Sunday, April 10, 2016


The first gift came from Clare Whistler who asked me to write an 800 word piece on the 'gift economy' asap for a project that will be launched in July. It was not a term I'd come across before but the very next day, a Saturday, I discovered it was just the right subject that I needed to think about and explore. 

Briefly, before money there was a more ancient economic system driven by gifts and three obligations - giving a gift, receiving a gift and passing that on. A gift ceased to be gift if it was not passed on.

Flash forward through time to this book 'The Gift' - a profound meditation which explores the early gift economies but also focuses on how creative people understand the gifts they have been given and how they can survive in modern societies that commodify everything but also undervalue creative work.

The book has quite a history and comes larded with high-octane recommendations from the likes of Margaret Atwood ('A Masterpiece') , Zadie Smith ('Reminds us of our cultural gifts and our responsibilities to them - a manifesto of sorts.'), David Foster Wallace ('No one who is invested in any kind of art....can read The Gift and remain unchanged.') The quote that did it for me came from a review in the Independent on Sunday by Tim Martin which reads, in part, '....perhaps most importantly, his book offers to the lone-scribbler in his workshop those most valuable of gifts, inspiration, companionship, understanding and justification.' Just what I needed. 

First published in the US in 1983, it amazingly and for some unknown reason, was not published in the UK until Canongate brought it out in 2006 (paperback [above] in 2007). These editions have an additional Afterword by the author.

Below are some of the most useful and insightful reviews and reactions to the book which also explore Lewis Hyde and his other work as poet and translator. This is a book to live with and explore over and again. Much of the first part of the book is anthropological and also examines the role of gifts in folk tales. It roams through history and across disciplines and thought streams. A rich tapestry of information. The second half begins with a great chapter on 'The Commerce of the Creative Spirit' which is followed by two extended examinations of the poetry of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound examining their 'work and lives in the language of gift exchange'.

He talks of the gift element in a work of art as covering three things - the initial gift acquired by 'perception, experience, intuition, imagination, a dream, a vision or another work of art.' The second part of the gift is the labour to refine the 'materials of perception or intuition....if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self...the finished work is the third gift, the one offered to the world in general.'

The Afterword has much to say about the book's history and intentions, which in 1999 led to Hyde and others founding the Creative Capital Foundation, using a kind of gift economy to help living artists in the US pursue their muses. As they put it on their website: INVESTING IN ARTISTS WHO SHAPE THE FUTURE. They say that 'Creative Capital has awarded $40 million to 642 groundbreaking artists nationwide through funding, counsel and career development services.'

I am taking the liberty of reprinting one extract. Regular readers of this blog may recall a Previous Post about the book 'How To See The World' by Nicholas Mirzoeff and the role of 'visual activism'. Bouncing off that, here's Hyde on Whitman,  art and politics:

'Art is a political force for Whitman, but....we are not speaking of politics in the conventional sense. Art does not organise parties, nor is it the servant or colleague of power. Rather, the work of art becomes a political force simply through the faithful representation of the spirit. It is a political act to create an image of the self or of the collective....
'In an early letter Whitman writes that 'under and behind the bosh of the regular politicians, there burns....the divine fire which...during all ages, has only wanted a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants, hunkers, and all their tribe.'
 'The work of the political artist creates a body for this fire. So long as the artists speaks the truth, he will, whenever the government is lying or has betrayed the people, become a political force whether he intends it or not, as witness American artists during the 1930s or during the Vietnam war, Spanish artists during their civil war, South Korean poets in recent years, all Russian artists since the Revolution, Bertolt Brecht as Hitler rose to power, and so forth.
'In times like these the spirit of the polis must be removed from the hands of the politicians and survive in the resistant imagination.  Then the artist finds he is describing  a world that does not appear in the newspapers  and someone has tapped his phone who never thought to call in times of peace.'
This post is my gift to you. Please pass it on. 

[New York Times]


Photo by Jessica Scranton

Photo by Jessica Scranton
Radcliffe Magazine
By Lloyd Schwartz

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