Tag Archives: Atwood

Review of THE GIFT: HOW THE CREATIVE SPIRIT TRANSFORMS THE WORLD – Lewis Hyde

Vintage, 2019 3rd edition (1983 original), 474 pages

In its Library of Congress classification, Hyde’s The Gift is filed under the heading of “economic anthropology.” I can see why it’s an economics book, but perhaps for a different reason than you think. Its structure reminds me of Bloomberg finance articles. Have you noticed how formulaic finance articles are? They begin with some eye-catching headline: “Bob Big Shot Banker Sees Gold Surging to $2500” or something equally dramatic. Next come the supporting arguments: uncertainty in the upcoming election is driving up the price of gold, geopolitical tension is driving up the price of gold, and so on. Then the article ends by hedging its own arguments: “But all bets are off if the good guy wins the election” or “But all bets are off if the peace settlement is negotiated in time.” Does this sort of structure seem familiar?

Like Bloomberg articles, The Gift begins with an enticing eye-catching headline: “Capitalism Destroys Art: Hyde and Artists Call for a Return of the Gift Economy.” The arguments follow, fast and furious. Art is a gift. To assign a market value to a gift destroys the gift. For this reason, artists languish under capitalism. Gift economies, however, increase the abundance of art. Look to the tribes of the South Sea Islands which circulated necklaces and armshells. Look to the potlatch ceremonies of indigenous North American populations who exchanged ornate copper plaques. Look to the embodied wisdom in folk tales that say: “To possess is to give.” And, for evidence of the fecundity of art in gift rather than market economies, look to the poems and lives of two American poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. Then, in a surprise move, Hyde concludes by saying that perhaps all bets are off: art and capitalism can coexist.

Finance articles make me smile. They’re articles which seem to say something but say nothing. By hedging their bets, the writer tries to have it both ways: heads I win (“I told you this would happen”) and tails I win as well (“I told you this might not happen”). The writer has no skin in the game: he’s already covering his tracks in case he’s wrong. For the same reason Hyde’s The Gift arouses my suspicions. He talks of the evils and excesses of the market economy, touts the wholesomeness of the gift economy, and ends by saying that although capitalism destroys art, capitalism is here to stay.

If his thesis, as the conclusion of the book seems to say, is incorrect and requires further examination, then what’s in it for the modern day artist?—the book makes it clear that there can be no returning to the widespread gift economies of old. Society is just too big now. Why should the artist read this book? In the foreword, Margaret Atwood writes: “If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act or make films, read The Gift.” But, having read the book, I am thinking that, if I wanted to write, paint, sing, compose, act, or make films, the last book I’d want to read would be The Gift. The world it paints for the arts is dismal: art is a gift that the artist will never be paid full value for.

When I picked up The Gift, I was hoping for some kind of revelation into value in art and in life. The reviews and accolades the book received were of the highest order. I was hoping for something life-changing, something like Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’ Your Money or Your Life, a book I read twelve years ago which changed the way I look at labour. The Gift, I feel, fails to live up to its hype.

Art is a Gift

Hyde’s fundamental position is that art is a gift. It’s inspiration. We don’t will art to happen, it just happens. The ancients allegorized this inspiration into the image of the Muses who would visit the artist to infuse the artist with the divine vision. In more modern times, when Jack Kerouac advises artists to be “submissive to everything,” he’s telling them to think of themselves as a conduit for inspiration, rather than as the source of the inspiration itself. Because art is a gift and not a commodity, capitalism can’t quite put the correct value on art. And when it tries to value art, it destroys art in the same way as a gift is destroyed when one starts to calculate its value in dollars and cents. Or so Hyde argues.

Three objections to the “capitalism can’t value gifts” hypothesis come to mind. First: is art a gift? Second: if art is a gift, then are not many things other than art also gifts? Third: doesn’t the market circulate art further than the gift economy could?

It’s a romantic notion to think of the artist as a Byronic figure communing with nature in some distant cave. I get that. But is that the case? For a long time, the artist was thought of as a tradesperson, and looked upon the same way as we look at electricians, plumbers, and carpenters today. Except these artist tradespeople wouldn’t build houses. They would build songs to be sung at the liturgy. Think of JS Bach or Handel, who were employed to churn out new compositions for the faithful year in and year out. Other artists were expected to craft poems to recite at state festivals. Think of Sophocles and Aeschylus, poets who wrote plays year in and year out for the festival of the Greater Dionysia.

