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The Gift, Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

March 27, 2021 at 6:00 pm EDT

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Matt Groh  and Bill Powers host a discussion of the book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World and explore how gifts and gift giving are at the core of creativity in art, science, and beyond.

What distinguishes art from commodities? 42 years ago, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift argued that the work of art is a gift not a commodity. While works of art may be bought and sold, where there is no gift there is no art.

So, what then is a gift? Put simply, it’s a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We can neither buy it nor can we will it to being. It must be bestowed upon us. We often (and rightly) speak of talent as a gift. While talent can be refined, its initial appearance comes effortlessly. Hyde points out that “Mozart, composing the harpsichord at age 4, had a gift.” Intuition and inspiration are other forms of gifts. It’s the idea that pops into our heads while we’re taking a shower and the color that falls into place on the canvas. These gifts describe the inner life of a work of art. The outer life of art can also be seen as a gift. When art stirs our soul that artwork is received by us as a gift is received. But, how we treat things can change their nature.

In a culture with an emphasis on material wealth, Hyde explores how gift exchange can help explain the predicament for the modern creative type. From folklore to indigenous traditions to scientific communities to love languages to marriage customs to the feeling of gratitude to religious perspectives on finance, Hyde draws on a breadth of perspectives to develop a theory of gift exchange. In the second half of the book, Hyde applies his theory of gift exchange to understand the lives and work of two American poets: Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound.

The Gift explains what Oscar Wilde’s cynic – a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing – gets wrong. In the realm of creative endeavors, price is far from synonymous with value. In the chapter on The Commerce of the Creative Spirit, Hyde writes, “The hegemony of the market can undermine the possibility of gift exchange, the esemplastic powers can be destroyed by an overvaluation of analytical cognition, song can be silenced by self-consciousness, and the plenitude of the imagination can be lost to scarcity of logic.” In fact, modern cynics argue that you shouldn’t buy presents for the holidays because gift giving is economically inefficient.

Why do we exchange gifts for the holidays? What is cultural significance of gift-exchange anyways? In what realms does the gift economy manifest itself today? And, how is gift giving (and the theory of gift-exchange) related to creativity?

At this Interintellect Salon, we will discuss The Gift, the connection between creativity and gift-exchange, cultural practices of gift giving, and today’s creative communities – from open source software to scientific publications to street art to more – where the gift economy drives what is being created.

We hope you can join us for this book club style discussion. There is no requirement to read the book to join the discussion.

*All proceeds will be donated to the Raising a Reader, an organization helping families with young children develop, practice, and maintain home literacy habits.


The Gift by Lewis Hyde

Review of The Gift by Margaret Atwood


March 27, 2021
6:00 pm EDT
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