Saturday, April 10, 2010

Trickily charged

Last night, I made a heavy-lidded attempt at a short post about a group of obscurely related things - snail-mail, hedgehogs, citrine - but halfway through a sentence, I fell asleep (yes, literally) on the letter 'd'. When I woke a wee while later, I found my 'draft' window teeming with hundreds of lower-case drones. They were almost noisy. Almost.

ddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd ddddddddddd

It was a good thing my little finger didn't inadvertently hit the 'publish post' button while I was off elsewhere, dreaming of multi-antlered antelopes, dusty old vegetable carts and men in paint-spattered overalls sitting cross-legged on trestle tables playing brightly coloured stringed instruments.

Anyway, it's been another very full day and I'm at risk of having the same thing happen again tonight, so instead of trying to summon up something new, I thought I'd re-post a piece I wrote this time last year. It addresses a subject that has beckoned me countless times over the years and that's once again putting up its hand and asking for attention...

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 hold of 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 formed the basis of a sequence of seven small works I made this time last year (they really were small - 350 x 280MM).

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. Was the citrine to repel the hedgehog which was eating the snail(male)? Much to ponder in that wisdom, Claire. I wonder if one path is to start erasing the division between what is earning and what is done for joy — easier worked on by those of us whose time is fluid, who aren't accountable to a department. Well, practising generosity was always a smart way out of a narrow strait...So I remind myself. Thanks, C xx

  2. Oh, I'm so glad you're back!
    Now, if the hog appears, I will be in total joy. But news of the chickens would be good, also.

    I love the sleep-entry...
    When I was visiting friends in Tucson years ago, their cat, Baxter, walked across the computer I was using and left quite a marvelous story that I later printed out and made into a little pamphlet for them. They had never been quite sure of what he was yowling about, but all those repeated letters gave them some idea..

    The nice thing about being the kind of "artist" (I don't like that word,but for want of a better one) that I am is that nothing ever sells, but I keep working. I am consumed and enlivened by work.

    Thank you for your ideas and insights!!!

  3. Hyde's book and the idea of a barter economy is so appealing. There have always been groups of people who have moved away inside capitalistic cultures. And Sarton's painful cry about not being able to give one's gift to those one most loves--heartbreaking, C.

  4. Dear Pen --- the citrine was there to dazzle the hedgehog and coax the mail I'd been anticipating to land in my mailbox. It worked. The hedgehog seems at home and the mail that should by rights have taken weeeeks to arrive took less than a handful of days. Some snails have wings, it seems x

  5. PS. Pen, 'practising generosity was/is always a smart way out of a narrow strait...' Always, indeed. x

  6. Dear Melissa
    Thank you! I'm hoping the hog is here to stay; chances are he's on the lookout for a few last grubs before finding himself a warm, leafy nest to burrow into for the winter! I must remember to tell you a funny (well, kind of funny) story about chickens and sunflower seeds sometime...
    I love that you printed out Baxter the cat's story for your friends, Melissa! They will have been delighted, for sure. (Did you know that one of NZ's all time greatest poet's name was James K. Baxter?) As a child, I thought it would be interesting to transcribe my cat's piano playing into readable sheet music - I really wanted to accompany him when he 'played.'

    To be consumed and enlivened by one's work has surely to be the best motivation and sustenance of all? We are fortunate indeed to do work that we are passionate about - all else follows?

    I am looking forward to reading one of your poems tomorrow, it being Tuesday! (I hope it was alright for me to let Mary, who's coordinating the whole circle, know that you're intending to join in... she has included a link to your blog from the new Poetry site... Please let me know that this is okay with you?).

    L, C x

  7. Dear Vespersparrow
    I would dearly like to live life primarily according to a 'currency of exchange' - this is the way communities used to do things, not all that long ago, either... It's interesting to note that in today's world, people tend to talk more about 'societies' than they do 'communities'... perhaps change begins with greater awareness of the subtle yet profound differences contained within words such as these. Your care with language and your celebration of it, continues to open me to new ways of seeing. Thank you.

  8. oh, Claire,
    yes, I do want to participate, but it may not be tomorow since I'm still trying to pick myself up physically...
    but I'll get there soon..
    and please, I'd love the story about chickens and sunflower seeds. I'd been rabidly interested in those three chicks you found...

    oh, dear, I suppose that gorgeous old hog isn't going to appear again, but it's fixed in my memory.
    thank you...