"...a work of art is a gift, not a commodity." Lewis Hyde, Introduction to The Gift
Canal Street, a few blocks from my loft, is known for her hustle and bustle, crowded sidewalks full of counterfeit watches and designer bags, leading from West Side highway to Chinatown. Canal Street spans the width of lower Manhattan from the Holland Tunnel, leading into New Jersey to the west, to Manhattan Bridge, beyond Brooklyn to the east. But Canal Street, historians tell us, was a trout stream teeming with native brook trout.
In "Manhattan: The Cradle of American Trout Fishing," author Nick Karas writes:
New Amsterdam was concentrated on the very southern tip of the island, most of it below present-day Wall Street, and its fishers favored streams on the island's southern end. Even in the 1700s, Harlem Creek was still to far "into the country" to attract urban anglers from New York City.
Needing to stay close to the city, i.e., closer to Wall Street, these urban fishermen took a walk up about a mile to a stream that the Native Americans called Ishpetenga. Karas continues:
It flowed southwest into the Hudson near the mouth of another trout stream. This one had its origins in a deep, fair-sized pond where Worth and Centre streets now cross. It flowed northwesterly, almost in a straight line, and became the course for today's Canal Street. The pond was known as The Collect.
When we moved our family into New York City, we rented a loft near "The Collect" used to be, on Worth Street. We thought we were moving away from nature, at least the grassy yards of New Jersey, but perhaps we were closer to nature than we thought. Just like in Eden (Genesis 2) where good materials were hidden deep beneath the earth, "The Collect" and the stream may be, even to this day, still there to be uncovered. Symbolically, Canal Street, one might say, is an economic tributary off of a river that flows from Wall Street to western shores, toward Main Street, U.S.A..
Dillon Gallery, my main art representation in New York City, used be in a ground floor space in busy Soho, a few blocks north of Canal Street. On heavy rainy days the basement would flood, not a welcome attribute for an art gallery. "The Collect" must have a necessary part of the geographical water management of the island of Manhattan, nature's way of collecting rainwater and diverting it into the Hudson. When we replace nature's system for our convenience, the inconvenience shows up elsewhere in the system, making it unsustainable.
On 9/11, if the "slurry walls," protective concrete walls surrounding the towers, did not hold, the Hudson River would have flooded the ash-filled Zero, thereby reverting the flow of water to what used to be "The Collect," sending water into the entire downtown arena. Since there are no diverting trout streams, the water would have not only been drawn to Centre Street area (where New York Supreme Court, and high security prison stands) but also to the subterranean labyrinth called the subway tunnels, possibly causing the entire area below 14th St. to collapse.
What would it take, when we consider the invisible collateral of urban displacement, to see Canal Street as a trout stream again? Yes, to see it as an actual stream teeming with native brook trout. Oh, that's the idyllic and idealistic dream of an artist, you might say. What are you going to do with trucks that need to get from Brooklyn to New Jersey, you might ask. I am sure these are reasonable, and rational, counter arguments. I contend though that the problem is not that Canal Street is no longer the trout stream, but that we no longer imagine that it ought to be one. The issue is succumbing to the futility of the situation at hand, and despairing of the world as it is, saying there's nothing we can do about it.
When we cease to seek a world that ought to be, and stop using our imaginative capacities generatively, we have forfeited our capacity to hope, and re-create. In this sense, recreation, even the leisure of fishing, points to re-creation, our central task of rebuilding a broken universe. If a trout, or other enchanted creatures of nature, cannot be allowed to inhabit our urban world, swimming against the currents of the economy and flowing into the currents of cultural production, we have already closed the door to the generative reality, making the re-humanization of our world unattainable.
We must also remember that the economy and culture starts at another kind of "The Collect," an upstream reservoir of the cultural and economic products of the world. Thus, our imaginative task in the sources of culture trickle down into the rest of culture. In the confluence of such an imaginative journey, economy and culture flow into each other, as double headwaters into our future world; therefore if we care about any of these streams, we must ask audaciously, "Can't Canal Street be a trout stream again?"
Art brings possibilities of re-creation back into the broken world. Artists are instinctively generative, and they are used to asking impossible questions. That's why they are the first to enter dilapidated corners of the cities, and to see before anyone else, the potential for re-creation in an abandoned loft. Far after the trout disappeared, artists moved into abandoned Canal Street. Soho then became home to many arts institutions, galleries and artists. The streets were teeming with creative talents. Paul Taylor Dance, a premier modern dance company, practiced there. The painter Romare Bearden, the first African-American visual artist to receive the National Medals, had his studio right on Canal Street. But Romare Bearden passed away, and Paul Taylor Dance Company has been replaced by the Gap.
I used to have my studio a block below Canal Street, beneath Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation above with hundreds of artists who took over leases there. But the building was sold recently, and now the building sits empty, an unfulfilled promise to be converted into a hotel.
When The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation entered the building in early 1991, the building was nearly empty, a ghost of printing companies that filled the warehouses downtown. I remember Joyce Robinson, the executive director, visiting my studio in Tokyo National University where I was a graduate student. She looked about, noting the height of the studio that I shared with Yuji Murakami (the brother of now famed economic juggernaut of Pop imagery, Takashi Murakami), and told me of her plan to meet with the foundation's artists advisory committee in New York to begin the studio program.
The advisory committee included luminaries of the visual arts world, such as Rob Storrs (then a curator at MoMA), Irving Sandler (critic), as well as artists Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein, Janet Fish, Harriet Shorr and Cynthia Carlson.
What was a vacant building soon began to be rejuvenated by artists who decided to stay after their one-year term was up at the Sharpe Foundation. They moved into raw space, and began fixing it up.
When I returned from Japan, I visited Joyce and she suggested I check out the building as a studio option. When I walked into the building, only two days after landing in Newark airport, I found myself in a studio space in which one of the artists who leased the space welcomed me. He was measuring the space when I walked in.
I introduced myself as a friend of Joyce, and asked him what was available. I told him of my budget. He measured the walls of the space we were standing in, about 500 square foot space, and saw that it was exactly what I could afford. He shook my hand and said "that was quite serendipitous...my wife and I were wondering if anybody would take a studio down here."
Down here, in TriBeCa (stands for Triangle Below Canal, with its point at where the Trade Towers stood), was still inconvenient and a little dangerous. It was kind of a ghost town on weekends, with one supermarket and a few families. But the artists of the Sharpe foundation thrived there, and in a matter of a few years, the building was full of artists, designers and architects. In 1994, when I helped a friend Hiroshi Senju secure a 2000 square foot studio, the price was still around two dollars a square foot, one tenth of what it is today. I ended up calling the building my creative home from 1992 to 2007.
Artist Chuck Close, who lead the effort with Joyce, and other advisory committee members, felt that creating a community was one of the most important functions of the Space Program. In order to do so the Sharpe Art Foundation, even to this day in her new home in Dumbo, has a common room at the center where artists can gather, or run into each other. Even such transient encounters, given time, become significant relationships that create culture. By the time the developers decided to kick out everyone, not only was the building packed, but the surrounding area had become chic, with many new restaurants and amenities. Sharpe Art Foundation recipient Tara Donovan, began to be noticed and had a major exhibit at Ace Gallery three blocks north, which led to her recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, and a McCarthur Fellowship.
Such remarkable growth of a neighborhood, led by artists is not unusual or new. It happened in Soho from the 1970-1980's. It's happening in Williamsburg and DUMBO (District Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) from 2000-2008. But artists today no longer can even afford Brooklyn. Many now are moving away to Connecticut, New York state or Philadelphia.
Apparently, artists follow trout, or at least take up residence where trout used to swim. And if the trout are displaced, artists will be, too, eventually. If imagination and nature cannot be part of the urban landscape, then the forces of greed and efficiency has already overridden any hope of sound stewardship of culture, ringing in death-knells to our humanity. In such a world, we will continue to suffer, and be dehumanized, no matter how much the economy improves. If it is about humanity, as much as fundamental numbers of the company or gained revenues, then its waters must first be filled with evidence of substance unseen. Both activities, art and fishing, is re-creational, and re-creation requires faith.
What kind of faith is that? Well, it's the same faith that it takes to cast a first line for trout lurking beneath the waters, or the type of faith it takes to purchase a stock, to borrow or lend. With the same faith, I might add, a dancer leaps into the arms of another, and with the same faith an artist faces the blank canvas. Our imaginative capacity is our link to faith. Faith is, therefore, re-creational. Of course, I am using this word "faith" in a generic sense, to be distinct from religious use of the word.
But there is a pervasive sense that even the generic use of this word points to a greater reality. My journey of art and faith attests to the notion that my generic faith both conflicted with, but also preceded, my faith in God. In this sense, the great Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky speaks of a connection between art and religion: "In science, at the moment of discovery, logic is replaced by intuition. In art, as in religion, intuition is tantamount to conviction, to faith. "
There is a unique confluence between creativity and nature, and our generative faith borders on a deeper, personal connection with God. Both activities call to attention the origins of beauty: both realities of nature and art touch our deepest humanity. But in order to understand the generative realms of culture, the personal interaction between the intuitive and the divine, must be understood and delineated from the commerce of art. Art and nature are both gifts to be shared, more than commoditized products that can be bought and sold.
In a remarkably prescient book, The Gift, written in 1983, poet Lewis Hyde links such thoughts between economy of rampant commoditization and the killing off of artistic thriving. He writes in the introduction:
It is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two "economies," a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift, there is no art. (xvi, The Gift, Second Vintage Books edition, 2007)
The extravagant gift, such as a trout, must be treated as a gift and not merely a commodity, and art needs to follow in their wake back into the pristine river of culture. But under the current river conditions, such release is not to be recommended. The river of culture has lead to a dehumanized view of art, its beauty robbed by over commoditization. Thus, a recovery of the invigorated ecosystem of art depends on the existence, and the recognition of, the principle that "where there is no gift, there is no art." Where there is no gift, there is not likely to be a pristine river either. Therefore, nature and art can exist in the absence of market economies; but one should argue for the corollary - a market economy, or a truly humanized economy, cannot exist apart from having a pristine river of creativity running at the heart of her cities.
