False economies

<strong>The Gift: how the creative spirit transforms the world</strong>

Lewis Hyde <em>Canongate,

Originally published in the US in 1983, Lewis Hyde's The Gift has acquired a heavyweight fan club: Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem and Geoff Dyer all give this, its first UK edition, ringing endorsements. Its detractors, however, say it is sentimental and old- fashioned, heavy with the "patina of 1970s idealism", and Tibor Fischer takes exception to Hyde's "hippie disdain for the market economy".

Hyde sets out to defend creativity in our "increasingly materialistic society", arguing that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. By "gift" he means both an artist's talent and the "gift received": the effect that a work of art can have on its audience. Every society, he says, has two distinct "market" and "gift" economies, and the primary commerce of art must be a "gift exchange". (He does not limit his definition of "art" to any particular form - this book, he claims, is "for all thinking humans" - though, as a poet himself, his study has a natural bias.)

The first half of The Gift is devoted to what Hyde calls (inspiringly or nauseatingly, according to your taste) "parables" or "Just So stories of the creative spirit". He draws on tales from a broad range of cultural heritages - Gaelic, Native American, Polynesian - to illustrate and define his theory of gift-giving. He also discusses the creative process itself, citing Pinter, Roethke, D H Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Conrad and many others who talk about the "gift" of inspiration. These artists share an uncanny feeling that their work has not come from them, but has been bestowed on them. ("Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me," said D H Lawrence.)

But does Hyde's argument work? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that art is destroyed when it becomes a commodity. The Silhouette Romances on sale at Hyde's local drugstore, for example, belong to a generic brand developed by an advertising agency: their names, covers and plot are all "tailored to the designs of the market". Nevertheless, the answer is still, broadly, no. It is too easy to pick holes in Hyde's (ambitious) project. Most obviously, his own book is a commodity, packaged in a tasteful hardback cover and accompanied by all the necessary publicity paraphernalia.

Hyde also sets himself up for a fall by spending the first few pages explaining why the book's contents cannot be reduced to a snappy sales pitch. He says his own experience with the "commerce of the creative spirit" cannot be commodified for a "ten-second sell". But then he gives us one: "Bad-boy critic deploys magic charm against vampire economy."

He cherry-picks examples from an eclectic basket of sources - folk stories, literature, psychology, anthropology, economics - which could be used to justify almost anything. No problem if you are reading to be entertained or inspired, but if you're looking for a clean empirical line of argument, you are going to be disappointed.

Having said that, Hyde is no ideological purist, and concedes that art must exist in both spheres: while the "gift" is priceless, art must be bought and sold if the artist is to survive. And he has updated this edition to acknowledge how the world has changed. The Soviet Union acted as a counterbalance to some of capitalism's excesses, forcing the west to provide for "those parts of social life not well served by market forces", particularly arts - CIA support for abstract expressionism, for example - and science. With the cold war over, he argues, art is even more under threat from market forces.

Hyde notes that, in the 20th century, a "bleeding heart" has come to mean a "sentimental fool". Perhaps he is one of these. And perhaps the idea that art can somehow evade the laws of capitalism is foolhardy. Yet, as Hyde points out with more than a hint of self-congratulation, "the sentimentality of the man with the soft heart calls to us because it speaks of what has been lost".