The Washington Times - November 18, 2008, 05:31PM

Very interesting profile of scholar-philosopher-poet-essayist Lewis Hyde in last Sunday’s New York Times mag.

For the uninitiated, Hyde is most famous for penning 1983’s “The Gift,” a sort of underground manifesto about art for its own sake.


Writes the Times: “For nearly a decade he had been struggling to explain — to his family, to nonartist friends, to himself — why he devoted so much of his time and energy to something as nonremunerative as poetry. The literature on gift exchange — tales, for example, of South Sea tribesman circulating shells and necklaces in a slow-moving, broad circle around the Trobrian Islands — gave him the conceptual tool he needed to understand his predicament, which was he came to believe, the predicament of all artists living ‘in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities.’ For centuries people have been speaking of talent and inspiration as gifts; Hyde’s basic argument was that this language must extend to the products of talents and inspiration too. Unlike a commodity, whose value begins to decline the moment it changes hands, an artwork gains in value from the act of being circulated — published, shown, written about, passed from generation to generation — from being, at its core, an offering.”

I won’t profess to being hip to the subtleties of Hyde’s worldview, but this strikes me as rather fanciful stuff. Going back to Plato’s “Republic,” human beings seem to have a very practical, utilitarian instinct that market value attaches to the improvement or transformation of nature — the turning of a tree into a dining room table, for instance.

The value of artwork, by contrast, is mushier. Art has found support through the decades from the Church, from aristocracies, from rich private patrons and, today, from governments. The reason, of course, is that the value of a piece of art is highly subjective; we can’t all agree about it in the same way we do about the dining room table.

As a part-time musician and songwriter, I have some personal experience with all of this, and my view is that artists who seek to make a living from their art are, broadly speaking, asking to be paid for their hobbies.

Once an artist has made the request of the public, he has unavoidably committed commerce.

So Hyde’s art/commodity line is, for me, not a very bright one.

Call me a philistine if you must. But I don’t believe that I take a hardnosed or unsentimental view of art. It’s more that I have a higher opinion of “commodities.”