Walt Whitman lost money on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, writes Lewis Hyde in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Wish I’d known that before I got my Master’s degree in Fine Arts.
But the topic of creativity in the market place had been on my mind. I came to CT, a fellow writer, with the question: if you knew you couldn’t sell your art as is – would you change it to fit the market? CT told me that there was a book endorsed by Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Letham that addressed this question.
The query morphed into a very real possibility: if I never gained financial compensation for my art, and my work never gained exposure – would I still continue to do it?
I started reading the book, and it was just pages and pages of economics. One page had a four-paragraph footnote. I failed economics. I needed help. I looked up from my desk and saw Husband swinging from a vine outside our yard. He didn’t seem busy.
Me: What do you know about economics?
Husband: (still hanging from vine) Adam Smith and the invisible hand.
Me: I went to school with an Adam Smith.
AS and his twin brother BS were identical twins. Once we were playing Hang Man in class. AS or BS (I got them confused) had a word on the board that no one could figure out. BS kept raising his hand, but AS would not call on him. The teacher finally told AS to just call on his brother, but AS was like, he knows it! The teacher was like, well, the man is basically dead.
AS called on his brother. BS pushed his thick now-trendy-hipster glasses up the bridge of his nose and, smiling, called out CYBORG. He was correct.
When I think of Adam Smith, economics, and invisible hands, I think of robots.
Me: Why are you hanging from a vine?
Husband: I saw that there weren’t as many plums on this wild plum tree as there used to be, and it’s because of these vines! I started yanking on one and (looking around at the massive pile of vines that would later fill four fifty-five gallon trash cans) I don’t really know . . . I just couldn’t stop.
Me: Now you know where my days go.
I asked Sarah Turner, a fellow writer, on a date to address the questions that had been plaguing me. ST told me to meet her at the ship mast on Lake Calhoun.
Only ST would suggest a rendezvous at a ship mast.
I didn’t know the location of this “historical ship mast”. Turns out 4 of 4 breathless joggers didn’t know either. Luckily, I was near a playground, and the first mom I asked knew where it was, proving that moms really do know everything.
I told ST about my question and the book. I told her that I had gone to the Uptown Arts Festival, in Minneapolis and reached out to several artists, asking them the same question. ST shook her head.
ST: They’re all gonna say the same thing. It’s not about the money.
I believed ST, but I had also spent some time on Twitter and the amount of artists peddling their wares – not at all concerned with creating dialogues with other artists – was alarming.
Hyde frames the history of gifts in the first half of his book with anecdotes and folk tales. In the second half, he cites the lives of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound as a sort of folk tale in terms of art, morality, and money. The book touches on the idea that true art is a gift and should be treated as such.
He’s not suggesting that artists shouldn’t make money. I believe he’s saying if you’re an artist concerned with only money, your art won’t feel like a gift. He writes that true art gives its observers a feeling. Sometimes that feeling is strong. One cannot help but respond by creating art in turn, thus creating a gift cycle, a gift economy.
I asked ST to tell me what was going on in the Creative Non-Fiction world. She was flustered.
ST: It’s all about what is new and shocking. I mean poets don’t have to worry about writing what’s already been written like CNF writers do. There are a million bird poems out there and people just keep writing more. In fiction, it’s like you want to write about vampires? Bring on the vampires! But in CNF, it’s like, we already have THE vampire-bird essay. Sorry.
I hope this is not the truth. I need only think of Jonny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ (originally by Nine Inch Nails), Obdadiah Parker’s ‘Hey Ya’ (originally by Outcast), or Counting Crows ‘Girl From The North Country‘ (originally by Dylan, re-recored with Cash, and covered by Roy Harper). Songs that are, in a sense, examples of the gift economy.
Back to Husband and the vines —
Husband: I was coming down the hill, admiring the way the sunlight now shone through the branches of that plum tree when I couldn’t see the plums! Immediately I thought, someone has been stealing my plums! But they just fell to the ground because they were ripe.
Me: I’m sure there’s a squirrel out there thinking the same thing.
Husband’s plum tree is not even on our property, but I feel his pain. His sense of, I took down the vines, I did the work, so now the fruit is mine. All mine. We want rewards for our work.
Whitman hung around staring at grass on graves and came up with a masterpiece. Now other artists look to his work for inspiration, and that’s a good thing.
I discovered Olive or o*Live Land at the Uptown Arts Festival. The pieces reminded me of the petulant, uniformly disturbed, monster-like characters that often populate my stories. Not that these little guys were petulant or uniformly disturbed monsters – they were loved, and a real gift.
I wrote O and asked what inspired her in terms of creating art. O replied:
“Honestly, what inspires me is to make my living by making art. That is the goal. All artists I know hate this question. Artists are artists because they are naturally inspired all the time.”
O’s answer didn’t really jive with the moral of The Gift, but it did correspond nicely to the Ezra Pound section. I also asked if she felt that her artistic nature was a gift passed down from her parents or something she was born with. O replied:
“Is this what the book is about? I believe we chose to be born into the situation that we are: parents, country, circumstance, the whole lot. I believe that, on some level, we chose everything. [Both are] Again, a choice. A deep level choice.”
The Gift left me thinking about AS, standing in front of a room full of people that hadn’t a clue what he was trying to express. With the chalk man near dead, AS was desperate, frustrated, and a little happy he was so cleaver, but there was one person able to fill in the blanks.
It only takes one.
If you are alone, in your studio or at your desk, and begin to wonder if any of this matters, or if you will ever see a small sign of gratitude from the external world — remember this: it only takes one.
Whitman on with your bad self!
Someone will see it as a gift, and the cycle will continue.
*If a brown elephant with ink eyes or a little cone headed man end up in one of my stories, you’ll know how they got there. For more of O’s work please visit her website at http://www.o-liveland.com . o*Live will be at the Saint Louis Arts Fair in September. Is it ironic that a bank sponsors the festival? You betcha!