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The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World Paperback – December 4, 2007
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“The best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators. . . . A masterpiece.” —Margaret Atwood
“No one who is invested in any kind of art . . . can read The Gift and remain unchanged.” —David Foster Wallace
“Few books are such life-changers as The Gift: epiphany, in sculpted prose.” —Jonathan Lethem
“A manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art [and] cares for it.” —Zadie Smith
“This long-awaited new edition of Lewis Hyde's groundbreaking and influential study of creativity is a cause for across-the-board celebration.” —Geoff Dyer
About the Author
Lewis Hyde was born in Boston in 1945 and studied at both Minnesota and Iowa universities. His hugely acclaimed essay, "Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking," in part sprang out of his experiences as an alcoholism counselor, but he is also a highly regarded poet in his own right whose poetry and essays have been widely published. He is a MacArthur Fellow, a former director of creative writing at Harvard and, alongside The Gift, he is the author of the equally acclaimed Trickster Makes This World. He lives in Ohio, where he is completing a third book.
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Hyde opens his treatise on the nature of Art as a gift with anthropological studies of gift exchange coupled with folklore. The diverse sources provide an excellent depiction of the two economies in which the artist (and her art) must participate. One economy is the visible, capitalistic one of which we are all aware in a daily, accounting-ledger way. This is the economy of commerce, and Hyde traces the origins of capitalistic wealth and usury, plumbing the disconnect between the "evergreen value" of art and the banal "exhaustible" value of capitalistic wealth. In opposition is the second economy, that of the gift. The gift economy is spiritual in nature, and the primary difference between it and commercial economy is that grasping at or hoarding a gift destroys the gift economy. The gift must move to participate in the economy, and many of the folktales illustrate that treating a gift as a commodity results in loss, sorrow, or even death.
Perhaps understanding how opposed such an economy is to our (Western) way of coalescing and amassing fortunes, Hyde provides a modern day example of the gift economy: Alcoholics Anonymous. In AA, the newcomer is taught that to keep the gift of sobriety, she must someday pass the gift of her hope, strength and experience to someone else. Like the gifts in the various anthropological studies, the value of the AA teachings are in the sharing of them, to wit the AA saying, "You have to give it away to keep it." In terms of an artist and her art, however, issues become blurry because there is the persistent need of the artist to clothe, feed, and shelter herself. If art is to be her living, how can she avoid killing the divinity of the gift and still traffic in it as a commodity? Hyde proposes that the artist must split herself into two modes of interacting with the different economies. Whitman and Ezra Pound are presented as cases studies of (somewhat) modern artists encountering the modern world impinging on their gifts. Whitman, it seems, stayed truer to his gift whereas some unnamed disappointment led Pound to pervert his gift into a hateful ideology. Hyde's point here is that the artist, much like the ill-fated daughters of the opening folktale, will be damaged if he does not find a way to be true to his gift - despite all societal pressure to the contrary. A lost artist is one who cannot fulfill the gift by giving their art away, or who twist their art to some other purpose . This doesn't mean an artist must never accept money for her work, but that she must maintain the purity of her pursuit of producing and sharing the gift separate from her pursuit of money.
How to do this, how to create and earn a living without subverting the nature of the gift? Hyde doesn't answer the question of <i>how</i> to preserve the gift in the modern world. Instead, he illustrates why it is imperiled by modern commerce. The epilog describes some common solutions for artists, including a long section on the rise and fall of American patronage (hint: it owes much to the Cold War). This section is the only place where the book, which was originally published in 1983, shows its age by failing to address the mechanism of crowdfunding. The employ of an agent is another common solution to the problem of working in two economies; the agent handles the commerce economy, thus freeing the artist to remain exclusively in the realm of the gift. The vast majority of modern artists, though, have solved the problem of money by having a "second job." As a writer myself, I love that Hyde puts the emphasis on the secondary nature of doing anything that is not a direct effort towards my gift and craft. THE GIFT: CREATIVITY AND THE ARTIST IN THE MODERN WORLD is a thought-provoking read for those who seek an understanding of the unseen forces that can cultivate or kill an artist's gift.
What served me best in reading this book was the fact that it was one of only two I brought for a very long trip. This meant that I had plenty of time and less reason to be distracted. With this time I was able to pace myself through a somewhat slow beginning, tolerate the re-telling of some stories with which I was already familiar, and, by the end of Part 1, be willing to write a 4-star review of how amazing it was that Lewis Hyde could have so presciently defined the logic and sensibilities of the free software and free culture movements that would blossom within ten years of the book being published. His telling of the real establishment of capitalism--that begin with Martin Luther rather than Adam Smith, and the concomitant destruction of charitable customs in Western nations provide a far more cogent explanation of both the moral bankruptcy and the actual bankruptcy of globalism than I've heard in more than one hundred hours of NPR news stories. And his explanations are spot-on for what I am seeing as a person who is involved with, and invests in, community development and sustainability. Indeed, I think it would make especially good reading in faith communities that also have a social community mission.
Then Mr. Hyde lets the other shoe drop: "the gift" describes not only the cultural practices that made economies flourish under conditions beyond the abilities or cares of capitalism, but also the human practices that enable the "genius" of creativity to flourish. The depth of his insights are staggering, and in the end they recontextualized a good portion of my own liberal arts education.
I am delighted to have read it, and look forward to applying its lessons to everything I do going forward, starting with buying enough copies to begin giving them away...
I find myself dipping into it, absorbing the concepts a little at a time.
I believe that incorporating some of Lewis Hyde's ideas into my own life has allowed me to savor situations more vividly.
I would prefer that "Left Brain" people and attitudes should stay in charge of making the trains and airplanes run on time, but cultivating the "Right Brain" in daily living enriches the whole experience.
Reading the book, I see material things and ownership in a more existential, relaxed way.
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Make no mistake, Lewis Hyde is a gifted writer, convincing, and he presents his points in a gentle, lilting...Read more