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Thanksgiving 2013: The art of the gift in the era of the market

Lewis Hyde, author of “The Gift,” explores the practice of gift-giving at the first Thanksgiving. Above, a depiction of early settlers of the Plymouth Colony sharing a harvest Thanksgiving meal with members of the local Wampanoag tribe at the Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Mass., 1621. Photo by Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images. Paul Solman: Back in 1983, six years into my TV business reporting career, writer Lewis Hyde published a book called “The Gift.” Hyde went on to become a MacArthur “genius” Fellow, a professor at Kenyon College, and author of two more books, “Trickster Makes the World” and “Common as Air.” “The Gift” went on to become something of a classic.

So, on the 30th anniversary of the book, published by Vantage, I invited Lewis to join me for a trip to “Plimoth Plantation,” the must-see (and -hear) living history museum in Plymouth, Mass., for an examination of the practice of gifting on the cusp of its annual memorialization in America, Thanksgiving. The resulting story runs Thursday on the NewsHour. You can also watch it at the bottom of this post.

But “The Gift” is 385 pages in its latest edition — more than 100,000 words. On the program, its author will get an extravagantly high number of words for a TV story: 252.

So the least we could do, I thought, was to invite Lewis Hyde to use this page to be a bit more expansive. He was gracious enough to oblige.

Lewis Hyde: When Paul Solman asked if I might reflect on gifts given in 1621 at “the first thanksgiving,” I immediately thought of that strange old phrase, “Indian giver.” The earliest record of this expression dates to Thomas Hutchinson’s 1764 history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony where a footnote explains that an Indian gift “is a proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” We still use this, of course, and in an even broader sense, we call those friends “Indian givers” who are so uncivilized as to ask us to return the gifts they’ve given.

Surely the phrase bespeaks a problem of cross-cultural understanding. For the Europeans who landed in Massachusetts in the 17th century, something seemed so odd about the natives’ sense of property that they felt called upon to give it a special name. What exactly was odd?

Anthropology is the discipline that eventually arose to answer such questions, and one of the things that anthropology teaches us is that all over the world, and especially among tribal peoples, we find gift-exchange institutions. Not all societies circulate their material goods through purchase and sale; many do so primarily through elaborate systems of gift-giving.

One cardinal ethic of such exchanges is that “the gift must always move”: the receipt of a gift comes with an obligation of reciprocity and the gift, or some equivalent, has to be passed along in turn. Gifts are not yours to keep; you are their guardian or steward, not their owner. Anyone who understands and acts on this ethic will appear to be an “Indian giver” to all those who don’t.

As for that Thanksgiving itself, one thing that the NewsHour’s portrait makes clear is how wonderfully complex is the grain of the history of this holiday. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag peoples surely had different understandings of the meaning of the feast that they shared. Similarly, many years later, George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation did not mean the same thing as Abraham Lincoln’s of 1863: the former was a celebration of an emerging union while the latter was intended to heal a union split by civil war.

My 1983 book “The Gift” explores the meaning of gifts as they are given in many such contexts. My particular focus in that work is on gift exchange as “the commerce of the creative spirit,” and the book as a whole is a defense of the non-commercial aspect of artistic practice. Reprinted here is a part of my introduction to “The Gift,” a point of entry for anyone who wishes to delve into questions of gift-giving and art.

Excerpt from the “Introduction” to Hyde’s “The Gift”:

“The artist appeals to that part of our being…which is a gift and not an acquisition – and, therefore, more permanently enduring.”

  • Joseph Conrad

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 ‘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.

There are several distinct senses of ‘gift’ that lie behind these ideas, but common to each of them is the notion that a gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us. Thus we rightly speak of ‘talent’ as a ‘gift,’ for although a talent can be perfected through an effort of the will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance. Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift.

We also rightly speak of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that ‘I,’ the artist, did not make the work. ‘Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,’ says D. H. Lawrence. Not all artists emphasize the ‘gift’ phase of their creations to the degree that Lawrence does, but all artists feel it.

These two senses of gift refer only to the creation of the work – what we might call the inner life of art; but it is my assumption that we should extend this way of speaking to its outer life as well, to the work after it has left its maker’s hands. That art that matters to us – which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience – that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price. I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes and colors I had not seen the day before.

The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own. The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition. Our sense of harmony can hear the harmonies that Mozart heard. We may not have the power to profess our gifts as the artist does, and yet we come to recognize, and in a sense to receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation. We feel fortunate, even redeemed. The daily commerce of our lives — ‘sugar for sugar and salt for salt,’ as the blues singers say — proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift revives the soul. When we are moved by art we are grateful that the artist lived, grateful that he labored in the service of his gifts.

