I keep hearing the words of gift. Gratitude; generosity, giving, receiving. Love.
There is another layer to the language of the gift. Reciprocity, exchange. Hospitality. Hosting. Obligation and the eternal return.
I think, perhaps, that people know about the rules of the exchange instinctively. In the business world, even men (even men!) understand the implicit rules of the helping hand. You have to be careful what gifts you accept. And how you decline. Best to not be in the line of receiving some gifts at all.
But what about the rules of the gift, sans exchange? The gift, where no one is obliged? Does this exist?
Here is my hypothesis. Yes, they kind of exist. (I wonder if I can say this in my dissertation?)
By which I mean: you can never have a gift without a return. It’s not how we work as humans. See, gifts operate at a primal level, at the basis of evolutionary snake-brain society. Society itself only exists because of the rules of exchange, give-and-take. We all know that when these rules break down – when you cannot trust someone to let you in on the road merge – the skies darken a bit. You start thinking of those other words, the opposite of gift words – social exclusion; isolation; a merciless society.
But humans like the idea of transcendence. We like the feeling of, momentarily, finally, flying.
Enter the gift of art. Art is a gift which is made to yourself at the same time as it is made to others. Art is a “giving-and-receiving,” in the words of sociologists Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game.
When you make a work of art, you do not demand a direct return. You make your offering and you put it out in the world. You might make money from your art, but this is relevant only to your survival, not to the nature of the work.
I am speaking here about the art which with I am most familiar – creative writing. When you write creatively, you give yourself a gift. Time, permission, space for the unexpected. Something else too. Some sort of essence, a connection with the feel and flow of time and timelessness. And some sort of dispersal of essence; a letting go of the necessary; an unbounded feeling; a recklessness which allows you to fly freely.
The marketplace is there. You pay for books.
But there is the thing which you do not pay for, because it is a human to human thing on the level of the spiritual. It is outside the mechanics of a money transaction, the myth of an objective, measurable reality which can be superimposed onto the sticky, fluctuating relationships between people.
I am talking about the essence of the thing, the thing that you feel grateful for because you did not pay for it. The thing that transcends and surprises you into feeling something you did not expect. The thing which Lewis Hyde, in his book on the gift, describes as that which “revives and refreshes.” Which “has nothing to do with the ticket price.”
When you publish your writing, you can only put out your humble offering and look away. When you read, and you have the experience of seeing something, knowing something, of being powerfully and present to something which you did not expect, then you can only say thank you. Your gratitude overflows, because you cannot repay this gift. And you are not required to repay this gift directly. There is no meanness to it. You have to give it on, by which I mean, now, share it – with yourself, giving yourself the respite to read and perhaps dabble in something of your own, your own gift creation. With others, by offering them this book, or perhaps some other subtler moment of recognition, a smile in the direction of community, palpable or otherwise.
To make a leap (because I can hear my daughter waking up), this is why art and books are crucial to society. This is why we cannot over do the transactional experience of the arts. There must always be preserved the gift. In how we support art creation, distribution and experience. This is why the work of Luke Jarman is so beautifully received. A “gift from the gods,” one member of the public called it in Melbourne when they saw his street pianos appear over night. This is what it feels like to be seen and thanked for seeing.
Art as gift has never been so important before. As religion and other oases from consumption shrink, the importance of spaces where we can simply relate as people has never become so necessary. Libraries, galleries, public festivals; books.