Friday 26 December 2008

Indebted to a Gift?

In the November 17th post “Art as Gift” Keith Oatley drew attention to Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Imagination and erotic life of property. Hyde writes: “The labor of gratitude is the middle term in the passage of the gift” (p. 50). This is one answer, of course, to the question of what it is artists owe to their gifts. But to be indebted to a gift – what strange imprisonment is that?

When it comes to material gifts, the middle term, labor of gratitude, seems to be a fair bargain. That is because one chooses to receive a gift, aware of the cultural expectations of reciprocation that bind the community together. If one can choose to receive a gift, it follows that one can choose not to. We have all experienced that awkward moment of having to refuse a gift, knowing the intricate network of meanings it implies. However, when it comes to the other kind of a gift, the immaterial kind, it cannot be refused, at least not before it is received. It comes unsummoned, unchosen. And then we are supposed to be its prisoners, giving life’s most precious currency, time, to repaying a debt for a gift we never wanted?

What if we refuse? After all, the giver of the gift, Nature, would be fully satisfied with our bodies fertilizing some plot of pasture. Do we owe it to society, because we belong to it, and because it is the society that benefits the most? Not quite, given that most people pay societies’ dues with pocket change of their life’s work. So why, then, must we labor? What happens if we leave our gifts aside, and proceed as if they never existed?

My guess is that undeveloped gifts of artists, unlike discarded material gifts, remain alive, and deprived of air, start festering. Like infection they start spreading further and further into the healthy tissue. Who knows, perhaps we are both the giver and the debtor in this equation of art, and we owe it to ourselves to neatly repay our debts. Perhaps we are both the malevolent and benevolent hostage-taker, punishing ourselves for the undeveloped gifts, or releasing ourselves if our own unreasonable demands are satisfied. Not a fair bargain, but certainly quite a good deal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Claude Levi-Strauss eloquently studied the anthropology of gift-giving and the term gift is itself multivarious and complex, with such different registers between cultures.

Based on Oatley's post I'll definitely have a look at Hyde's book. I really enjoy the disease metaphor here as well--artist start as unknowns and then their popularity spreads.

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