That first solo exhibit, magazine contract or book advance—for creative types, there’s nothing so thrilling as the promise of artistic breakthrough. Ask friends in publishing, fashion and art, and they’re bound to confide that they’ve fantasized about sudden, liberating success. And for good reason. Among New York’s creative underclass, it’s part of an enticing, dogged hope: that a career-making moment will erase years of hardscrabble adversity on the slippery lower rungs of the culture industry. Yet daydreams of creative triumph and financial reward are mostly just that: daydreams. So where is the guide to surviving, let alone accepting, the ongoing struggle of living the creative life?
A survival guide (of sorts) already exists: Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. First published in 1983, it’s now being reissued in a 25th-anniversary edition. Audacious, unusual and singularly penetrating, The Gift proposes “an economy of the creative spirit”: a theory speculating on how art is produced and consumed, why some art lasts and how artists can cope in a society that provides little material compensation for their labors.
“The true commerce of art is a gift exchange,” writes Mr. Hyde, whose central argument is that art exists both in the market economy and also in a social, or gift, economy. Unlike the artist, whose survival depends on some sort of financial gain, great art needs only steady circulation in the gift economy to prosper and endure over time.
The gift economy includes an array of activities from the individual reader’s experience to college syllabi to book clubs and endorsements, whether official or casual. The “gift” given by a poem, say, or a play or a painting is the artist’s talent, according to Mr. Hyde, and its influence on future artists is part of its living circulation within the so-called gift economy. Art, in other words, is a meme that’s spread virally among those who come into contact with it.
If that sounds far-reaching and vague—well, it absolutely is. The Gift is no beach read, and its dense, expansive tone may frustrate even a dedicated reader. It’s reminiscent of another eccentric, contemplative study: Thoreau’s Walden. Mr. Hyde’s book is its own odd duck, and his resolute focus is not on the micro-world around a 60-acre pond but rather on the creative process, what Mr. Hyde calls the inner and outer life of art.
As with Thoreau, the most plainspoken, powerful passages in Mr. Hyde’s book speak to the art of the life well lived. Mr. Hyde is a poet, and before he began piling up professional distinctions (a MacArthur, a Guggenheim, a handful of other prestigious grants), he made a meager living as a journeyman tradesman. He’s therefore well qualified to speak of the penury of the artist.
“How, if art is essentially a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market?” He offers three answers—day jobs, patrons and commercializing your art—and in each case he provides historical examples.
Though it’s always enjoyed a small cult following and word-of-mouth circulation (reflected in the admiring new blurbs by David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem and Zadie Smith), The Gift was generally overlooked when it was first published. But what once puzzled critics about Mr. Hyde’s ambitious and complex thesis looks prophetic today.
He shines particularly in anticipating the issues of culture in the age of the Internet. The radical democratization of access to media of all forms, from the print newsstand to blogs, from user-pay Radiohead album downloads to the long tail of Amazon’s back catalog, has irrevocably shifted our sense of the cost as well as the shelf life of art. It’s now cheaper than ever, in most cases, to produce and disseminate art—as well as to curate, discuss and appreciate it. Mr. Hyde’s central idea about art’s social function—that the consumption (and enduring value) of art ultimately transcends any commercial transaction—is looking increasingly like an idea tailor-made for our present moment. Meanwhile, his warnings about encroaching commercialization crowding out art and artists seem as relevant as ever.
Sure, there are a few things the artist in your life would be more likely to wish for this season—an award nomination, a teaching appointment, health insurance—but The Gift’s curious, contemplative wisdom may be just what’s needed.
THE GIFT: CREATIVITY AND THE ARTIST IN THE MODERN WORLD
By Lewis Hyde
Vintage, 435 pages, $14.95
Jeffrey MacIntyre writes on culture, science and technology for The New York Times, Slate and Wired. He can be reached at email@example.com.