Sunday, November 16, 2008

What Is Art For?

Interesting article on the purpose of art from the New York Times Magazine.

What Is Art For?

Published: November 14, 2008

Last April I asked the writer Lewis Hyde if he would take a trip with me to Walden Pond, in Concord, Mass. At 63, Hyde has boyishly tousled brown-gray hair, freckled, soft-looking cheeks and the slightly abstracted gaze of a man who spends a disproportionate amount of his time in library carrels. He has an ironic streak, but his default mode is a kind of easygoing acquiescence, and so one slate gray Saturday afternoon he picked me up in Cambridge, where he lives and works half the year, and drove us the 12 miles west to Walden.

Hyde knows the area well — among his ongoing projects is a detailed series of annotations of Henry David Thoreau’s essays — and he led me down a dirt path from the parking lot to the site of the cabin where, more than 150 years ago, Thoreau wrote his celebrated paean to solitude and self-reliance. The cabin no longer exists. In its place there is a lightly excavated, cordoned-off square of soil and, to its side, a waist-high cairn erected in commemoration by generations of pilgrims.

Our own visit wasn’t commemorative, but it was a pilgrimage of a sort. Hyde has been writing and publishing for more than three decades, and he has received numerous high-profile awards, including a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1991, but his name is still obscure to most readers. His body of work is slim; he has published two books, a volume of poems and a smattering of essays, translations and edited anthologies. His reputation, however, is rich. David Foster Wallace called him “one of our true superstars of nonfiction.” Hyde’s fans — among them Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem — routinely use words like “transformative” and “life-altering” to describe his books, which they’ve been known to pass hand to hand like spiritual texts or samizdat manifestoes. The source of much of this reverence is Hyde’s first book, “The Gift” (1983), which has never been out of print (it was recently rereleased by Vintage in a 25th-anniversary edition) and which tries to reconcile the value of doing creative work with the exigencies of a market economy.

Hyde began his career as a poet in the naturalistic vein of Gary Snyder or Mary Oliver, but over the years he has transformed himself into an accomplished scholar. “The Gift,” the core argument of which depends on establishing an analogy between the making of art and how objects accrue value in traditional “gift economies,” has been praised as the most subtle, influential study of reciprocity since the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s 1924 essay of the same name. His second book, “Trickster Makes This World” (1998), a cross-cultural study of the mischievous, mythological trickster figure (examples from the 20th century include Duchamp, Picasso and Ginsberg), weaves together literary strands from West Africa, India and China and concludes with a new translation of the “Homeric Hymn to Hermes,” for which Hyde spent months working one on one with a tutor in ancient Greek. Jonathan Lethem told me that when he first read “The Gift,” he pictured its author as a kind of inapproachable seer, either long dead or soaring so high in the intellectual stratosphere as to be unreachable. “It’d be like reading a book by Nietzsche or Freud when they were alive and thinking, Oh, I gotta send this guy a note!”
Read the whole interesting article.

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