The Gift Turns Twenty-Five

An anniversary edition with a new afterword underscores the influence of Lewis Hyde's reflections on the status of art in the marketplace

When Lewis Hyde's book The Gift was first published in 1983, reviewers weren't sure how to place it. "Reporting on The Gift is like trying to paraphrase the seasons," Donald Hall wrote in the National Review.

Ranging widely through anthropology, mythology, economics, and biography to explore the relationship between art and commerce, Hyde delineated how capitalism tends to turn art into a commodity, and how this has, in essence, damaged the soul of creativity.

As he summarized it to an interviewer in the Los Angeles Times, "This book is about the alternative economy of artistic practice. For most artists, the actual working life of art does not fit well into a market economy, and this book explains why and builds out on the alternative, which is to imagine the commerce of art to be well described by gift exchange."

That message resonated with many cultural observers, and especially with writers and artists, for whom The Gift became something of a cult classic, articulating and providing an intellectual foundation for deeply felt beliefs. As novelist Margaret Atwood wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the book passed "from hand to hand, primarily the hands of those in any way connected with the arts, but also the hands of all who are interested in the sometimes arbitrary values placed on the material goods of this world."

Now Vintage Books has published a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Gift. The original subtitle, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, has become the less intriguing but more descriptive Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

For Hyde, the modern world very much includes the political realm. In an afterword to this edition, Hyde discusses the U.S. government's funding of art during and after the Cold War--a kind of cultural statecraft. He mentions the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist group founded by the Central Intelligence Agency that gave money to, among other entities, the Kenyon Review. (In fact, the editor of the Review at that time, Robie Macauley, had previously worked for the CIA.) Such democratic patronage, while clearly not without its propagandistic motives, largely left artists free to pursue their own work.

Then, in 1989, the Soviet Union fell, and "so did the bulk of public patronage in the West," writes Hyde. This was an era of intensive criticism of, and funding cuts for, the National Endowment for the Arts. Public institutions were suddenly "encouraged to think of themselves as private businesses," retooling their academic research to the marketplace.

"Our cultural abundance suffers the same fate," Hyde writes. As the status of art in the marketplace changes, he suggests, new models for funding will have to be created. Hyde himself has helped establish one such model: the Creative Capital Foundation, a grant-giving organization that asks artists who receive grants to "recycle" a small percentage of any net profits gained by their art back into the fund. The fund exemplifies Hyde's belief that a gift never rests; it keeps cycling through a community.

The Gift itself has cycled through contemporary consciousness. The book is now taught at many universities, and its ideas have been applied most recently to copyright issues on the Internet. In fact, Hyde, who is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon, is currently at work on a book about modern issues of copyright, fair use, and the cultural commons. In an era when the Internet has stretched the boundaries of our village of ideas, his new book may end up being just as influential as The Gift.

--Traci Vogel

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