The special gift of Lewis Hyde

By David Hall In Books

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Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde has made a living writing about how art survives and thrives

It is an eminently practical question: how are artists supposed to get by in this world? After all, staying alive takes money and making money takes time. But art takes time, too, often lots of it, and art doesn’t always make money. For unestablished artists especially, making art and making a living can sometimes seem like incompatible pursuits. “My God,” complained painter Paul Gauguin, “how terrible these money questions are for an artist!”

Lewis Hyde was once on the sharp end of this dilemma himself. “When I got out of college,” he tells me over the phone from Ohio, “I was interested in pursuing a life of writing poetry and writing in general.” He adds, with a self-deprecating chuckle, “It seemed to me clear that this was a difficult road to take.”

For Hyde, however, this became more than just a practical question; it became a subject of creative inquiry in its own right. Over the past three decades, he has published three non-fiction books on the subject, an unparalleled exploration of how art survives and thrives in the wider world. In doing so, Hyde has not only helped a generation of artists to understand their own predicament, but solved for himself the problem he set out to examine: how to make a living from writing. His work was recognised for the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1991 and he is presently the Richard L Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, Ohio. Novelist David Foster Wallace described Hyde as “a national treasure, one of our true superstars of non-fiction”.

The first of Hyde’s books, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, which has its 30th anniversary this year, is regarded as a modern classic, newly reissued as part of the Canongate Canons series. In an introduction, novelist Margaret Atwood describes it as being “about the core nature” of what artists do, and she recommends it “without fail” to aspiring writers, painters and musicians.

Hyde’s thinking crystallised in the 1970s during a month in Mexico at the renowned research centre run by Ivan Illich, a hotbed for the critique of modern institutions, where he came across the work of French sociologist Marcel Mauss. Mauss was famous for his descriptions of gift economies in tribal societies and Hyde says it occurred to him “that the metaphors, the way of talking might usefully be transferred to artistic practice”.

On Hyde’s reading, art functions as a gift in multiple ways. It is a gift in the sense that an artist is “gifted” or talented, graced with a passion or virtuosity not everyone possesses. Art is also a gift in the form of artistic inspiration, when nature or culture offers up a helpful idea. And lastly, of course, art is a gift artists give to others, an exchange between an artist and an audience, and a unique contribution to human culture.

In describing the nature of gift-giving, Hyde offers a sumptuous weave of ethnography, folk mythology, theology, political philosophy and art history, all bound together by his poetic sensibility, his feeling for the forces that truly move people.

The essential point, however, is that gifts are intensely social. He distinguishes this from market exchange, where one party hands over money in return for a commodity, a transaction that can occur among “cordial strangers”. A gift, by contrast, is like a good book, moving in circles through multiple hands, creating a community by forming relations of gratitude. In gift economies, wealth remains fluid and dynamic, because people are quick to give and grateful to receive, trusting in the principle that what goes around comes around.

In an environment guided by these values, Hyde argues, culture flourishes: “I think art and artistic practice become most lively when the barriers to conversation are low, when people can share and talk and swap and absorb the work of others, then remake it or combine it with things they already know.”

Ideas come not from single minds, but from exchanges across many minds.

“In artistic practice,” says Hyde, “if you look closely, it comes out of a [cultural] context, and the context contributes as well as the individual. I’m very fond of a quote by the German playwright Goethe: ‘Everything that I have seen, heard and observed I have collected and exploited. My works have been nourished by countless different individuals, by innocent and wise ones, people of intelligence and dunces [ …] My work is the work of a collective being that bears the name Goethe.’ Goethe was a genius and did things that other people weren’t doing, but he also had this sense of being embedded in a world that contributes to him.”

Which returns us to the question of how artists are supposed to get by in this world. The emphasis here belongs on this world, in which the gift economy is rapidly retreating. In Hyde’s view, the end of the Cold War ushered in an era of “market triumphalism”, when markets reached into spheres of life once governed by other values, and where market machinations are not necessarily well suited. In this vein, The Gift is not just a description of the gift economy, but a call for its preservation, a reminder of what we stand to lose if it is forgotten or suppressed.

A pivotal moment for Hyde was the passing of the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, strongly lobbied for by the Walt Disney Corporation, which retroactively extended the term of copyright in the US for 20 years.

“The old trade-off,” Hyde explains, “was that you give a limited term to the creator, but because most creativity depends on the social world to begin with, you limit that [term] so things are returning to the public domain. What’s been puzzling for many of us is that the proprietary content-holders have been so aggressive in increasing their reach, without any sense that they were taking something from the public domain.”

Hyde developed his thoughts in his 2010 book Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, a defence of our “cultural commons”, the vast accumulation of artistic and scientific ideas we inherit from our ancestors. Here, culture is conceived as a common asset such as fisheries, aquifers or the atmosphere, which must be managed.

Hyde suggests we might learn something from traditional societies, which often included the ecosystem in their gift cycles, making sacrifices to nature. In The Gift, for example, he cites a Maori tradition of returning the first-caught birds of a hunt to the forest to nourish its hau, its vitality.

Although we might now dismiss such traditions as “unscientific”, incapable of truly preserving nature, Hyde nevertheless insists they cultivate the right attitude. They are “an expression of interdependence, that nature is not just there for us to exploit, that we have an obligation to its fertility, and that puts some limits on our actions”. And if art and science are to thrive, he argues, our cultural commons deserve the same generosity of spirit.

For all this, Hyde is not an evangelist for some pre-industrial golden era. Indeed, he describes his second book, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (2008), as an attempt to examine the drawbacks of gift exchange, its capacity to exclude people and to maintain hierarchies. Nor is he adamantly anti-market. In The Gift, he acknowledges its merits: its diversity, its dynamism, its empowerment of individual freedom.

“People sometimes miss my own attempt to balance contending forces,” he says. “When you have contending good things, the puzzle for social policy is not to become the ideologue of one side or the other, but to make space for both.” Accordingly, Hyde is quick to distinguish his notion of the cultural commons from more anarchic forms of information distribution, such as that enabled by cloud storage sites such as Megaupload, the brainchild of Kim Dotcom.
The Gift by Lewis Hyde
Hyde says, “I am a believer in appropriately limited copyright – that is to say, that artists should own their work for at least their lifetime. I think therefore that downloading proprietary work without honouring the owner’s rights is a crime and should be punished.”

Instead, Hyde nominates other “heroes of the commons”, such as Lawrence Lessig, for his work on creative commons licences, the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, and Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the world wide web, who placed his pioneering internet protocols in the public domain so others could adopt, adapt and advance the new technology. “That’s a person who invents something and creates value for millions of other people, but the value would not be there if he hadn’t given it away.”

As Hyde thankfully reminds us, the spirit of the gift has animated many human accomplishments. We should be careful to ensure it animates a few more yet.

THE GIFT: HOW THE CREATIVE SPIRIT TRANSFORMS THE WORLD, by Lewis Hyde (Canongate Canons, $29.99).

Listener Book Club
Back after its summer break, the Listener Book Club resumes activities on January 31 with a month-long discussion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Penguin English Library, $12.99) to mark the 200th anniversary of its first publication. Kicking off the month will be an interview with Paula Byrne, author of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (Fourth Estate, $39.99).

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