The cover copy calls Lewis Hyde’s The Gift “ a modern classic,” and there’s no doubt that artists would agree. This highly-prized examination of the value of creative arts reaffirms the intuitive sense we all have that art is worth far more than its selling price and reveals the many ways in which art and artists contribute to the prosperity of the human soul. Hyde’s own creative artistry has been acknowledged by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lannan Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation, and his poetry has appeared in a number of prestigious literary journals. His exploration of the intangible nature of creativity and its power to instruct and enhance life is grounded in the authentic experience of questioning common to all true artists.
Like most creatives, Hyde has cause to ponder the rift between art and the commercially-driven world in which we live. In the introduction to this 25th-anniversary edition, Hyde tells us
“It is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity… a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift, there is no art.”
The dilemma for artists in our materialistic world is how to continue creative pursuits while paying the rent. It’s not unusual to find artists neglecting the rare and genuine gifts they could share in favor or more generic – therefore more marketable — shadows of genius. The difference between an artistic gift and a commercial product is generally determined by the source of its creation. “An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made…” but must be received from some fickle muse. “Not all artists use these very words, but there are few artists who have not had this sense that some element of the work comes to them from a source they do not control.”
Several sub-titles have been attached to The Gift, including Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, and Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. All are appropriate, given the wide-ranging nature of The Gift. Hyde attacks his subject from different directions and often seems to wander off in pursuit of a fluttering thought that distracts him from the set course. Fortunately these ramblings are equally intriguing and inevitably wind back around to the topic at hand. It takes a patient and diligent reader to traverse the unusual structure of this book. Even so, there is no finite destination, no “aha!” summary to be found at journey’s end. Rather, Hyde makes his point indirectly through the analysis of fairy and folk tales, of Whitman and Pound, and of attempts by an array of artists to define the value of creativity.
Drawing from psychology, anthropology, and even economics, Hyde provides the raw material of understanding. The finished products is a true gift, given to those who create as a way of understanding the artist’s vital role in society, and stimulates the intuitive acknowledgement that readers experience on their own.