Is the production of art a gift created by a heroic Byronic artist tuning into the world spirit or is the production of art a trade? These days—as evidenced by Hyde’s position—art is pure inspiration, something that breaks all the rules like Jimi Hendrix’ guitar playing. It comes to you from the heavens. But, in the past, the creation of music was more like a trade. Young composers would spend years imitating the old masters in music guilds (the historical equivalent to the trade unions producing carpenters today) before creating something in their own style. Even in folk music up to the 1950s, you wouldn’t be expected to write new songs: if you were a folk singer, you were a tradesperson, working in the tradition, putting your spin on the songs passed down to you.

Wouldn’t artists be better served to think of themselves as tradespersons? It’s a more down to earth way of looking at yourself than seeing yourself as a lightning rod for divine inspiration. And this way, you can get paid some kind of standard market rate. Hyde has a point when he says it’s hard for Byronic hero type artists to be paid fairly: how much should you charge to be the lightning rod for divine inspiration? Baroque composers such as Telemann and Heinichen were considered to be tradespersons. It wasn’t until Beethoven and later that the cult of the divinely inspired artist arose. Maybe we should return to Baroque sensibilities where art is not so much a gift, but a trade.

Hyde, however, addresses this point. He posits that today there is low art and high art. By low art he means romance novels and perspective drawings used to illustrate architectural spaces. In some cases, artists may partake of both spheres, as in the case of the painter Edward Hopper, who would paint soulful night-scenes of American cities one day and produce paintings for magazines such as Hotel Management the next. Low art is art by the numbers, is machine art, is expendable art, is art that will be forgotten. High art, on the other hand, has soul and, like scientific discoveries and the other monuments of the creative spirit, will endure for all time.

I object to this sort of split between low and high art. This sort of distinction smacks of elitism, seems hoity-toity. If, say, romance novel such as Nora Roberts can sell millions of copies over and again, then, there is something of the creative spark in her artistry. Her work moves people. It is art. This point has been a matter of contention in my book club, of all places, for a long time. I’ve been trying to get us to read a romance novel. The response is: “Romance novels are beneath us.” To which I respond: “You know how hard it is just to sell a few hundred copies of a book? These writers are selling hundreds of thousands of copies. In a hundred years, I bet there will be university courses on the 21st century romance novel and people in the future will lament how underrated the best romance writers were. Some romance novels will even become classics.” Some people believe this may happen. Some don’t. The people who don’t believe it could happen also didn’t believe the Smithsonian Museum would stage a Bob Ross painting exhibition. Bob Ross is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. If you’re not familiar, Bob Ross is the TV painter who painted “happy trees,” “almighty mountains,” and “fluffy clouds,” the painter whose works were considered crass, banal, and derided as commercialized kitsch by the serious artists of the time.

If you’re looking for more examples of low art which makes high art blush, consider Andy Warhol’s Pop Art or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Beethoven spent four years at the end of his life composing 33 variations around Diabelli’s banal and run-of-the-mill waltz. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, they created art that appealed to mass sensibilities to make a few bucks. The legend surrounding the variations is that Beethoven refused to work with Diabelli’s Schusterfleck or “cobbler’s patch” theme until he found out how much Diabelli was paying. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, the commercialization of their gift does not seem to have impaired the soul or their art. Warhol is considered one of the 20th century’s preeminent artists and The Diabelli Variations one of the pieces the pieces amongst in the concert repertoire.

For a moment, let’s say with Hyde that art is a gift. What is more, let’s also say with Hyde that gifts are better off circulating in the gift rather than the market economy. Then the real question becomes: is art the only gift?  Let’s say there’s a gardener. She just has a knack growing plants. Her talent is a gift just as much as the painter’s or poet’s art is a gift. Should the gardener also circulate the fruits of her labours outside the market economy? Or let’s say there’s a dog or horse whisperer. He just has a knack with animals. His talent is a gift as well. People are dumbfounded at how he understand animals and animals him. Or let’s say there’s an athlete. She can skate and shoot the puck better than anyone else. She’s gifted. Now consider this: Hyde would have zero issues with hockey players, veterinarians, and farmers partaking in the market economy. Athletes, doctors, and farmers also have a gift. Why does Hyde only have an issue with artists partaking in the market economy? Is it because, at bottom, he feels that the market economy pays artists too little? I’m thinking that may be the real reason. Note that his two case studies of poets in the second section of the book are both poets that lived and died in penury: Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound.

Either / Or, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie

In a typical either / or proposition that characterizes his book, Hyde writes:

But the artist who sells his own creations must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together. He must, on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity. He must be able to reckon its value in terms of current fashions, know what the market will bear, demand fair value, and part with the work when someone pays the price. And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to see his art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell, or only a commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market, not in response to the demands of the gift.

