The Gift inside the Clearing


Once again, I am thankful to my readers and other sources that have responded to my thoughts.

In terms of the content of my previous posting, one reader writes:

In terms of young people–with health insurance, with college loans, with the huge financial burden that’s on recent graduates, how much can the world let them become who they can be? How much can 20-somethings become (and stay) weirdos without huge amounts of effort? Maybe it’s always taken huge amounts of effort. I’m reminded of another quote: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” But not everybody is lucky enough to have this experience. That is why the weirdos are blessed.

Coincidentally, I have recently re-read a book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde.  Originally published (and read by me) twenty-five years ago, it has just been released as a 25th Anniversary Edition with a new Preface and Afterword by Hyde. Hyde’s initial premise was that art survives only as a “gift” that is removed from the world of commidites. To continue giving, it must continually recycle without ever being bought or sold.

In his new “Afterword: On Being Good Ancestors,” he explains his theory that, before the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union,  

In the United States, the 1965 enabling legislation for the arts and humanities endowments spelled out worthy goals: ‘while no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.’ This seems exactly right; the problem lies in the context of its expression, the long season of democratic-propaganda patronage during which, despite the well-put ideal, the arts and sciences were not supported as ends in themselves, but as players in a larger political drama.

Hyde then goes on to explain that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, support of the arts in the United States was no longer needed for propagandistic reasons and so governmental support of the arts fell accordingly, and drastically, to an all-time low.  What can we do? Today, he notes, there is “ a necessarily limited sample of places where the commercial and the noncommercial are found in better balance. . . .Numerous projects on the WEB have the structures and fertility of gift communities.” But these are few and far between. When  asked to “speak to the question of how we are to empower the [arts] in a world dominated by market exchange,”  his solution lies in reinstating the circularity of the gift: e.g., funds for artists who then return the proceeds of their work to the fund.

It’s a beginning.  And one in which I want to take part.  In a wonderful analogy to the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” Hyde expresses perfectly my reason for not charging for either my upcoming recital or new book:  “A gift that has the power to change us awakens a part of the soul. But we cannot receive the gift until we can meet it as an equal. We therefore submit ourselves to the labor of becoming like the gift. Giving a return gift is the final act in the labor of gratitude, and it is also, therefore, the true acceptance of the original gift. The shoemaker finally gives away some shoes.”

Pass it on. And so this is what I hope to do.  Keeping the gift moving in the form of funding for Jazale’s Art Studio refreshes the flow. Hyde says, “The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor is satisfied. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible. Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion. . . .But when the gift passes out of sight and then returns, we are enlivened.”

This past weekend were the scholarship auditions at the Conservatory, where students compete for scholarship money for the upcoming year. Thus, instead of the “labor of gratitude,” one’s practice goes toward money-making, and, for me, the flow just stopped.  Hyde explains why:  “most of us have had the experience of becoming suddenly tongue-tied before an audience or before someone whom we perceive to be judging us. . . .the moral seems to be that the gift is lost in self-consciousness.”

Because of my own reaction, I have decided never to compete in such an audition again. Luckily, my teachers , Stefanie and Lewis Hyde, remind me of the huge difference between audition and performance.

Another reader, Sandy from Arizona, sends in this from the blog A Silver Fraction by artist Laurie Doctor (April 21). In it, Laurie and a few friends “went to hear a talk by a famous artist, who spent much of the talk stating statistics on how many thousand people saw his various exhibits. The talk was largely about numbers, places his work was in, and where his work wasn’t that he wished it was.  . . .He made some important social statements, and actions, especially in the early work. There was a paradox of being socially active, politically concerned, and yet not one reference to another artist who influenced his work– or anyone else’s work. The puzzle was heightened by the artist describing the motivation of the work being to help other aspiring artists gain visibility– and when a young woman responded by asking for guidance on this subject, the response was essentially: Buy my book.”

Laurie responds:

“It made me ask myself again: Who am I making things for? What is the difference between being an artist and a social activist? Do I want my work to be grandiose? What is it that I have to offer?

But these questions answer themselves when I have forgotten all about myself and who I am making this work for, and am, as Sam said to Frodo, ‘inside the song’.

It brought to mind this poem, Clearing, by Martha Postlewaite:

Do not try to save

the whole world

or do anything grandiose.

Instead, create

a clearing

in the dense forest

of your life

and wait there


until the song

that is your life

falls into your own cupped hands

and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know

how to give yourself

to this world

so worthy of rescue.

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