Monday 17 November 2008

Art as Gift

The idea that art is a gift ... it's a lovely idea. Lewis Hyde has written about it in his book, The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. Hyde, his writing, and his influence on matters of copyright and intellectual property, were the subjects of an article by Daniel B. Smith in The New York Times Magazine this Sunday, so if you take the Times but haven't seen this, don't recycle the magazine yet. (Those of you who don't distract themselves with the Sunday New York Times, can see the article by clicking here.) Although Smith says that Margaret Atwood, who lives only half a mile from me, keeps six copies of Hyde's book on hand, "to distribute to artists she thinks will benefit from it," I am ashamed to say that I had not heard of Hyde or his book. But the idea of art as gift was sufficiently exciting that I dressed quickly on Sunday morning and went to get the book from the library.

Although I have only just begun reading it, I can see from the start that The gift is a fine book. (I shall write a micro-review of it for our Books on the Psychology of Fiction.) It has an epigraph by Joseph Conrad: "The artist appeals to that part of our being ... which is a gift and not an acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently enduring." Hyde then starts his book with the observation that at his corner drugstore he and his neighbours could buy a line of romantic novels, published by Silhouette, written according to a formula derived from an advertising agency's polling of women readers: the heroine must be between 19 and 27, the hero unmarried, preferably a widower, they are not allowed in bed together until they are married ... and so on. "Why," asks Hyde, "do we suspect that Silhouette Romances will not be enduring works of art?" The reason, he answers, is the subject of his book. "It is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity."

Lewis Hyde (1983). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage.

Daniel B. Smith (2008). What is art for? The New York Times Magazine, 16 November, pp. 39-43.

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