the gift

It has been the implication of much of this book that there is an irreconcilable conflict between gift exchange and the market, and that, as a consequence, the artist in the modern world must suffer a constant tension between the gift sphere to which his work pertains and the market society which is his context.

On our final road trip of the summer, I finally finished reading through all 464 pages of Lewis Hyde's The Gift, a book I learned about via this brief episode of Jocelyn K. Glei's excellent podcast, Hurry Slowly. I wrote a long, rambling Twitter thread about it over the course of a couple of days but wanted to synthesize some of those thoughts here as the book pertains to my podcast, Artists in Offices, a podcast about how artists juggle their creative practice with their day job(s). As Zadie Smith notes, the book is "a manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art [and] cares for it." Especially, I'd add, in a capitalistic world, since, as my podcast explores, few artists can rely on their creative practice alone for their financial livelihood.

To that end, how does one create and circulate a work of art in a capitalist economy? To begin to explore this central problem of the book, Hyde first makes a distinction between a gift and a commodity:
It is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that 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.
Okay, but if art coexists in both market and gift economies, and let's say there isn't much of a market economy at the moment for your particular gift, how will you support yourself financially so that you can make more art?
Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities?
But wait, let's back up a bit to explore this distinction Hyde makes between work and labor:
Labor, because it sets its own pace, is usually accompanied by idleness, leisure, even sleep. In ancient days a seventh part of a person's time (both Sunday and the sabbatical, the seventh year) were set aside for nonwork. Nowadays when a worker or teacher gets a sabbatical, he or she may try to finish six years of unfinished chores. But first he should put his feet up and see what happens. In numerology the "7" is the number for ripening; "8" is the number for perfection, but during the seventh period what has been accomplished by the will is left alone. One of the first problems the modern world faced with the rise of industrialism was the exclusion of labor by the expansion of work [emphasis mine]. Machines don't need a Sunday. Early mill hands found themselves working a seven-day week, and had to fight for years to get back to the Sabbath...When I speak of labor, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.
You're thinking about your creative practice as labor now, not work, right? This idea that our "work" as artists, perhaps more accurately considered from here on out as how we labor with it over time, ebbs and flows with the demands of life comes up in almost every episode of the podcast, again, as Hyde writes, "something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm." Even having so much more time over the past two years to work on creative projects than I've had since grad school, there is this compelling and powerful feeling that, no matter how "urgent" the idea seems, the execution of the idea will follow a timeline that's not entirely compatible with the way I approach paid work and most other aspects of my life.

So if artists are functioning in a gift economy in this way, then we can think of their "work" as "gift labor", not unlike social workers, poets, musicians, etc.:
We could - we should - reward gift labors where we value them. My point here is simply that where we do so we shall have to recognize that the pay they receive has not been 'made' the way fortunes are made in the market, that it is a gift bestowed by the group. The costs and benefits of tasks whose procedures are adversarial and whose ends are easily quantified can be expressed through a market system. The costs and rewards of gift labors cannot...artists will never 'make' money.
One benefit, of course, of artists not "making" money from their art is that the artistic practice is free from commercial influence or motivation, free to progress and develop according to its own needs and timeline. Quoting Allen Ginsburg, Hyde flirts with nihilism as he touches on this particular form of creative freedom here:
...that phase of the work in which the artist lays evaluation aside so that the gift may come forward: 'The parts that embarrass you the most are usually the most interesting poetically...most representative, most universal...The cure for that is...to write secretly...so you can actually be free to say anything you want...It means abandoning being a poet, abandoning your careerism, abandoning even the idea of writing any poetry, really abandoning, giving up as hopeless - abandoning the possibility of really expressing yourself to the nations of the world...and just settling down in the muck of your own mind...You really have to make a resolution just to write for yourself..."
Okay, but how should artists financially support themselves in order to obtain this necessary artistic freedom while preserving enough time to maintain one's creative practice? There are a few possible models. Long before Patreon, but in the same spirit, Hyde describes how Ezra Pound sought to "free" T.S. Eliot from his day job as a bank clerk in London so that he could spend more time writing. "[Pound] organized a subscription plan called 'Bel Esprit.' The idea was to find thirty people who would chip in fifty dollars each to help support Eliot."

There are other ways, of course, to support one's creative practice financially, attempting to strike a delicate balance between time, space, and money. Like Hyde writes in his conclusion, "there are second jobs that deaden the spirit, there are artists who become beholden to their patrons and those whose temperament prohibits them from selling the work at all." Not all second jobs deaden the spirit, of course, but if you're working full-time, even in a position you find mentally stimulating and creatively interesting, it can be extremely challenging to find the time you need for both creative brainstorming and artistic production. Day jobs aside, Hyde proposes an alternative model to supporting the direct, creative work of artists in his 2007 afterword. "In modern times, young artists in need of help have traditionally received support either from public coffers or from private fortunes. The question is, might there be a third path? Might not the art world itself hold wealth sufficient to support emerging artists?"

Hyde cites the example of the recording industry in 1948 creating a trust fund, where a small percentage of sales from each recording would be deposited in order to "augment the income of musicians playing live performances." This fund still exists. "As a result, the recording industry is not purely extractive; the business side itself agrees to support the cultural ecology that nurtures musicians in the first place." This almost happened with other forms of arts through the Arts Endowing the Arts Act, a legislative proposal from Senator Dodd in 1994, ultimately struck down by a substitute act, colloquially referred to as the Micky Mouse Protection Act, heavily lobbied for by Disney and others in the entertainment industry, that retroactively added 20 years to the copyright terms ("their early Micky Mouse cartoons would have entered the public domain in 2003").

Hyde ends his book on a hopeful note, pointing to the creation, in the spirit of the "third model" he points to above, of organization like Creative Capital Foundation. Seems to me, however, that there is much room for improvement and growth!

Anyway, this book (slowly - because it took me so long to finish!) blew my mind more than once. But don't take my word for it. Read it for yourself. If you're searching for another recommendation, check out this nifty graphic by Austin Kleon, from 2008. And if you haven't yet, listen to the podcast!

No comments: