Friday, October 30, 2009
A couple of things have happened in the last year that have caused me to doubt the value of generosity. I have, or my husband has, been taken advantage of, played, suckered in the course of wanting to help. But a book, recommended by the incredibly generous dance artist Peggy Baker, has started to pull me in off the ledge after yesterday's biggest disappointment when it comes to generosity and being taken for a fool. Yesterday I was ready to cancel a co-production with three other artists (who have nothing to do with my heartbreak surrounding generosity), I was ready to move husband and baby to a log cabin in Big Sur California and become a family of cranky old hermits who threaten trespassers with a really big stick.
The book is Lewis Hyde's "The GIft", and though it sounds like a book on witchcraft or a feel-good treatise on artistic talent for would-be artists, it instead dives into market versus gift economy models and is saving me from the corrosion of my belief system, melodramatic as that sounds.
Now I learned many years ago never to give help, money, resources with any expectation of return. I once worked for someone who was constantly giving me things, things I didn't need or want, then reminding me of the gifts given as a tool to manipulate an obligation to her. That, to me is not true generosity, that is more like capitalism. Investing in something in order to get product from it later. All fine and well but don't call it a gift.
The idea, that Hyde puts forth in the first chapter of his book, is about the energy of gifts and generosity, that the flow needs to continue. Someone who receives a gift should pass along a gift to someone else. It's a bit of that cheesy pay-it-forward concept, or the ripples in a pond image, but when you relate it to the creation and sharing of art, it makes sense. If you are creating for yourself, no matter what the form, without a sense of your audience you are stopping the flow of art's economy. That economy is built on the ephemeral value of art, on the intangible, the emotional, psychological or intellectual stimulation. It is built on the things we can't buy in a store. And we need those things. Deeply.
In another book I read recently, which I can't remember the name of at the moment, a philosopher was talking about people under extreme environmental, financial or political duress and that the cornerstones of their societies become food, shelter and culture. Think about North America and Western Europe in the 1930s -- through the Great Depression we had one of the most verdant periods of film and music and literature, among other art forms. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is one of my favourite examples. Everyone was writing a novel in the 1930s the way everyone has a blog or a website now.
At any rate, by the end of Lewis Hyde's first chapter I am dedicated not to becoming a miser but to choosing where and how I let that generosity flow -- both as an artist and in the broader context of my life. I will continue not to expect a return, but I will not allow things to be thrown back in my face -- the struggles I have had this year have stemmed from sharing, opening to those who believe themselves entitled, have placed their needs above mine, and above many others around them. It is hard when this happens between artists. When I can help someone with talent that is not being seen or appreciated it seems important to do what I can to facilitate the exposure of their artistry, but when their dissatisfaction with the whole artistic environment becomes expressed through a deadstop of that flow of energy -- well, I just find that sad. And then to have it thrown back at me, as though I didn't do enough, while we are all struggling to let our lights out from under a bushel...
That's what I'm done with....after all my rambling above, I am simply done with a random flow of generosity. I'll stick with field theory for performances -- let it out everywhere and let it stick where it sticks --but on a personal level, one on one, I will be choosing my channels more wisely, though not less frequently or with less fervour.
The good end to yesterday was another reminder of this flow of gifting....A friend passed along some baby clothes from someone who had passed along some baby clothes and as I washed and folded and put away these new gifts for Pablo, I showed Pablo all the clothes that he has now outgrown and put them in a bag to be passed along to someone who will pass them along to someone until they find where they are needed.
I should have just gone back to my own beginnings when I felt so betrayed by those I shared with and by my own beliefs. Until I was about 5 or 6 I don't think I had any clothes or books that weren't secondhand. And sure enough my mother would go through my closet and take out the things I couldn't wear anymore and together, we would drop them at the Salvation Army or Goodwill.
Hey, it's called Goodwill for a reason.