The Gift – a book by Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde is a poet, author of a book called the Gift which I was recommended to read.  I have found it very thought provoking and has led me into other interesting conversations.

In the introduction, on page xiv, he spells out the premise behind the book.. so I am going to type it out here, so I still have it after I have returned the book to the library.

“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 talent can be perfected through an effort of 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 colour falls in place on a canvas.  Usually, in fact, the artist dows not find himself engaged or exhilerated by the work , nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with andy 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 emphasise the ‘gift’ phase of their creations to the degree 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 it outer life as well, to the work after it has left its maker’s hands.  The 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 price at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a piece of work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.  I went to see a landscape painters works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see shapes and colours I had not seen the day before.  The spirit of the artist’s gifts can wake our own.”

So, inspired by these words, I have been thinking about my own experience.  I have often noticed that something happens during a project.. I can just be trying out various ideas none of which seem to be working very well, when something will take off, and make absolute sense and grow beautifully.  I asked Julie Brook ( see my entry on Skye) if she always knew why she was doing a particular piece of work, and she rerplied that she definitely often did not know, but would find the answers came later.

Charlotte Macnee Bell and Peter Bell are artists living in Kyle of Lochalsh.  Charlotte is nearly 80 and Peter is over 90 and both have been working artists most of their lives.. so I asked them what they thought of these words by Lewis Hyde.  They both absolutely agreed.  Once I can overcome my tech troubles I will post my video of our conversation.

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One thought on “The Gift – a book by Lewis Hyde

  1. Sorry, I know you wrote this ages ago but I was just doing a search for The Gift just to see if it was worth reading because it seems to be exploring some issues exactly on track with ideas I have been exploring over the past year or so in my own art (music and writing).

    I am totally with you in terms of projects taking meaning somewhere along the line rather than setting out with a goal in mind from the start. I love this about art, that it is experimental and just as much of a discovery for the artist as it is for the audience. Another thing I often find is that unless I allow myself space and time to allow ‘mistakes’ to happen, it wont develop properly because often it is what I might at first perceive as a mistake that surprises me with it’s beauty. Do you ever get that?

    I have found with some songs that I didn’t know what they meant until years after I wrote them. I have some now that I’m still not sure. I have my ideas of what I think they’re about but can never be sure! This is a really freeing thing, because if I don’t know, but I have ideas then it will certainly be the same for the audience, and audience interpretation (how it speaks to them), to me, is as important as the work itself.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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