If a work of art is the emanation of its maker’s gift and if it is received by its audience as a gift, then is it, too, a gift? I have framed the question to imply an affirmative answer, but I doubt we can be so categorical. Any object, any item of commerce, becomes one kind of property or another depending on how we use it. Even if a work of art contains the spirit of the artist’s gift, it does not follow that the work itself is a gift. It is what we make of it.

And yet, that said, it must be added that the way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature. For example, religions often prohibit the sale of sacred objects, the implication being that their sanctity is lost if they are bought and sold. A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. Such, at any rate, is my position. I do not maintain that art cannot be bought and sold; I do maintain that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.

The particular form that my elaboration of these ideas has taken may best be introduced through a description of how I came to my topic in the first place. For some years now I myself have tried to make my way as a poet, a translator, and a sort of ‘scholar without institution.’ Inevitably the money question comes up; labors such as mine are notoriously nonremunerative, and the landlord is not interested in your book of translations the day the rent falls due. A necessary corollary seems to follow the proposition that a work of art is a gift: there is nothing in the labor of art itself that will automatically make it pay. Quite the opposite, in fact. I develop this point at some length in the chapters that follow, so I shall not elaborate upon it here except to say that 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?

Every culture offers its citizens an image of what it is to be a man or woman of substance. There have been times and places in which a person came into his or her social being through the dispersal of his gifts, the ‘big man’ or ‘big woman’ being that one through whom the most gifts flowed. The mythology of a market society reverses the picture: getting rather than giving is the mark of a substantial person, and the hero is ‘self-possessed,’ ‘self-made.’ So long as these assumptions rule, a disquieting sense of triviality, of worthlessness even, will nag the man or woman who labors in the service of a gift and whose products are not adequately described as commodities. Where we reckon our substance by our acquisitions, the gifts of the gifted man are powerless to make him substantial.

Moreover, as I shall argue in my opening chapters, a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation. If this is the case, then the gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality. Where gifts have no public currency, therefore, where the gift as a form of property is neither recognized nor honored, our inner gifts will find themselves excluded from the very commerce which is their nourishment. Or, to say the same thing from a different angle, where commerce is exclusively a traffic in merchandise, the gifted cannot enter into the give-and-take that ensures the livelihood of their spirit.

These two lines of thought – the idea of art as a gift and the problem of the market – did not converge for me until I began to read through the work that has been done in anthropology on gifts as a kind of property and gift exchange as a kind of commerce. Many tribal groups circulate a large portion of their material wealth as gifts. Tribesmen are typically enjoined from buying and selling food, for example; even though there may be a strong sense of ‘mine and thine,’ food is always given as a gift and the transaction is governed by the ethics of gift exchange, not those of barter or cash purchase.

Not surprisingly, people live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. To begin with, unlike the sale of a commodity, the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved. Furthermore, when gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges. There are, as we shall see, five or six related observations of this kind that can be made about a commerce of gifts, and in reading through the anthropological literature I began to realize that a description of gift exchange might offer me the language, the way of speaking, through which I could address the situation of creative artists.

And since anthropology tends not to concern itself so much with inner gifts, I soon widened my reading to include all the folk tales I could find involving gifts. Folk wisdom does not differ markedly from tribal wisdom in its sense of what a gift is and does, but folk tales are told in a more interior language: the gifts in fairy tales may, at one level, refer to real property, but at another they are images in the psyche and their story describes for us a spiritual or psychological commerce. In fact, although I offer many accounts of gift exchange in the real world, my hope is that these accounts, too, can be read at several levels, that the real commerce they tell about stands witness to the invisible commerce through which the gifted come to profess their gifts, and we to receive them.

The first half of this book is a theory of gift exchange and the second is an attempt to apply the language of that theory to the life of the artist. Clearly, the concerns of the second half were the guide to my reading and theorizing in the first. I touch on many issues, but I pass over many others in silence. With two or three brief exceptions I do not, for example, take up the negative side of gift exchange — gifts that leave an oppressive sense of obligation, gifts that manipulate or humiliate, gifts that establish and maintain hierarchies, and so forth and so on. This is partly a matter of priority (it has seemed to me that a description of the value and power of gifts must precede an explication of their misuse), but it is mostly a matter of my subject. I have hoped to write an economy of the creative spirit: to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor with those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.

Paul Solman explored the economics of the first Thanksgiving for our Thanksgiving Making Sense segment.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions

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