Art for Art's Sake
The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World Lewis Hyde Canongate, 2007, UK, £15.00
IF YOU HAVE ever felt naive in wondering what art stands for any more, or hankered for those days when everything did not have a price, then this book is for you. The Gift was hailed as a masterpiece by artists and critics alike when it was first published in 1979, and this reissue of comes at a critical moment in the story of art, bringing much-needed water in the desert to all those who create art or give of their time or talent for free. More than just the story of gift-exchange, The Gift is a passionate wake-up call to society to remember those things that essentially make life worth living.
Lewis Hyde’s book begins by exploring the tension between commerce and art. Looking at the cliché of the struggling artist, the writer in his garret, Hyde examines the perennial question of how artists should support themselves, and how we put a price on art. More often than we would perhaps care to admit, in the market society an artist’s worth is measured by whether or not their art earns their daily bread. On the flipside, though, an artist who has made it financially can often be accused of ‘selling out’. So what exactly is the relationship between a modern-day artist’s success and the size of their bank balance?
In a world orientated towards money, it is up to Hyde to clear up some of the confusion about art. Using Joseph Conrad’s elegant words, he reminds us that some things go beyond financial measure: “The artist appeals to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition – and therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our sense of mystery, pity, beauty and pain, to our latent feeling of fellowship with all creation, to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity which binds together all humanity: the dead to the living, and the living to the unborn.” By reminding us of the essential role of the artist, Hyde sends an urgent call to all artists of the importance of the work they do – regardless of whether or not they receive material recognition for their ‘gifts’.
As Hyde goes on to explore, gift-exchange is central to society in many different forms – not just art. To name but a few gift-exchange institutions still active in the West, volunteer labour, support groups, in-house work, intellectual community, kinship bonds and the preservation of culture all have an exponential benefit to society that goes above and beyond any price. Indeed, as The Gift points out, it is gift-exchange mechanisms such as these that provide the invisible glue in our lives that is society.
The greatest gift that Hyde gives us through his book is to be able to look at the world from an utterly altered perspective. To modern minds sadly conditioned to measure everything by the pound, dollar and euro, it is deeply refreshing to consider a world where the things that really matter are weighed by what they bring to others, and what we receive in return. Of course, this is the world that is possible, and it is to this final and critical point that Hyde brings us when he reminds us of the importance of the imagination in creating the future.
In crucial words for a world wracked by unprecedented ecological crisis, he writes: “The imagination brings us … worlds we have not seen before. Without the imagination, we can do no more than spin the future out of the logic of the present; we will never be led into new life because we can only work from the known.” As our planet is wrecked beyond all recognition by the ‘known’, these are timely words indeed, and ones that will hopefully inspire today’s artists to a little creative re-imagining of our shared future.
If the portrait of the struggling artist in a garret bears any resemblance to you or anyone you know, then you will truly treasure a copy of The Gift. Hyde tells the story of gift-exchange with such poetry and wisdom that the artist’s spirit will reap the benefits like rain to the fallow field.