Gifts vs Commodities

This post borrows very liberally from the wonderful work of Lewis Hyde in his classic text “The Gift” which I highly recommend you read in full.


A work of art is a gift, not a commodity.


A gift is a thing we can not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it, we can’t acquire it through an act of will. It’s bestowed upon us.


Talent is a gift, because although talent can be honed and improved through an act of will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance.


Intuition and inspiration are gifts. As an artist works, some portion of her creation is bestowed upon her. An idea pops into her head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind or a colour falls in place on the canvas. Often, true creation comes with the uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work, but that it “flowed through me.”


This sense of gift applies not only to the inner life of art (the creation of the work), but to the outer life as well. The art that matters to us – moving our heart, reviving our soul, delighting our senses and offering courage for living is received by us as gift is received.


Even when we have paid a fee to enter the gallery or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art we are given something that has nothing to do with the price. We are given a new way to see, hear and experience the world around us. We find ourselves empowered to leave as a different person than when we entered.


The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift revives the soul.


We are endowed with the proceeds of the emotional labour the artist has invested and endured to make her work. Through this gift we may hear the way she hears, see the way she sees, shudder in her vulnerability and press forward thanks to her courage.


The way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature. Something that can not be sold can only be given and received as a gift. A sacred object may find its sanctity is lost if it is bought and sold.


If the essential commerce of art is a gift that is carried from the artist to her audience, it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity.


A gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation.
It’s important for us to think about how art might be bought and sold while retaining the gift portion of the work.


Cultures have long recognised men and women of substance. There have been times where a person came to their social position by being the one through whom the most gifts flowed. The modern market economy reverses this and now getting rather than giving is the mark of a substantial person. A hero is often thought of as self-possessed or self-made, neither of which hint at gifts received or given.


People live differently when they treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. Unlike a sale, the giving of a gift establishes a relationship between the parties involved. When gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a decentralised cohesiveness emerges.


Gift economies tend to be marked by three related obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to accept and the obligation to reciprocate.

How might we infuse our art with as many properties of the gift as possible? Not only by being a product of our interior gifts (talent, intuition and inspiration) but also designing it in such a way that it retains the outward properties of a gift as it moves through the market. How might the “owner” of your work be encouraged or even benefit from the act of sharing it?

I’m really interested in what this inspires for you. Email and tell me?

Share This