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The Art of Gifting

An article by Jonathan Lethem caught my eye in February’s issue of Harper’s (The Ecstasy of Influence). The piece itself was very clever, and has a fabulous twist I won’t go into here, but what interested me most about it was his description of art as something that exists simultaneously in two markets – the market economy and the gift economy.

This interested me on at least two levels since 1) I am an artist, and 2) my work in the world – my ‘worldly art’ so to speak, given that I am in the business of design and communications – is inextricably entwined with the gift economy and exchange of Web2.0. So, the idea of art that can be ‘sold’ and yet still remain a gift was intriguing, and rang true to my own experience.

Much of Lethem’s article was inspired by the ideas in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, which cites the central tenant of a gift as something that cannot be kept, but must be given away. In the gift of art what is passed can be an experience, like inspiration or illumination of some kind. Paraphrasing Hyde, “Art that matters to us – which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the sense, or offers courage for living, however we chose to describe the experience – is received as a gift is received.”

But this way of gifting goes beyond art; much that the people I work with do also occurs within the gift economy. Heartland’s Thought Leader Gatherings, for example, are all about fostering courage and hope and inspiration, and much of the wonderful work done by the World Café exists entirely within the gift economy of volunteerism.

Lethem describes the cardinal difference between gift and economy exchange as his assertion that “a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.”

I love this beautiful idea of all of us gifting our art (whatever that might be) out into the world and by doing so establishing an ever-widening network of feeling-bonds …

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