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'The Gift' just keeps on giving

Lewis Hyde discusses his analysis of art and market culture that has made him something of an artists' guru.

January 13, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Lewis Hyde describes modern culture much the way Oscar Wilde described a cynic: "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Hyde's 1983 book "The Gift," subtitled "Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World," argues that inspiration comes to its creator the same way a gift does. Because of this, both the artist and the resulting work itself become uneasy in a market economy. This gift is most comfortable, instead, when it is kept moving -- offered or traded -- instead of being hoarded or commodified.

Over the years, "The Gift" has developed a cult following among writers and artists who rarely lend their names to anything as potentially sentimental as a book on "creativity" -- David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and Geoff Dyer among them. To Jonathan Lethem, it's "a life-changer"; video artist Bill Viola calls it "the best book I have read on what it means to to be an artist in today's economic world."

But when "The Gift" was released in Britain for the first time a year ago, it also drew some scorching reviews. "I have to say," argued Tibor Fischer in London's Sunday Telegraph, "I'm a little suspicious of someone who draws his proofs from fairy tales and the behaviour of tribes in the South Pacific, as Hyde does, since they can be used to argue just about anything."

Now there's a 25th anniversary reprint out, with a new afterword. We spoke to Hyde -- a poet and Thoreau and Ginsberg scholar who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches at Harvard and Kenyon College -- about his thesis, his critics and how his critique of the market economy speaks to us in an age of capitalism triumphant.

I can't think of a succinct way to describe "The Gift." Can you?

The main assumption of the book is that certain spheres of life, which we care about, are not well organized by the marketplace. That includes artistic practice, which is what the book is mostly about, but also pure science, spiritual life, healing and teaching.

This book is about the alternative economy of artistic practice. For most artists, the actual working life of art does not fit well into a market economy, and this book explains why and builds out on the alternative, which is to imagine the commerce of art to be well described by gift exchange.

What made you choose folk tales and fables as the bases for your argument, as opposed to, say, the lives of artists?

The book has two halves, and the first builds a theory of gift exchange and the second applies it to some cases in art. To do the theory, I chose folk tales and mythology because they are closer in their language and their imaginative universe to the world of art. Most of the work on gift exchange comes out of social science, either out of anthropology or some branches of economics. It's interesting, but it's not as figurative in its language. So I turn to them as a way of widening what's already known in the social sciences.

Is there a sense that in using stories from all over the world you're getting at something universal, or essential, or timeless, or something like that?

This is, of course, a cultural debate we've had for some time now, whether there are essential and timeless categories like this. In a sense, yes, using folk tales and myths was an attempt to get the argument out of the particular and into a more general language.

You talk about a tension, a disconnect, between the artist's inspiration and his ability to take his work into the marketplace. But haven't many artists, especially since Warhol and going back at least to Shakespeare, been quite adept at the marketplace?

Yes, of course. And my argument is not that artists can't do that -- they can, and I think it's wonderful when they succeed. But I think there's this double economy nonetheless.

Just to take Warhol as a quick example: He was quite cunning about commercializing fine art. But the fact is the largest last piece of his was a series of over 100 silk-screens, which was funded by the Dia Art Foundation. To do a large-scale work of that kind, Warhol still needed a patron. So you always find this mix, even in someone as commercially canny as Warhol.

It does seem that artists and novelists have lost some of their distance from the marketplace, some of their disdain for it. We know that Tom Wolfe, for instance, just left his longtime publisher for one that's given him a bigger advance. It seems much more common these days to talk about art and literature with a dollar sign attached. Does this seem different from when you were writing the book in the '70s?

Probably not. I think there's always been a star system that has that kind of element. But the thing to realize when you're talking about a writer like Tom Wolfe is that this is like talking about the very best baseball or basketball players in the world, and there are 100,000 people who are not at that level, who I'm thinking about.

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