Friday, December 19, 2008

The Gift (Part 4)

I recently finished reading Lewis Hyde's The Gift and thought I would post my (I think) final thoughts.

As I moved into reading Part II of Hyde’s book I had in mind a conversation from the comments of my previous posts in which AndiF theorized that Hyde was drawing too sharp a distinction between work and labor and that this distinction might be the source of my frustration with his theories. As I read through Part II, a great deal of which is an analysis of the lives and work of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, I noticed that Hyde himself seemed to be glossing over the difference between work and labor.

The actual beginning of this shift in tone was the last chapter of Part I in which Hyde describes the history of usury. It is a long and complicated chapter and well worth reading on its own, but I’m not going to spend much time summarizing it. In brief, according to Hyde, ancient people who lived in gift economies realized that when you interact “at the edges” of the community it is sometimes necessary to change the way you interact because you can’t necessarily trust strangers to act the way that your community would act. And thus was born the idea that you cannot charge interest within your community but you can charge interest to those outside your community. Interest seems only sensible to mitigate the risk of dealing with the stranger.

Later, in his conclusion, Hyde summarizes it like this:

I imagined a tribe with a boundary drawn around it. In the center of the tribe goods circulate as gifts and reciprocity is positive. Outside the tribe, goods move through purchase and sale, value is reckoned comparatively, and reciprocity is negative. I initially described the permission to usure as a permission to establish the boundary between these two spheres, to declare an outer limit to the circle of gift exchange. And in earlier, more polemical versions of the chapter I set out to strengthen that boundary insisting ... that the creative spirit will be wounded if it is not carefully protected from the spirit of stranger trade.

But as I brought this argument into the modern world, my own ideas underwent a bit of a re-formation I began to understand that the permission to usure is also a permission to trade between the two spheres. The boundary can be permeable. Gift-increase ... may be converted into market-increase ... And vice-versa; the interest a stranger pays on a loan may be brought into the center and converted into gifts. Put generally, within certain limits what has been given us as a gift may be sold in the marketplace and what has been earned in the marketplace may be given as a gift. Within certain limitations, gift wealth may be rationalized and market wealth may be eroticized.

And this shift in his understanding seems to have come about through, first, his understanding of the history of usury and, second, his examination of the lives and ideas of Whitman and Pound. It was a slow process, however, because the entire chapter on the history of usury, while fascinating, seemed out of place and I hesitated to even blog about it because I wasn't at all sure with how it fit into the whole.

And even as I read his chapter on Whitman, I can't say that I completely understood where he was going. He did, however, use the chapter on Whitman to synthesize his ideas on the artist and the gift. There's a lot of good food for thought in the chapter on Whitman but, in general, I don't like Whitman's poetry so it was hard to get swept up in Hyde's analyses. But finally, half-way through his analysis he paused and suddenly wrote " ... I should pause to clarify where, exactly, the gift lies in the creation of art." This is the first time that he actually puts down what he intended to do all along - analyze the arts in the words of his theory of gift exchange.

There are three gifts present in the creation of art, says Hyde. First the initial gift - what is bestowed upon the artist by "perception, experience, intuition, imagination, a dream, a vision, or another work of art." The artists tries to transmit this initial gift but rarely can he do it without laboring. The ability to do the labor is the second gift. I would say this is the gift of talent but it is also a gift of perseverance (which perhaps comes from the gratitude for the initial gift). The artist refines the initial gift and as it passes through the artist it increases. The finished work that is offered to the world is the third gift.

Hyde spends a deal of time on the politics of Whitman and of Pound, which I think are less important to Hyde's theory of gift exchange than they are to Hyde's eventually coming to his own integration of gift society and market society in his conclusion . He says that "his central dilemma" was: "How, if art is essentially a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market?" And he concludes that, no matter how the artist decides to support himself (whether by getting a second job, finding a patron (or getting a grant) or selling his work), the artist needs to create a protected gift-sphere in which the gift can operate and the artist needs to define the edges of that sphere beyond which the market exists and commerce occurs, just as ancient gift exchange societies did. As long as she protects the inner core where the gift can exist and flourish she may allow herself commerce with the market beyond those boundaries. Thus it seems to me that the line between work and labor can be blurred. Or as he says:

The problem is not "Can gift and commodity coexist?" but "To what degree may one draw from the other without destroying it?" From the point of view of the market, the white man has a point when he complains about Indians who refuse to invest capital; there can be no market if all wealth is converted into gifts. And from the other side, the Indians have a point when they resist the conversion of all gifts to commodities; there is a degree of commercialization which destroys the community itself. But between these two extremes lies a middle ground in which, sometimes, eros and logos may coexist.

At last, the middle ground that I expected all along but not acknowledged until the Conclusion Chapter. Hyde does not have a specific answer to where this middle ground can be found. But as I found in looking at the relations between French traders and the Algonquians of the Great Lakes area, the middle ground will, by definition, always be shifting.

In the edition that I read (the 25th anniversary edition) Hyde added a special afterward. He admits that his intent was to describe a problem without giving a specific solution, because times change and a solution in one time will not work in another time.

One interesting point he makes in the afterward is this:

I have come to believe that, when it comes to how we imagine and organize support for creative work, the pivotal event in my lifetime was the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union.

I previously wrote a post about American Expressionism in which I wrote about an art exhibition I went to and I said:

One small section that I found particularly thought provoking was a display about how abstract expressionism was attacked as un-American during the 1950's because it didn't reflect American "values". This seemed unfathomable to someone like me who is an advocate for freedom of expression. And yet, I found the counter idea that this work should be defended as VERY American equally difficult to fathom. Mostly because I doubt that most Americans like it or understand it.

In one of those "everything is related" moments, I found myself reading Hyde's description of those years. According to Hyde, during the 1950's, while Congress criticized abstract expressionism, the CIA actually funded a number of artists because the CIA saw value during the Cold War in showing the world what freedom of expression looked like. So, in that sense, it WAS very American because, even though America didn't like the art, it tolerated and even (covertly) encouraged its creation because expressing yourself freely is an American value. Think about it - it's an American value to allow and encourage artistic movements that create art that you dislike. (The question to me, of course, is why this seems to preclude funding the creation of art that you like. But the American mindset is beyond the scope of this post.)

Beginning in the 1960's with the Kennedy administration and the launching of Sputnik, the government began to affirmatively and openly see the benefit of funding the arts as a political statement -it would be an exhibition of the "greatness of America" that it would not just allow but would encourage freedom of expression. Kennedy created the National Endowment for the Arts; Nixon doubled its budget. As Hyde said, the existence of the Soviet Union provided a cushion to some of the harsher realities of the market system of the West. The market does not value some things but the Cold War goaded Americans into paying for things that the market did not value so as to show that a market-based economy could still produce those things.

Once the Cold War was over, however, the impetus to fund the arts as a political statement ended and we entered what Hyde calls the era of market triumphalism. After capitalism conquered communism, Hyde says, the free market forces of the 90's and early 00's put everything up for sale to the detriment of those things that have an ill-defined market value.

With that in mind it will be interesting to see where we go next in the wake of the current collapse of the market system.

I'm glad that I read The Gift even though it ended up being a more difficult read than I expected. I think it will continue to provide food for thought.