What Art Is For.

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A recent New York Time articles spotlights writer Lewis Hyde, author of the never-out-of-print, 1983 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. The article is titled, “What Is Art For?” and touches on Hyde, his life, his work, and art’s purpose and use in society.

What is art for?

The central framework of The Gift is that of so-called “gift economies.” These aboriginal societies, very much real, place the most adulation and respect not on the men and women who accumulate the most goods and luxuries (as in American society) but on those who give the most away. Imagine hip hop tracks that brag about how many Bentleys they gave to charity and you’re starting to get the picture. As the article puts it, in these societies “goods have value only insofar as they are treated as gifts, and gifts can remain gifts only if they are continually given away.”

So, what of art?

Hyde argues that this concept is what explains the behavior of poets who devote their life to words, musicians who tirelessly play in dark subway stations every day, and dancers who work long hours for money during the day, simply to perform long hours at night for free.

The problem, as Hyde states, is that these artists are living “in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities.” But goods decline in value immediately upon purchase, while artwork gains value by being passed around. Bands, for instance, gain traction through fans who share the music with their friends. It’s this vision of art as an offering that occupied Hyde for the 7 years he spent writing The Gift.

The discussion spirals out to topics such as file sharing, the validity of patents, and the ethics of concepts like “intellectual property.” The ultimate question is, as the Times summarizes quite nicely: “If creative work doesn’t necessarily have any market value, how is the artist to survive?”

I won’t spoil the article or the book, but reconciling this conflict may find its answer in public domain and “the cloud.” We’re living in an open source age, where programmers code for months on end to release products for free, and where encyclopedias are written by a global community and funded exclusively by donations. This sense of community and “giving” may give way to a shift in how artists are perceived in society.

The next time you hear someone refer to a performer’s talent as a “gift,” see if you can catch the sound of gratitude beneath it.

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