Either the artist uses his gift or the artist commercializes his gift. If he uses his gift, he may not have anything to sell. If he commercializes his gift, he loses the soul of art. Grim indeed. But what of the artist who realizes he can adapt his gift to the market economy? That was the story of poet Leonard Cohen. He realized his gift was poetry. And he also realized he couldn’t make money selling his poetry. Not that he was unhappy selling his inspiration, there just weren’t buyers. But he realized if he set his poetry to song, he could make a living as a singer-songwriter. He adapted. Hyde’s artist is an idealist, all or none. The all-or-none artist can’t adapt, and become a bitter shell: case in point is Ezra Pound. Why not adapt your gift like Leonard Cohen? Most people would say the commercialization of his art in no way detracts from the soul of beauty.

David Bowie was another artist who found a way in capitalism. He securitized his art by inventing and issuing “Bowie bonds.” Investors would purchase bonds in $1000 denominations from Bowie. The bonds were backed by his music catalog. The royalties from his music catalog would pay investors 7.9% each year over ten years. The investors bought the rights to his royalties for a decade. At the end of the decade, Bowie would return the investors’ principal, and the rights to the catalog went back to Bowie. The investors would get a 7.9% income stream, and a chance to own the man who sold the world. Bowie would get $55 million up front, the amount of money investors poured into his Bowie bond offering. Does anyone think the lesser of Bowie’s music for having turned his gift into a commodity? Did this exchange somehow alter how people enjoyed his music?

Would Bowie and Cohen have been greater artists if they had avoided contaminating their gift with market forces? Would they have greater respect if they had lived in penury like Whitman and Pound? Gift exchange, to be sure, in potlatch ceremonies and the South Sea islands, is a splendid ceremony. In the past, if you had tried to sell Bowie bonds to fellow tribe members, you’d surely be run out. But today, we live in a market economy. If you try today to live within the marginal gift economy, you’ll be run out of society like Whitman and Pound. The artist would do well to live in and change with modern times. To me, Hyde’s position is idealistic and seeks a return to what is not there anymore.

Credibility

It’s more enjoyable to read a book when you feel that the author is an expert in whom you can believe. In a chapter called “The Bond,” Hyde argues that materialists treat life like a commodity. He cites a car company that knew of a safety defect but neglected to implement it due to the cost. Here’s the passage:

In a classic example both of cost-benefit analysis and of the confusion between worth and value, the Ford Motor Company had to decide if it should add an inexpensive safety device to its Pinto cars and trucks … In the end, however, Ford decided that benefits did not justify costs, and no safety feature was added to the vehicle. According to Mark Dowie, between 1971, when the Pinto was introduced, and 1977, when the magazine Mother Jones printed Dowie’s analysis of the case, at least five hundred people burned to death in Pinto crashes.

Reading this passage triggered my spider-sense. Elsewhere, Hyde cites sources in detail. No endnote here. And no mention of Dowie in the bibliography. Then there’s the hedge: “According to Mark Dowie.” Elsewhere in the book, people “declare,” “say,” or “explain” the facts. “According to” belies the author’s confidence. And then the final trigger was the qualification of the number of burning deaths as “at least five hundred people burned to death.” Either you are burned to death or not. I expected a whole number, not an indeterminate “at least five hundred.” If that many people perished, I found it amazing that Ford could continue to sell the car for so many years. I decided to do a quick Google search.

The results shook my belief in Hyde. According to the Wikipedia article—which I regard as a neutral source (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Pinto)—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that “27 deaths were found to have occurred between 1970 and mid-1977 in rear-impact crashes that resulted in fire.” That’s a big difference: 27 versus “at least 500” deaths. The Wikipedia article also discusses the legacy of Dowie’s analysis, the findings of which have been debunked in peer-reviewed law journals.

The Gift is now in its 3rd edition, copyright date 2019. Hyde’s gone through and revised the text. But it’s a shame that he didn’t include a footnote placing an asterisk next to Dowie’s claims. He could have at least mentioned that Dowie’s claims are open to question. Because there isn’t a note, I wonder how often Hyde’s facts are open to interpretation elsewhere in the book.

If You Talk about Money Supply, Please Include a Discussion on Inflation

Hyde asserts that the ideal loan which draws together people in the gift society is the interest-free loan:

In a society that recognizes the right to make a reasonable profit on capital, the equity rate is called the prime rate. Above the prime we have rates for speculators and suspicious strangers. Higher still, we have modern usury, loan sharking, theft by debenture. And below the prime we find various “friendship rates,” which fall to different levels for different degrees of friendship, until we return to the interest-free loan, the pure gift case.

The best loan, one that reinforces the human bonds in Hyde’s ideal gift society, is the interest free loan. By giving the gift of not charging interest, the relationship between creditor and debtor becomes equable. But is this true?

