to support them, or they have managed to place the work itself on the market and pay the rent with fees and royalties… The second job frees his art from the burden of financial responsibility so that when he is creating the work he may turn from questions of market value and labor in the protected gift-sphere. He earns a wage in the marketplace and gives it to his art.

The case of patronage (or nowadays, grants) is a little more subtle. The artist who takes a second job becomes, in a sense, his own patron: he decides his own work is worthy of support, just as the patron does, but then he himself must go out and raise the cash. The artist who manages to attract a patron may seem less involved with the market… but if we fail to see the market here, it is because we are only looking at the artist. When an artist takes a second job, a single person moves in both economies, but with patronage there is a division of labor – it is the patron who has entered and converted its wealth into gifts. Once made, the point hardly needs elaboration. Harriet Shaw Weaver, that kindly Quaker lady who supported James Joyce, did not get her money from God; nor did the Guggenheims, nor does the National Endowment for the Arts. Someone, somewhere sold his labor in the marketplace, or grew rich in finance, or exploited the abundance of nature, and the patron turns that wealth into a gift to feed the gifted.”

“If an artist lives in a culture which is not only dominated by exchange trade but which has no institutions for the conversion of market wealth to gift wealth, if he lives in a culture that cannot, therefore, settle the debt it owes to those who have dedicated their lives to the realization of a gift, then he is likely to be poor in fact as well as in spirit… In a land that feels no reciprocity towards nature, in an age when the rich imagine themselves to be self-made, we should not be surprised to find the interior poverty of the gifted state replicated in the actual poverty of the gifted.”


3 Responses to “GIFTS”

  1. anitachowdry 30/09/2014 at 3:07 PM #

    One could argue that the artist is intrinsically a commodity in him/her-self – an artist can only produce meaningful work if they have the time and resources to do so, so patronage is about supporting the artist in order to get the output (which is why buying or commissioning a single piece of work does not constitute patronage – it is merely a market transaction).
    Gengis Khan;s grandfather, the infamous Timor the lame who founded Smarqand, knew this. When he went on his city-sacking campaigns, he slaughtered everybody and took the booty – which included the contents of the treasury, the best looking women from the harem, and the artists, scholars and craftsmen from the workshops, whom he set to work in his own city. He was smart – merely taking works of art is not what counts – saving the human resources that could produce more is what counts.

    • Alistair 30/09/2014 at 4:18 PM #

      Hyde actually says this in the quote and elsewhere in the book, albeit indirectly, although I think it’s more accurate to call artists a social good rather than a commodity, because neither artists nor their creativity can be used up, shut down or artifically restricted in the same way that oil, energy or food (even if individual artists come and go, of individual art works may be lost, destroyed or otherwise taken out of circulation, and the modern arts and media industries does everything in its power to create artificial scarcity in the face of 21st digital plenitude). Hyde also makes this point in suggesting that (non-physical) gifts are, by definition, incapable of being used up. On the contrary, the more they are shared, the more their power and utility increases… as folklore and religion throughout the world used to remind us, until the commodity mentality gained supremacy.
      As you correctly point out, even tyrants of the ancient world knew enough to carefully preserve cultural goods and their makers, if only because in the absence of mass media, arts, crafts, science and knowledge were the primary indexes of a ruler’s might. Other cultures had not a moment’s doubt about absorbing the cultural output of refugees or the vanquished, e.g. the Minoan craftsmen who fled natural disasters and the subsequent collapse of their own society to seed arts and crafts throughout the ancient Mediterranean, the Romans, right up to most of the Ottoman rulers who weren’t completely insane and/or blinded by zealotry. There’s also the fact that artists, poets and so forth throughout history have always walked a line between being indispensible and being the first for the chop when they go to far for the liking of the ruling class, a recognition that an artist can change minds– for better or for worse– where tyrants fail. I’m really not trying to do a Godwin’s Law here, but it was a trademark of the 20th century’s worst perpetrators of crimes against humanity (Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and so on ad nauseum) that they valued art works as physical objects and “culture” as an abstract ideal but somehow thought both of these things can exist and have value without the artists, writers, teachers and thinkers who make them. Furthermore, every single one of them thought and assumed that any creative people who were “allowed” to remain could be and should be puppeteered to say whatever suited the state. In every case as a matter of urgency they systematically persecuted, imprisoned, murdered or drove into exile gifted but uncooperative people in their thousands. We have so many examples that it’s far from hysterical for any progressive person to reject a societal consensus and/or a ruling regime that insists culture doesn’t matter or is a frivolity it can’t tolerate or afford.

  2. anitachowdry 30/09/2014 at 3:11 PM #

    I heant Gengis Khan’s grandson Timor!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: