The Artist and the Void, Part 3 (or, Gift and Youth)

Staying spiritually young, or in less ethereal terms, young in heart and in imagination, is something that all artists desire. Vigor and vitality are essential elements for the vibrancy of any art. In the last post I said that it was the understanding of art as gift that was the first step in cultivating a youthful spirit. It continues to bother me, though, as to why this is the case. I think that the answer can be found in the nature of gift itself.

A gift is given. This assumes two thing: 1) A giver, and 2) a receiver. This is plain enough. What is perhaps taken for granted in this whole gift-giving business, though, is the process by which the gift is selected. Good gifts are those which the giver has thought deeply about. She has considered the person or persons by whom she wishes the gift to be received. She knows something about the other, and so she knows something about what will make a good gift. On the other hand, a bad gift is one that is thoughtless. Thrown together. Expedient. We might even say, selfishly pragmatic in its selection. A bad gift is obvious for its arbitrariness. It has nothing to do with the other.

A bad gift will reflect more of the giver than the receiver. A good gift will reflect both equally. A bad gift is one that is totalitarian in nature. It seeks to force the receiver into accepting it, no matter what it may be. It is, essentially, tyrannical.

A good gift, however, does not homogenize any party. It is equal in its symbolism for both the giver and receiver. If we think for a moment about a husband selecting a gift for his wife, if he is a good husband, and therefore a good gift-giver, he is going to spend much time thinking about his bride. What has interested her lately? What is something he knows about her that is unique? Perhaps she likes blue and not purple. She likes folk music more than R&B. In the recent past he can remember her commenting about wanting to see more local shows — so she likes live performances, and the local arts. Any husband worth his weight in salt will take all of these considerations into his selection of a gift. He carefully chooses based on what he knows of his spouse, and what he believes she would want most of all.

In the process I have described, the anti-totalitarian nature of the gift-selection is evident. The husband is concerned most of all for what he believes his bride wants. He is not homogenized into her because he is free to choose something based on his knowledge of her. She is not homogenized into him because he is thinking of her. Both are free to be who they are, while not usurping the other.

I use the analogy of a husband and wife because it is most obvious, but this process of gift-selection is one that works on any level. Hendrix’s ultimate gift to Woodstock ’69 was his rendition of The National Anthem. He didn’t have to guess what would be the most well-received, long-remembered song of the weekend, because he knew to whom the gift was being given. He knew their angst, which was his angst, and thus knew what would be the best expression of that angst. Hendrix was for the audience, and the audience for Hendrix (though they didn’t know it yet).

Art as gift keeps artists young because the nature of the gift-selection-creation process is one that requires the joviality of youth. Ebenezer Scrooge was a scrooge precisely because he was not in the habit of giving gifts. He’d grown old and calloused and put hoarding over liberal giving. As soon as his eyes were open to the brilliance of life, and especially the brilliance of the quintessential gift-giving season of Christmas, he couldn’t help but to move his aged limbs in celebration and to exercise his voice in the praises of life. He was transformed by the knowledge that he had received a great gift, and that the art of life was something directed outwards in giving.

Even artists with a more tragic side are gift-givers who give with a smile, though it may be an undetectable one. At the end of the day, tragic or not, all artists hope that their work is received gladly and with exuberant thankfulness. Sometimes this is wishful thinking. Sometimes it is not.

There is something transformative about the whole gift-giving business. Giving gifts seems to make us like children again, and in doing so, brings the hope, joy and imagination of youth. An artist who is staring into the void, wondering with an anxious spirit what the next creation will be, and does so with a heartbeats of excitement rather than those of despondency, is well on the way to the first stroke. Because our minds are changed, so are our hearts. The union of both is what the artist seeks. The fundamental problem that the artist desires to solve (even unconsciously) is that age-old problem of the one and the many. It is answered in the simple complexity of gift-giving. When art becomes something that is both “me and you,” that is the moment when the youthful spirit is born.

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