The Gift came out originally in 1983. In the 1980s, inflation in the US averaged 5.82% each year. In the decade prior, inflation averaged 7.25%. Einstein once said that “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.” In Hyde’s gift economy, debtors understand inflation—which compounds like compound interest—and creditors have no idea. Creditors, by not charging interest, give their wealth to debtors.

If a creditor in lends $1000 dollars on January 1, 1980 and receives back $1000 dollars on December 1, 1989, he will have lost close to half his money. Because of 5.82% inflation in the 1980s, $1000 in 1989 will only buy you what you could have brought with $567.97 in 1980. This is because of inflation: the $2 loaf of bread in 1980 will cost $3.52 in 1989. The creditor, if he wants to preserve his spending power in the face of inflation, would have to ask the debtor to pay back in 1989 not $1000, but $1760.67. But this, in Hyde’s book, is called usury, frowned upon in the gift society. I would have liked to see Hyde tackle the issue of inflation in his chapter on usury. It’s not as easy as saying: interest free loans preserve relationships. They don’t. Interest free loans ruin the creditor.

Later on in the chapter “Ezra Pound and the Fate of Vegetable Money” a similar issue arises: inflation should be a crucial element of the discussion. But it’s nowhere to be found. “Vegetable money” was Pound’s term for a perishable currency. Pound thought that a perishable currency would encourage the circulation, rather than the hoarding of money. You lose money by having money. Pound advocated German economist Silvio Gesell’s stamp scrip which would lose one percent each month. While inflation in the 1980s wasn’t as drastic—5.82% each year—it achieves the same result: by holding money, you lose money. I was looking forward to a discussion on inflation and Pound’s perishable currency. But inflation is nowhere to be seen. Inflation was the monetary phenomenon of the 1980s. That makes it even more surprising there is not one mention of inflation anywhere in the book.

Walt Whitman

The second half of the book contains two case studies in the gift society. The first looks at poet Walt Whitman. He gave himself to nursing soldiers back to health, teaching illiterate and rude young men to read and write, and writing poetry. These were his gifts to the world. But what did the world give back? Hyde ends the chapter on an enigmatic note. Whitman alone, unloved, and unappreciated finds solace in nature. Whitman believed in the gift society. But what did society give back to him?

Ezra Pound

In exploring the roots of Pound’s antisemitism, Hyde constructs a new portrait of the Jew as a modern incarnation of Hermes, at once the protector of thieves, god of commerce, messenger of the gods, and lord of roads. Was such a new portrait that plays on old caricatures really necessary? But let us suppose that, to explore Pound’s antisemitism, it was somehow necessary and justified. Then the next question: was is also necessary to reproduce Arthur Rackham’s illustration: “The Jew of Hawthorn Hedge” in the chapter on Pound? The illustration also plays on caricatures of Jewishness.

Closing Thoughts

In The Gift, Hyde tells the story of the gift societies of the old day, the societies where artists were cherished and received gifts in turn for sharing their gift of art. These gift societies gave way to market societies, gave way to capitalism, gave way to modern exchanges which no longer valued art and artists. In The Gift, Hyde has given a gift to all those disenfranchised with modernity: his gift is an idealized vision of an abundant past. I found this book to be imbalanced in its criticism of the market economy and its praise for the gift society. Remember, Bronze Age Greece was also a gift society. That didn’t prevent the Achaeans and the Trojans from ravaging their cultures and artists by waging the ruinous Trojan War. The funny thing, however, is that by destroying their cultures, they gave the singers of the future a song to sing for the ages. Perhaps the extinction of the artists—the best of the homo sapiens—under the market economy today will inspire a new epic song, one as big as The Iliad, the poem of force.

In today’s age, Hyde thinks that the artists cannot. I think that they can. And therein lies a quarrel. Hyde’s question, however, remains: why do so many artists fail to find recognition today? I think the answer is that in the old day, the village or the tribe would nominate one person to be the artist, one person to be the seer, and so many people to be farmers, hunters, and gatherers. In short, one did not choose a vocation, or at least did not choose in the same way as we think of it. At a young age, one shows strength: the tribe trains this person for the military life. Another person shows the spark of art: the tribe trains this person for the artistic life. In this way, they look after one another in a mutual compact. Today, however, we ourselves choose to be an artist or a politician or a cobbler. We have this freedom of choice. And we pay for this incredible freedom by sometimes being rejected. I think that, had Walt Whitman or Ezra Pound been born in an earlier age into a gift society, and they had spoken out against the values of the tribe and lived outside the tribal society, they would not have fared much different than they did in the market society in which they actually lived. Artists today fail to find recognition because they have taken risks to become an artist. Some will fail so that others can succeed. That is freedom’s price.

Don’t forget me. I am Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.