Monday, December 25, 2006

Tis' the season III.

Harry Eyres' "Slow Lane" column in Saturday's Financial Times riffed on Lewis Hyde's The Gift:
. . . . As Hyde puts it, "whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away not kept - or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move in its stead. The only essential is this: the gift must always move."

This mobile, generous nature of the gift is the hinge that links the two parts of The Gift - from the gift economy to the work of art as gift. It certainly makes sense to me to think of the artists who have moved and delighted and disturbed and consoled me for the last 40 years as givers, not merely suppliers of commodities to the market. "The work of art exists in two economies," according to Hyde, "a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market but where there is no gift there is no art." The gifts of John Keats or Franz Schubert or Walt Whitman or Vincent Van Gogh are so great that they could never be repaid.

It is here that the gift goes beyond the kind of implied reciprocity that must have made potlatches potentially stressful. For a gift to be truly a gift, it must give up any notion of a quid pro quo. Percy Bysshe Shelley illustrated this notion beautifully and absurdly when as a very young man he went about in the streets of Dublin throwing copies of his Address to the Irish People into passing carriages and open windows and then later launched bottles containing his Declaration of Rights and the ballad The Devil's Walk into the Bristol Channel.

John Keats got little enough reward for the poetry that consumed his short life: his one hope was that he "might be among the English poets" after his death - not a desire merely for fame but for his gifts to be as widely distributed as possible. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in their last years became more and more detached from the market economy and created masterpieces for posterity - giving down the generations. Van Gogh, of course, never had any success in the market economy - during his life, that is: after his death, by a cruel irony, the gifts he had created in poverty became icons of wealth.

You don't have to be a great poet, musician or artist to give. We all give ourselves and are ourselves gifts. When parents give to their children they don't usually expect any immediate or calculable return. That a child is the ultimate gift ("Unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given") is the message of the Christmas story, before the wise men come on the scene. That message is beautifully conveyed in Velázquez's early Adoration of the Kings of 1619, usually in the Prado, now in the National Gallery, London, the only religious painting by the great demythologiser I have ever been moved by. But then Velázquez painted children with more delicacy and tact and dignity than any other artist I can think of. For once the Christ-child is a real child, solemn and wide-eyed, and he effortlessly upstages the kings.

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