Notes on Art & Innovation

December 12 2020

I started reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. (Already this is a gift, because I recognized my obsessiveness in studying business books, productivity books, etc.; and that the well-rounded man probably ought to widen his study.)

These notes are from the book, and my reflections on the book, so far.

Gifts occupy a different reality from commerce. It’s hard for the artist—one possessed with a passion to create something, from who knows where—to work (most often) in a world which values the logical transactional value of everything.

The artist’s gift gains value for him in the giving, and the receiving. When not received… it is weird.

Clare and I were discussing yesterday—we both have had a deep possession of wanting to express something into the world. Like Richard Dreyfuss' character Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who is filled with a need to express a shape that only he can see—of a mountain with a flat top. Everyone thinks he is crazy. He draws the shape everywhere. He fashions it out of his mashed potatoes at dinner. He finally makes a big version of it out of clay in his garage.

Being possessed with something other people cannot see is rather exhausting. But of course it gives you energy.

People don’t listen to you. Even more exhausting, as it has been said, is not being reviled—it’s being ignored.

And yet, this is probably the main way new things come into the culture.

Another phenomenon I found interesting this morning, related to all of this: When you are trying or learning something new, often you are not very good at it. Doing it poorly, you assume it must be a bad idea. What made me think about this: the idea of a gift economy, as Hyde studies in his book. “How absurd, how codependent,” whatever assumptions I might quite possibly make, as a modern Westerner and so on, with the idea of trying to bring this idea into our society. I might try it out with a few friends, for a month. After a while, we all give it up and go back to the way we were. I can see this happening easily.

The hippies tried to go back to the land; to share partners; to reinvent society; although it seeded society with new ideas, it did not work so well in the short term…

But—did this new structure not work because it was inherently wrong for this context, or because it was not tried until it could be skillfully executed? Truthfully, skill acquisition is the sorting out of the helpful actions from the unhelpful ones; it is nonetheless possible, to discover that there really are no helpful actions—that the entire enterprise was inappropriate or unfounded. But you can’t know this—is the point—until you try it and find out.

This speaks to something I think about a lot: How a new structure gains enough coherence to become viable. A structure that is 99% viable, is not viable, and could potentially yield no results, even though it could be moments away from yielding huge fortunes, benefits, results, etc. You could spend twenty years on a new business idea; be minutes away from its working; and yet, be penniless, homeless, and stuck on the street. (I see the art of entrepreneurism as asking this one, critical question, first: how do we get to viability before we exhaust ourselves?)

And yet, the only way we know whether a new way—a new structure—of doing things can work, is by stabilizing our mastery over it, until basic viability. The plant starts producing 100 gallons of apple juice per day, and this allows the founder and two colleagues to buy enough raw apples to make tomorrow’s batch. Or, the gift-giver gains enough reception, response, reaction—and funding—to go again tomorrow, to reach the next 100 recipients of her gift. That is viability.

But if the structure has never existed before… how could we know in advance? This is how culture progresses (or sometimes, progresses backwards, I suppose): people keep building the mountain of mashed potatoes, until—finally—they make it to Devil’s Tower (the actual mountain Roy Neary was seeing in his visions).

A nearly infinite combination of possibly successful combinations exist, but we don’t know about them until we do. And our own culture has so much coherence that it’s hard for us to think outside of it (oh—corollary: when a structure does have coherence, it’s hard to think outside of it).

This is why some big companies pay people just to play around and innovate, and Google supposedly asks people to spend 20% of their time just messing around thinking up new stuff. That would be a good job for me. (But I want to be paid to mess around for the world, not for Google, Intel, or whoever.)

In a market economy, works of art still exist. The work of art is a gift—handed down from that liminal place inside of us, grabbed from the air, or however you would like to see it. Works of art can exist without being sold, but there is no commodity that has a spirit to it, if it does not contain at least some of that quality. “Where there is no gift, there is no art.”

This is a helpful way for me—as someone whose own mountain of mashed potatoes is precisely this question: how do we encourage, allow, and let prosper, a culture where people can readily give their gifts, and at the same time prosper in the market or world sense? 1

  1. With the balancing qualifier, that it makes zero sense for anyone to pursue wealth outside of a set of questions, as to what actual value that wealth provides one. ↩︎

Built with Hugo

© Alexander Feller 2018