The Gift

Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

The original subtitle of this book defined it as “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property,” which, in addition to being more lyrical, also hints at the real message better than the revision: that real art, no matter the price, is always a gift from the artist to the audience.

Reading notes

Art, defined

Defining art in terms of its economy:

It is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies,” 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.

Hyde, The Gift, page xvi

This definition neatly sidesteps any evaluation of the skill or success of a work of art, proposing instead that it is the artist’s intent that matters. A bad work of art is still art, if the artist gave of herself to create it—if the work is an exercise of her heart.


The first gift in the gift of art is that which the artist receives in the act of making. It’s the flush of divine (or otherwise) inspiration that the artist accepts and then puts to good use. As with all gifts, it would be a disservice to question or analyze it. Better to accept it and give thanks.

A brief entry in a mid-nineteenth-century collection of English fairy tales tells of a Devonshire man to whom the fairies had given an inexhaustible barrel of ale. Year after year the liquor ran freely. Then one day the man’s maid, curious to know the cause of this extraordinary power, removed the cork from the bung hole and looked into the cask; it was full of cobwebs. When the spigot next was turned, the ale ceased to flow.

The moral is this: the gift is lost in self-consciousness.

Hyde, The Gift, page 196

Put another way: the little corner of your brain that wonders whether or not you’re any good at what you’re doing must be silenced for your art to succeed.

A friend of mine had a strange experience when she took her first piano lessons. During an early session, to the surprise of both her teacher and herself, she suddenly began to play. “I didn’t know how to play the piano,” she says, “but I could play it.” The teacher was so excited she left the room to find someone else to witness the miracle. As the two of them came back to the practice room, however, my friend’s ability left her as suddenly as it appeared. Again, the moral seems to be that the gift is lost in self-consciousness. (Thus [Flannery] O’Conner: “In art the self becomes self-forgetful.”) As soon as the musician senses that someone else is watching her, she begins to watch herself. Rather than using her gift, she is reflecting upon it. Cobwebs.

Hyde, The Gift, page 197

There’s another lesson in there. Don’t share your art too early. Feedback is important, but there’s an early, embryonic stage to making something that should be hidden from the outside world. At first, keep your art close; share it only when it starts to crawl away from you.