The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World



The Pequod Review:

At its core, Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift explores the tension between art and commerce. Or, put another way, it asks: why artists are typically poor? This is a difficult and complicated subject, one that is probably impossible to cover in a single volume, but Hyde makes an admirable attempt. He begins with a useful example:

At the corner drugstore my neighbors and I can now buy a line of romantic novels written according to a formula developed through market research. An advertising agency polled a group of women readers. What age should the heroine be? (She should be between nineteen and twenty-seven.) Should the man she meets be married or single? (Recently widowed is best.) The hero and heroine are not allowed in bed together until they are married. Each novel is a hundred and ninety-two pages long. Even the name of the series and the design of the cover have been tailored to the demands of the market. (The name Silhouette was preferred over Belladonna, Surrender, Tiffany, and Magnolia; gold curlicues were chosen to frame the cover.) Six new titles appear each month and two hundred thousand copies of each title are printed.

Why do we suspect that Silhouette Romances will not be enduring works of art? What is it about a work of art, even when it is bought and sold in the market, that makes us distinguish it from such pure commodities as these?

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 “economics,” 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.

There are several distinct senses of “gift” that lie behind these ideas.

From here, Hyde proceeds to make a distinction between objects that are gifts (which are given away freely and therefore create an emotional bond between giver and recipient) and those that are commodities (which are bought and sold and typically do not create an emotional bond). He also explores the social and anthropological history of gifts across a wide range of cultures, including many that were largely gift-centered. 

Some of Hyde’s logical leaps are highly debatable to say the least. And he doesn’t come close to solving the problem of how musicians, artists, and writers are expected to support themselves in a market-based society; he seems to settle on a solution that involves government providing some kind of payment to artists for their gives — a sort of universal basic income — but it’s not explained how that would really work. Nonetheless, Lewis Hyde has written a very good book that begins to unpack an interesting topic.