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In the commerce of gifts

September 30, 2011

This is the 4th post inspired by Lewis Hyde’s book,’The Gift’

When artists work to serve the demands of the market, they make commodities. Even though these products are made with the hands, because they are purely products of commerce, they carry no (or limited) spiritual and emotional worth, and serve no bonding function for the community.

When artists work to serve their gifts, they create gifts that flow back into society and transform it.

The artist receives an inspiration and as he labors to bring that vision into reality, he enters what Hyde calls a ‘gifted state’. This could be compared to ‘flow’, and is a condition where you go beyond your own ego and feel as if something larger than your self were helping birth the work.

‘Out of what the soul has offered him, the artist makes the work.   And the finished work is a return gift carried back into the world’s (or community’s or tribe’s) soul’.

A work of art that enters us to feed the soul lets us experience that gifted state. We feel gifted for awhile, and depending on our own abilities, we respond by creating new work (it doesn’t have to be art,  but inspired by the artist we may find we can suddenly make sense of our own experience). The greatest art offers us fresh images that light up our imaginations and open up alternatives for our own lives.

I’ve finished reading ‘The Gift’, and Hyde ends with the thought that perhaps gift – and market commerce are not as irreconcilable as he first thought. In his Afterword to the 25th anniversary edition of the book, he says that perhaps they can coexist if artists carefully interact with the market while still serving their gifts. Scroll down for the next post which deals with 3 ways modern artists have resolved the problem of livelihood.

Living from our art

September 30, 2011

this is the 5th post based on Lewis Hyde’s book, ‘The Gift’

Hyde cites 3 ways modern artists have resolved the problems of livelihood:

1 Getting a second job. In this situation, artists become their own patrons by using the income from the job to support their less remunerative work. Hyde calls this having ‘one foot in the gift economy, one in the market economy’.

2 Patrons. In this case, it is the patron who participates in the market economy to support the artist working with his gift.

3 The artist becomes an entrepreneur, living from the income generated by his artwork.

In this third case, Hyde says the boundary between gift and market economy blurs. The artist must, on 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 trends, know what the market will bear, demand fair value, and promote the work. ‘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 won’t sell his art, and if he can’t do the latter, he may have no art to sell or only commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market not in response to the demands of the gift’.

In other words, if you are going to sell your work and preserve the gift element, you need to make your work in that protected gift sphere without any thought of market at all. And only when you are satisfied that you ‘know the work to be the faithful realization of your gift’ should you turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes is does, sometimes is does not’.

Nicholas Roerich

This is the 3rd post based on Lewis Hyde’s book, ‘The Gift’.

Another insight brought by reading Hyde’s ‘The Gift’ is that we artists, by identifying solely with the market limit the circulation of the gift. I mean, that by painting with the idea of selling that painting solely in order to make an income we are limiting the nourishment and gifts that painting could bring us.

In Hyde’s discussion of gift exchange in tribal societies, there is always a greater force involved in the cycle of giving and receiving of gifts, it might be the gods, the ancestors, the spirits of the forest or rivers,  or the greater community.

He then makes the connection to an artist ‘labouring ‘with a gift. When we are deeply into our work, something happens- time evaporates, problems recede, all that exists is this sense of being at one with the work and with the world. This state is known in modern times as ‘flow’. At those times art reaches beyond the personal ego and touches something universal which is then embodied in the artwork.

For anyone who has experienced this, there seems to be a magic to it, as if ‘it wasn’t me who did the work’. The feeling is as if we have opened and received a gift.

What Hyde has made me think about is this: if, through my art making I have been blessed to touch on such a gift, then there is something bigger than me at work here. That means that if I work consciously with this gift element and am grateful and humble in its presence, I let this all expand beyond my own personal ego boundaries. It isn’t mine alone, and it doesn’t need to nourish me any more beyond the experience of the making.

If I don’t demand from my creative gift work that it also earn my living, I am not limiting it to being a mere product.I release it into the larger domain, and from that domain I will in turn be nourished.

I have experienced this countless times, when working on non remunerative art, suddenly a windfall will appear from an entirely unrelated area.  As if by putting clear and true energy out there in one form it almost always comes back in another.

