JZ Jeff Zych

Thoughts on “The Gift”

I finally finished “The Gift,” by Lewis Hyde, after reading it on and off for at least the last 4 months (probably more). Overall I really enjoyed it and found it very thought-provoking. At its core it’s about creativity, the arts, and the tension between art and commerce — topics which are fascinating to me. It explores the question, how do artists make a living in a market-based economy? (I say “explores the question” instead of “answers” because it doesn’t try to definitively answer the question, although some solutions are provided).

It took me awhile to finish, though, because the book skews academic at times, which made some sections a slog to get through. The first half goes pretty deep into topics including the theory of gifts, history of gift-giving, folklores about gifts, and how gift-based economies function; the latter half uses Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound as real-life examples of the theory-based first half. Both of these sections felt like they could have been edited down to be much more succinct, while still preserving the main points being made. This would have made the book easier to get through, and the book’s main points easier to parse and more impactful.

There’s a sweet spot in the middle, however, which is a thought-provoking account of the creative process and how artists describe their work. If I were to re-read the book I’d probably just read Chapter 8, “The Commerce of the Creative Spirit.”

The book makes a lot of interesting points about gifts and gift-giving, market economies, artists and the creative process, how artists can survive in a market economy, and the Cold War’s affect on art in America, which I summarize below.

On Gifts and Gift-Giving

  • Gifts need to be used or given away to have any value. Value comes from the gift’s use. They can’t be sold or stay with an individual. If they do, they’re wasted. This is true of both actual objects and talent.
  • Gift giving is a river that needs to stay in motion, whereas markets are an equilibrium that seeks balance.
  • Giving a gift creates a bond between the giver and recipient. Commerce leaves no connection between people. Gifts foster community, whereas commerce fosters freedom and individuals. Gifts are agents of social cohesion.
  • Gifts are given with no expectation of a return gift. By giving something to a member of the community, or the community itself, you trust that the gift will eventually return to you in some other form by the community.
  • Converting a gift to money, e.g. by selling it on the open market, undermines the group’s cohesion, fragments the group, and could destroy it if it becomes the norm.
  • Gift economies don’t scale, though. Once it grows beyond the point that each member knows each other to some degree it will collapse.

On Market Economies

  • Market economies are good for dealing with strangers, i.e. people who aren’t part of a group, people who you won’t see again. There’s a fair value to exchange goods and services with people outside the group, and no bond is created between people.
  • Markets serve to divide, classify, quantify. Gifts and art are a way of unifying people.

On Artists and the Creative Process

  • Artists typically don’t know where their work comes from. They produce something, then evaluate it and think, “Did I do that?”
  • To produce art, you have to turn off the part of your brain that quantifies, edits, judges. Some artists step away from their work, go on retreats, travel, see new things, have new experiences, take drugs, isolate themselves, and so on. The act of judging and evaluating kills the creative process. Only after a work of art is created can an artist quantify it and judge it and (maybe) sell it.
  • Art is a gift that is given to the world, and that gift has the power to awaken new artists (see above, gifts must keep moving). That is, an artist is initially inspired by a master’s work of art to produce their own. In this way, art is further given back to the world, and the cycle of gift-giving continues.
  • Each piece of work an artist produces is a gift given to them by an unknown external agent, and in turn a gift they pass on to the world.
  • Artists “receive” their work – it’s an invocation of something (e.g. “muse”, “genius”, etc.). The initial spark comes to them from a source they do not control. Only after this initial raw “materia” appears does the work of evaluation, clarification, revision begin. Refining an idea, and bringing it into the world, comes after that initial spark is provided to them by an external source. "Invoking the creative spirit"
    • Artists can’t control the initial spark, or will it to appear. The artist is the servant of the initial spark.
    • Evaluation kills creativity – it must be laid aside until after raw material is created.
  • The act of creation does not empty the wellspring that provided that initial spark; rather, the act of creation assures the flow continues and that the wellspring will never empty. Only if it’s not used does it go dry.
  • Imagination can assemble our fragmented experiences into a coherent whole. An artist’s work, once produced, can then reproduce the same spirit or gift initially given to them in the audience.
  • This binds people by being a shared “gift” for all who are able to receive it. This widens one’s sense of self.
  • The spirit of a people can be given form in art. This is how art comes to represent groups.
  • The primary commerce of art is gift exchange, not market exchange.

How Artists Can Survive in a Market Economy

The pattern for artists to survive is that they need to be able to create their work in a protected gift sphere, free of evaluation and judgment and quantification. Only then, after the work has been made real, can they evaluate it and bring it to market. By bringing it to the market they can convert their gift into traditional forms of wealth, which they can re-invest back in their gift. But artists can’t start in the market economy, because that isn’t art. It’s “commercial art,” i.e. creating work to satisfy an external market demand, rather than giving an internal gift to the world.

There are 3 ways of doing this:

  1. Sell the work itself on the market — but only after it’s been created. Artists need to be careful to keep the two separate.
  2. Patronage model. A king, or grants, or other body pays for the artist to create work.
  3. Work a job to pay the bills, and create your work outside of that. This frees artists from having to subsist on their work alone, and frees them to say what they want to say. This is, in a sense, self-patronage.
  4. Bonus way: arts support the arts. This means the community of artists creates a fund, or trust, that is invested in new artists. The fund’s money comes by taking a percentage of the profits from established artists. This is another form of patronage.

But even using these models, Hyde is careful to point out that this isn’t a way to become rich – it’s a way to “survive.” And even within these models there are still pitfalls.

Soviet Union’s affect on art in America

In the 25th Anniversary edition afterword, Hyde makes the connection that the Cold War spurred America to increase funding to the arts and sciences to demonstrate the culture and freedom of expression that a free market supports. A communist society, on the other hand, doesn’t value art and science since they don’t typically have direct economic benefit, and thus doesn’t have the same level of expression as a free market. The end of the Cold War, unfortunately, saw a decrease in funding since the external threat was removed. This was an interesting connection that I hadn’t thought about before.

Final Thoughts

All in all, a very thought-provoking book that I’m glad I read.

Tags: books
Previous article: « Managing Design work with Discovery Kanban at Optimizely
Next article: Books I Read in 2016 »