Not Not Art

The connection between art and gift exchange from the perspective of the Cantabrigian

What distinguishes art from commodities? If you walk around Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, you will come across ordinary objects tagged NOT ART. And somehow, this negation negates itself and becomes a thought-provoking style of street art. Almost half a century before the emergence of this style of street art, Lewis Hyde, a native Cantabrigian, wrote a book on art and creativity where he argues that the work of art is a gift not a commodity. While art may be bought and sold, “where there is no gift there is no art.” If we want to understand art, we’ll need to understand gifts.

So, what then is a gift? In its simplest form, we could call it a thing we do not get by our own efforts. It is not something we can simply buy or will into being. Instead, it must be bestowed upon us. We often (and accordingly to Hyde, rightly) speak of talent as a gift. While talent can be refined, its initial appearance comes effortlessly. Hyde points out that "Mozart, composing the harpsichord at age 4, had a gift." Intuition and inspiration are other forms of gifts. It's the idea that pops into our heads while we're taking a shower and the color that falls into place on the canvas. These gifts describe the inner life of a work of art. The outer life of art can also be seen as a gift. When art stirs our soul that artwork is received by us “as a gift is received.” But, how we treat things can change their nature. We can destroy gifts. Hyde writes, “a gift that can no longer be given away ceases to be a gift.” And naturally, where there is no gift there is no art.

The Gift explains what Oscar Wilde's cynic – a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing – gets wrong. In the realm of creative endeavors, price is far from synonymous with value. In the chapter on The Commerce of the Creative Spirit, Hyde writes,

The hegemony of the market can undermine the possibility of gift exchange, the esemplastic powers can be destroyed by an overvaluation of analytical cognition, song can be silenced by self-consciousness, and the plenitude of the imagination can be lost to scarcity of logic.

In fact, modern cynics argue that you should not buy presents for the holidays because gift giving is economically inefficient. At the core of the argument on efficiency is the concept of utility maximization and a false assumption that humans have perfect knowledges of their preferences and these preferences do not respond dynamically to experiences. Gift giving opens our hearts and minds and changes what we value.

In a culture with an emphasis on material wealth, Hyde explores how gift exchange can help explain the predicament for the modern creative type. From folklore to indigenous traditions to scientific communities to love languages to marriage customs to the feeling of gratitude to religious perspectives on finance, Hyde draws on a breadth of perspectives to develop a theory of gift exchange. In the second half of the book, Hyde applies his theory of gift exchange to understand the lives and work of two American poets: Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. The book offers a framework to think about the economics of creativity outside the standard framework of economics

On March 27th, I’m co-hosting a discussion of The Gift with Bill Powers. We’ll be examining questions like: Why do we exchange gifts for the holidays? What is cultural significance of gift-exchange? In what realms does the gift economy manifest itself today? How is gift giving and Hyde’s theory of gift-exchange related to creativity? This is not a lecture, but rather an Interintellect salon. We’ll be hosting a socratic dialogue on the connection between creativity and gift-exchange, cultural practices of gift giving, today's creative communities – from open source software to scientific publications to street art to more – where the gift economy drives what is being created, and how to restore art in places where its been lost.

You can join us by signing up for the salon here. I hope you do.

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