Thanks to the book club over at The Habit Membership, I’ve been revisiting Lewis Hyde’s excellent book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. (For the book club we’re reading Mako Fujimura’s also-excellent Art + Faith; Fujimura writes in some detail about The Gift.)
On the first page of The Gift, Hyde writes,
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.
That idea—art as gift vs. art as commodity—goes a long way to explain something Bobby Bare Jr. said on his Tiny Desk performance: “In Nashville we make both the worst music that’s ever been recorded while simultaneously recording, I think, the best music that’s being recorded anywhere in the world.” Exceedingly gifted artists come to this city, and some of them end up creating wholly commoditized, wholly market-driven work.
But Thanksgiving week isn’t the time to indulge in a tirade about commoditized, radio-ready music, except that I would add that if you’re here to string together clichés about pickup trucks and small-town nostalgia, you won’t be able do it better than the AI robots. How’s that for irony—robots writing songs about the good old days?
Ok, for real, I’m ending this tirade before it gets started. Moving on to more Thanksgiving-appropriate, gratitude-related material…
Art is a gift, coming and going. It’s a gift to the artist, who knows that however hard he or she works at making, the best parts of the work feel as if they were given rather than earned. (I wrote about this phenomenon a couple of months ago in a post called “Work and Celebration.”) Just as importantly, art is a gift to the recipient. As Hyde writes,
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 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.
If that gift-language seems vague and woo-woo, here’s something slightly more specific. I know I’ve been thinking about this all week:
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.
Isn’t that a remarkable thing to think about? I can’t do what Mozart did. I assume you can’t either. But Mozart awakens in us something that was there all along. Thanks to Mozart (and myriad other artists who have spoken to us), we come to recognize and receive the endowments of our being. When I say that’s a kind of grace, I am not speaking metaphorically. Nor am I exaggerating.
Hyde goes on,
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 the market economy could account for all of life, there would be no need for gratitude. But in the most important aspects of life, the laws of supply and demand—indeed, all the principles of market economics—fail utterly. Abundance, not scarcity is the driving principle of everything that makes your life worth living. Don’t you want to thank someone?