Russian artists Nicholas Roerich said something to the effect of , ‘Create, create, create, and don’t worry about the bread for the morrow, in creating you will nourish and be nourished’.

I’m not saying it is easy or instant. It is never easy. But by using this philosophy as a point of departure for making art, I come into a state of trust rather than one of worry, stress, scarcity and competition.

Exploring the gift further

September 23, 2011

Painting by Elizabeth Blackadder

The destruction of the spirit of the gift is nothing new or  particular to capitalism. All cultures and all artists have felt the tension between gift exchange and the market, between the self-forgetfulness of art and the self-aggrandisement of the merchant, and how that tension is to be resolved has been a subject of debate since before Aristotle.   Lewis Hyde, ‘The Gift’

I realise that this is the central question up for me and informing this blog and most of what I do. So it is great to be able to muse on it and explore it further here. (See previous post for more about the book ‘The Gift’).

Hyde cites 3 aspects of the gift in relation to the creation of an artwork.

The first is the inspiration from a perception, or experience, intuition, a dream a vision, or another art work. It is rare for this initial vision to be the finished work of art, we have to labour with it.

The ability to apply our skills to do the labour is the second gift. The artist works from that part of our being which is a gift and not an acquisition. It can’t be acquired by will –  talents are gifts.

‘The artist’s gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed on him.. if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self’. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work is the third gift. It is offered to the world or directed back to the perceived source –  which could be the muse, tribe, the spirits, nature, homeland or the muse.

By this Hyde means that when the artist is aware of his work as a gift, there is always humility and gratitude present. And this prompts the artist to give back somehow.

I will be exploring how to preserve this gift element even in the midst of market exchange in future posts. Because it is not either gift or market, but how to exist authentically in the tension between the two.

The gift

September 19, 2011

I’m still little more than half way through Lewis Hyde’s ,’ The Gift’  but I want to write about my impressions so far.

Though I hadn’t read it before now, his book has been known to me for over 20 years. In the early ’80s I read an article excerpted from it called ‘The Gift must move’, and I have saved those brittle photocopied pages all this time.
His quote concerning art being a gift rather than a commodity opened Suzi Gablik’s, ‘Has Modernism Failed’, and has been a central question for me as ana rtist and for many thinkers on the dilemma of art vs market.

I bought the book hoping to find answers to the last part of this question, (paraphrased) ‘If art is a gift and not a commodity, then how are artists to survive in a primarily market oriented society?’  I admit that some passages are pretty tough going, dealing with subjects such as usury and philosophical meanings of interest on money exchange, nor are the answers to my questions presented on a silver platter. Read the rest of this entry »

Magnolia bud by SigridBluebells by Sigrid

When I was in Kew Gardens during my recent UK trip, I stumbled into an exhibition of contemporary botanical illustration. It was unexpectedly fresh, and I was so pleased to see that many of the artists were young. It did me good to know that this art getting new life breathed into it by young artists.

So yesterday at a plant fair I attended, I was especially pleased to discover Sigrid Frensen, a young botanical artist. We had a really nice chat about our work (including my harpsichord decoration which I guess is a form of botanical illustration) and her recent participation in a show of botanical illustration in London. Her mother joined the discussion about how there is more appreciation for this art form in England than in Holland. Here, as with other craft skills, this is looked down upon by some in the art world. But if you see the contemporary work being done in this field, you’ll notice renewal and innovation.

What I value about botanical art are the patience and skills needed to render a plant accurately, but more than these, the ability to get inside the spirit of the plant and make it come alive.

I spoke to an artist at the fair who, in keeping with the general opinion here, also rather dismissed botanical illustration as a lesser art form. But I feel that slowly people here will come to appreciate it as a branch of art/craft worthy of respect and attention. I find it an exciting field, and am looking forward to seeing Sigrid’s art develop. She is active in promoting the skill and is one of the founders of the Dutch Society of Botanical Artists.

You can see her site here (Dutch). And her blog (English) has a lot of good examples of her work, worth a look, for sure.

Bluebells by Sigrid