To be more specific, there are three primary ways in which modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood: they have taken second jobs, they have found patrons to support them, or they have managed to place the work itself on the market and pay the rent with fees and royalties. The underlying structure that is common to all of these—a double economy and the conversion of market wealth to gift wealth—may be easiest to see in the case of the artist who has taken a secondary job, some work more or less unrelated to his art—night watchman, merchant seaman, Berlitz teacher, doctor, or insurance executive … The second job frees his art from the burden of financial responsibility so that when he is creating the work he may turn from questions of market value and labor in the protected gift-sphere. He earns a wage in the marketplace and gives it to his art.
The case of patronage (or nowadays, grants) is a little more subtle. The artist who takes a second job becomes, in a sense, his own patron: he decides his work is worthy of support, just as the patron does, but then he himself must go out and raise the cash. The artist who manages to attract an actual patron may seem to be less involved with the market. The patron’s support is not a wage or a fee for service but a gift given in recognition of the artist’s own. With patronage, the artist’s livelihood seems to lie wholly within the gift-sphere in which the work is made.
Artists who take on secondary jobs and artists who find patrons have, in a sense, a structural way to mark the boundary between their art and the market. It is not hard to distinguish between writing poems and working the night shift in a hospital, and easier still for the poet to know he is no Guggenheim. But the artist who sells his own creations must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together. He must, on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity. He must be able to reckon its value in terms of current fashions, know what the market will bear, demand fair value, and part with the work when someone pays the price. And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to sell his art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell, or only a commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market, not in response to the demands of the gift. The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market. He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made, and only when he knows the work to be the faithful realization of his gift should he turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
If we are to speak fully of the poverty of artists, we must pause here to distinguish between actual penury and “the poverty of the gift.” By this last I intend to refer to an interior poverty, a spiritual poverty, which pertains to the gifted state. In that state, those things that are not gifts are judged to have no worth, and those things that are gifts are understood to be but temporary possessions. As I indicated in my chapter on the labor of gratitude, there is a sense in which our gifts are not fully ours until they have been given away. The gifted man is not himself, therefore, until he has become the steward of wealth which appears from beyond his realm of influence and which, once it has come to him, he must constantly disburse. Leviticus records the Lord’s instruction to Moses: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.” Likewise, we are sojourners with our gifts, not their owners; even our creations—especially our creations—do not belong to us. As Gary Snyder says, “You get a good poem and you don’t know where it came from. ‘Did I say that?’ And so all you feel is: you feel humility and you feel gratitude.” Spiritually, you can’t be much poorer than gifted.
The artist who has willingly accepted such an interior poverty can tolerate a certain plainness in his outer life. I do not mean cold or hunger, but certainly the size of the room and the quality of the wine seem less important to a man who can convey imaginary color to a canvas. When the song of one’s self is coming all of a piece, page after page, an attic room and chamber pot do not insult the soul. And a young poet can stand the same supper of barley soup and bread, night after night, if he is on a walking tour of Italy and much in love with beauty. Artists whose gifts are strong, accessible, and coming over into their work may, as Marshall Sahlins says of hunters and gatherers, “have affluent economies, their absolute poverty notwithstanding.”
I do not mean to romanticize the poverty of the artist, or pretend to too strong a link between this state of mind and “the facts.” A man may be born rich and still be faithful to his gifts; he may happen upon a lucrative second job; his work may be in great demand or his agent a canny salesman. Actual poverty and interior poverty have no necessary connection. And yet, as we all know, and as the lives of Whitman and Pound testify, the connection is not unknown, either. For one thing, fidelity to one’s gifts often draws energy away from the activities by which men become rich. For another, if the artist lives in a culture which is not only dominated by exchange trade but which has no institutions for the conversion of market wealth to gift wealth, if he lives in a culture that cannot, therefore, settle the debt it owes to those who have dedicated their lives to the realization of a gift, then he is likely to be poor in fact as well as in spirit. Such, I think, is a fair description of the culture into which both Whitman and Pound were born. Theirs was hardly an age of patronage, as my brief list of return gifts indicates; nor was theirs a time that would have likely understood that Trobriand social code, “to possess is to give.” Theirs —and ours—was the age of monopoly capitalism, an economic form whose code expected and rewarded the conversion of gift wealth to market wealth (the natural gifts of the New World, in particular—the forests, wildlife, and fossil fuels—were “sold in perpetuity” and converted into private fortunes). In a land that feels no reciprocity toward nature, in an age when the rich imagine themselves to be selfmade, we should not be surprised to find the interior poverty of the gifted state replicated in the actual poverty of the gifted. Nor should we be surprised to find artists who, like Whitman and Pound, seek to speak to us in that prophetic voice which would create a world more hospitable to the creative spirit.
The root of our English word “mystery” is a Greek verb, muein, which means to close the mouth. Dictionaries tend to explain the connection by pointing out that the initiates to ancient mysteries were sworn to silence, but the root may also indicate, it seems to me, that what the initiate learns at a mystery cannot be talked about. It can be shown, it can be witnessed or revealed, it cannot be explained. When I set out to write this book I was drawn to speak of gifts by way of anecdotes and fairy tales because, I think, a gift—and particularly an inner gift, a talent—is a mystery. We know what giftedness is for having been gifted, or for having known a gifted man or woman. We know that art is a gift for having had the experience of art. We cannot know these things by way of economic, psychological, or aesthetic theories. Where an inner gift comes from, what obligations of reciprocity it brings with it, how and toward whom our gratitude should be discharged, to what degree we must leave a gift alone and to what degree we must discipline it, how we are to feed its spirit and preserve its vitality—these and all the other questions raised by a gift can only be answered by telling Just So stories. As Whitman says, “the talkers talking their talk” cannot explain these things; we learn by “faint clues and indirections.”
Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.