Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fertility and the Imagination

In his book The Gift (one of my studio Bibles), Lewis Hyde writes:

Just as treating nature's bounty as a gift ensures the fertility of nature, so to treat the products of the imagination as gifts ensures the fertility of the imagination.


The Gift is one. If you don't already have a copy on the pile next to your bed, I'd urge you to get one. My pre-loved book came from Amazon. I read it often and always with pencil in hand: it's an ongoing pleasure that never fails to yield more. My exploration of it and its fundamental premises will form the basis of a sequence of seven small new works that I'm about to embark on (they really are small - 350 x 280MM). The paper's torn and prepared, the images have been taking shape for some time (in that ever-so-mysterious incubation space that exists between the head, the hand and the page) and today I hope to get the initial grounds laid down. (These are to be part of a group exhibition that opens in Dunedin 0n Friday 19 June.) 

Hyde considers art as gift, not as commodity. "Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two 'economics,' a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.' He goes on to suggest that when gifts - rather than commodities - circulate within a group, the exchange leaves a series of satisfyingly interconnected relationships in its wake, so that a kind of 'decentralized cohesiveness emerges' (i.e a cooperative, collaborative, connected community).  

One of the most insistent dilemmas I face regarding my own creative work and its ongoing life in the world is around precisely these questions... The lines between meaning and value are easily blurred in our fiercely competitive and commercially-driven world. Very little is simply, unconditionally 'gifted' these days - just about everything comes with a price-tag attached to it. I find this troubling. Within this 'set system,' there has still to be room for 'pure gift', surely? In order to sustain a practice, make a living, pay the bills, etc... our creative work (in all its forms/media/genres/dimensions) has to exist to some degree or other in the trickily-charged space between 'market economy' and 'gift economy.' Is there some way round - and through - this? I like to think so. 

There are times when conflicts can be creative and tensions productive, but I must admit that this particular dilemma continues to be an area of considerable discomfort to me. In my dreams - naive as this may seem - our community would grow forward (as opposed to the cliched adage, 'go back') to a modus operandi where gift, exchange and barter are once again our primary currency. Once upon a time, this used to be the way - and it worked. It wasn't all that long ago, either. 

Can an echo sound retrospectively? Apparently so... In an earlier book - a memoir, titled Journal of a Solitude - poet and novelist May Sarton wrote: "There is only one real deprivation, I decided this morning, and that is not to be able to give one's gift to those one loves most... The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up..."  

Gifts - unlike so many 'things' - are not used up in circulation or in use. 


  1. Hi Claire. Marvelous post. Maybe the best an artist can hope for is a kind of truce with the market. Obviously, if we're to make our livelihood from our work, we need to convert some of it into commodity. But the gifting part -- which is the relationship of our work to the universe that feeds it, and that we feed in return -- needs be protected at every turn. I'd call it a dialectic, but I'm not sure what the synthesis would be. Seems more like an act of poise-counterpoise--which makes your work with spirit levels all the more resonant. Can the artist, do you suppose, render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to Spirit what is Spirit's, when both derive from the same source? I have a painter friend who addresses this conundrum (I almost said solves, but not sure that's what it is) by producing two completely different bodies of work each year: one, of boats and harbors and seaside scenes, he sells to tourists in a Cape Cod gallery; the other, of his more deeply felt work, he shows in galleries and museums (which brings in little, if any, income). His point: the Cape Cod paintings are his job, but a job he enjoys, pushing paint around. Robert Graves, author of such historical novels as "I, Claudius,", and a fine poet, called his novels the "show dogs" he bred to support his "show cats," his poetry. Random thoughts on this very complex and necessary topic. Thanks for your insights.

  2. Something we'll all need to learn to talk about? I wonder. To state our needs. To make our offers. L, P

  3. Aquarian Aye - thank you for your thoughtful comments. I particularly appreciate what you say about protecting the relationship of our work to the universe that feeds it - and us. The notion of poise and counterpoise implies a process of engagement that's to do with gentleness and grace. I'm not sure what the answer is to the Caesar/Spirit conundrum but it seems to me that one of the things we're here to learn is how to somehow be at ease with 'not knowing?' Rilke wrote, 'Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves...'

  4. Pen, I agree. It would be incredibly liberating if we could do as you suggest - 'state our needs and make our offers.' How could it not open us up to all sorts of new connections and possibilities?