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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Got to give it up

by Philip Martin | May 9, 2023 at 4:37 a.m.

TULSA -- I'm here on an errand and have an afternoon to myself. It's the first time since the lockdown I've been on my own in someone else's city and am not quite sure what to do with myself. I'm not naturally a solo act.

I can get a column out of the new Bob Dylan Center, which opened almost precisely a year ago, so I point the Hyundai in the direction of Guthrie Green and find a parking spot right in front of the BDC, walk in and find a helpful staff and a relatively uncrowded museum in which I can quietly kill a couple of hours. I spend an inordinate amount of time on the second floor attending to a video featuring the poet and essayist Lewis Hyde discussing songwriting with Rosanne Cash.

Hyde is probably best known for his 1983 book "The Gift" (originally subtitled "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property") which in some circles has become a kind of secret handshake. It's like Robert Caro's "The Power Broker" in that when you see it on someone's bookshelf you might believe you have some clue as to their cultural attitude. It's one of those books one often finds artfully arranged in the background of Zoom calls.

"The Gift" has never gone out of print, and while Hyde is hardly a household name, he is widely revered by artists. David Foster Wallace once called him "a national treasure, one of our true superstars of nonfiction." In the foreword to one edition of the book, Margaret Atwood writes: "If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act or make films, read 'The Gift.' It will keep you sane. "

Hyde's basic premise is that art is a gift. It's inspiration; it comes unbidden and unwilled. What an artist sells is the delivery device--paint on the canvas, arrangement of sounds on the recording, pages and covers of the book, a seat in the theater. Those are commodities.

But we get the essential part--the art, the idea--for free. While we speak of intellectual property, there's an obvious difference between ideas and other sorts of property. If I have an apple and I give it to you, I'm out an apple. If I loan you my car, you have use of it but I don't, at least not until you return it. But if I have an idea and I share it with you, we both have the complete and whole idea.

The ancients didn't consider idea property. The fruit of human imagination and intelligence belonged to a communal reservoir.

Some artists feel this instinctively; sometimes you catch a song more than write it. They're blowing in the wind, and if you don't pull it down, someone else is bound to. The artist is a transmitter passing along a message from the universe.

"The gift must always move!" Hyde thunders. "When it stops moving, its gift properties are lost."

When a gift stops moving, it becomes a commodity. The advent of printing made it possible to curate ideas, to remove them from the realm of common property and privatize them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I want to be paid for my writing; at the extremes you have billionaires hoarding crated Cezannes and Picassos in so-called "free ports," cinder block museums no one can visit. Some of the world's great artworks have been reduced to loan collateral for Russian oligarchs.

If you want to kill art, arrest it and lock it up.

Hyde concludes that to live successful lives, artists who live in market societies have to find a way to reconcile gift exchange with market exchange. (Don't worry, be happy.) Essentially they have to accept that they are making a gift of their art. (Which, Hyde might argue, is only fair because the art part fell in their laps; they're due recompense for their time and the cost of their tools and materials, but the art itself wants to be freely given.)

They might have to take day jobs; they might have to teach or run a drill press to survive in a market economy. Or they might have to work very hard at connecting with their audiences, essentially selling their time and attention to their audience, touring, selling merchandise and building supportive communities.

When he wrote "The Gift," Hyde was working on something more modest than a "modern classic," a touchstone for working artists. He was exploring the reasons that poets (like himself) rarely become rich in our society. The common-sense answer is that we don't pay for gifts, only for commodities, and it's more difficult to market a chapbook than it is a Taylor Swift concert experience.

Hyde was writing at the onset of the digital revolution; within a few years digital music would disrupt old models, and with the advent of the Internet, consumers would begin to demand that their music (and other forms of entertainment reducible to ones and zeros) either be free or so cheap that they could license the bulk of it for pennies a day.

Most people don't think digital music is worth paying for, but there certainly are no fewer people listening to music. Music--the art--is healthy. It's the people who are trying to make a living, or trying to get rich, by making music who are scrambling for fresh revenue streams.

Copyright law is an attempt to sort out and protect the rights of artists. If a work of art is traded in the marketplace, the initial creator is entitled to control how the work is reproduced and to negotiate fees. This right can be inherited, but it sunsets after a specified number of years, and the work enters the public domain where anyone can make any use of it.

So Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie--whose museum stands shoulder-to shoulder with the Dylan Center--could legally appropriate the tunes of old folk songs for their "new" compositions. They could rework the lyrics, if the original creators had been dead long enough.

And there are certain other common-sense provisions: You can't copyright a title or a chord progression; Ed Sheeran doesn't owe Marvin Gaye's estate anything even though his "Thinking Out Loud" does sound a little like "Let's Get It On" (and even more like Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately").

Some might think "The Gift" paints a bleak picture for would-be artists; but it's never really about becoming as rich as Bob Dylan. That happens sometimes, but not so often that it ought to factor in anyone's calculation.

If you're going to make art, you should consider it a gift.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at

Print Headline: Got to give it up


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