It's gifts all the way down

Topic Sentence #10

Dear reader,

Here’s our topic sentence for today:

The true commerce of art is a gift exchange, and where that commerce can proceed on its own terms we shall be heirs to the fruits of gift exchange: in this case, to a creative spirit whose fertility is not exhausted in use, to the sense of plenitude which is the mark of all erotic exchange, to a storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation, and to a sense of an inhabitable world — an awareness, that is, of our solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods.

This comes from one of my most well-thumbed books, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. The Gift is a book about creativity and what it means to be an artist in a world of commerce.

It’s a book that I’ll talk about to anyone whose eyes don’t immediately glaze over because it’s a problem that, like capitalism, won’t ever quit: ‘How do we pay artists?’ ‘How much is enough?’ ‘How can an artist dance with commercialism and not come out feeling cheapened from the exchange?’

Hyde’s genius is to answer this with a delightfully long-winded journey through the history and sociology of gifts. Art is a gift—‘the way you play piano, it’s such a gift!’—but Hyde argues that it is not that we don’t understand art, but we don’t understand gifts and what they’re for.

That is, throughout the history of most cultures, gifts are considered not as property but as something to be passed on. And so if art is a gift, it isn’t meant to be kept, it’s meant to be passed on. The gift has to keep on moving or it dies. The best way to destroy a gift is to meet it with selfishness.

Gifts here are not only physical gifts but the gifts of ideas, the gifts of creativity, the gifts of art:

The commerce of art draws each of its participants into a wider self. The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person.

When we deal with gifts, we are dealing in commerce with the self. Hyde writes

It is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.

Near the end of the book, Hyde suggests three primary ways in which “modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood”: they take second jobs, they sell their work on the market (and put that money towards their art), or they find patrons.

In related news, here’s my current business plan for Topic Sentence: as much as possible, give things away.

Notice our topic sentence again. It begins with a paradoxical declarative: ‘the true commerce of art is a gift exchange’. How can any real commerce be based on the exchange of gifts? That answer is found in art.

Hyde goes on to list the ‘fruits of gift exchange’: to a “creative spirit” which does not feel empty from its giving, to a “sense of plenitude”—“erotic” here is not in a directly sexual sense, but as deriving from Eros, a gift that increases in its giving away, to a “storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation”—that is, art that can carry its own gifts of story and catalyst, and “a sense of an inhabitable world”, which is both a beautifully rhythmic phrase, and an apt description of something we continually strive for, and so often fail to reach, in art.

If you’d like to, you can now be part of a paid subscription to my Substack. I even have a button for it.

However! Topic Sentence newsletter will continue to be a free fortnightly-ish publication for the estimable future, no matter how many or how few subscriptions I get.

But! What subscription ($5 USD a month, this is literally the lowest I could set it to) gets you is an opportunity to be a patron to me and my writing: an opportunity to be part of the gift exchange if you appreciate these letters.

Oh, and you’ll also get a longer-form newsletter at the start of the month (first one in about a week). And access to subscriber-only posts—as I try and codify some thoughts about the craft of writing at a sentence level. And if subscriptions go much better than my pessimism, there are other things I’d like to start working towards: audio episodes, guest posts and interviews. Any questions about any of this, let me know.

And one more thing! If you’d really like a subscription and can’t afford it, just email me. See the business plan for more details.

To a sense of an inhabitable world,

Guan