Lewis Hyde identifies the blind spot of modern economics, and provides an alternative hybrid model, combining his "gift economy" and "market economy" into a model that takes into the account creativity, the arts and sustainability. He leads the way for inventive ways of sharing our creative gifts, such as creative commons, an agreement for open sourcing of creative gifts (for my attempts to participate in this, go to http://www.byfor.org, a site that singer/songwriter Michael Card is developing with Lance Mansfield.)
"In the North Pacific," Hyde writes, almost as an afterthought in the footnotes (his remarkable thoughts are packed in his footnotes, updated for the 25th anniversary edition, akin to Augustine's "The City of God" which really is a letter with many essay-length footnotes): "salmon stocks actually did decline as soon as European settlers began to treat the fish as a commodity to be sold for profit." (pg. 35, footnote). The reciprocal relationship that the Native Americans had with nature, a sacred bond that they recognized between provisions and natural cycles, was broken by the injection of commoditization as the sole the indicator of success. Artists, swimming upstream in culture, do as much to battle the pollution of such rivers as they do to paint, write or dance.
And now, when I consider the need for the churches to communicate their Gift to the world, reading Lewis Hyde was like walking into a wardrobe chest that lead to Narnia: Hyde's words reverberate into the enchanted heart of culture making, and what the Bible calls the gospel, or the Good News.
It is also the case that a gift may be the actual agent of change, the bearer of new life. In the simplest examples, gifts carry an identity with them, and to accept the gift amounts to incorporating the new identity. It is as if such a gift passes through the body and leaves us altered. The gift is not merely the witness or guardian to new life, but the creator. (pg. 57)
Though Hyde does not go as far as to say this, gift of God, "the bearer of new life" is in Christ, who the New Testament calls not only the savior, but the Creator (see the first chapter of Colossians.) Christ is not only an example of such a pure gift, he is THE Gift. In Communion, the Gift literally passes through our body and leaves us altered (or altar-ed, if you will, not only transforming us, but sanctifying us.) There's no reciprocity in this transaction: God likes to give one-way gifts that cannot be reciprocated. We cannot out give, or out gift, God.
And yet in our churches, we have treated the gospel like a commodity, shopping it around like salesmen, or worse yet, showmen full of savvy. When our churches look like gigantic malls, or hotels or even strip malls, and when we proclaim -- "salvation comes free, at no cost," we are unintentionally tapping into the language of consumer economy. Of course, informed decision-making needs to be part of the transaction, and we must have a convenient location to meet for worship. But the context and method for sharing the Good News taps too often into the consumer mentality. Yes, you might argue, but if that method works, and the Good News is preached, what's wrong with that?
The problem is in not spending time and effort thinking about the context of communication, as much as the content of the message. We may seek out experienced business minds to lead our church drives, but churches usually do not seek out artists who exemplify "the gift economy" to guide and direct stewardship, and communication. And if we do not consider the context, the context will define our message, as much as our preaching or singing.
Hyde notes "...just as gifts are linked to the death that moves toward new life, so, for those who believe in transformation (either in this life or in another), ideologies of market exchange have become associated with the death that goes nowhere." (Pg. 57)
He then interjects a sobering warning, noting that George Romero, the movie maker of the horror flick The Dawn of the Dead , had his film set in a shopping mall in Pittsburgh where "the restless dead of a commodity civilization will tread out their numberless days." (pg. 57) We apparently have a culture in which both the good news and a horror stories are broadcast in similar packages. No wonder that the culture is confused as to what the churches are meant to represent.
But the gospel is the gift: and a true gift, by definition, cannot be bought or sold, but can only be passed on, but possibly with a great sacrifice. The problem with our consumer mindset is both in accepting the gift and the rejecting the gift of the gospel as offered to us. In accepting, we tend to think of our "decision" to accept the gospel as bartering with God, saying something like "God, if you can get me out of this mess, I'll believe in you and be good for the rest of my life." Or, "what am I supposed to get in this transaction? What am I entitled to?" We, by saying this, still believe as consumers, we can somehow convince God to buyour goods, and it is our act to redeem ourselves, and not the utter dependence on the gift of life.
But more profoundly troubling is if one rejects the gift of the gospel with the consumer mindset. The rejection is our free choice, like saying "no" to a salesperson with a vacuum cleaner, and we reject the gospel without realizing what we are doing. If the gospel was The Gift, and the only true gift that leads to life, then such rejection is not a transaction, but a deeper offense.
In some cultures, rejection of a gift given from a father to a child is paramount to rejecting the father himself. And in the famed story of the Prodigal Son, that is precisely the offense against the father. The younger son rejected not just his inheritance, but told his father "I want you dead" by his actions (see Tim Keller's new book The Prodigal God.) If so, then we are not rejecting a vacuum cleaner for sale, one that claims to clean our hearts of sin, we are, like the white witch of the north in Narnia, striking Aslan down with our steely knife, thinking that we have won our battle against God.
But the "Deeper Magic" always breaks open our coveted notions, a surprising twist on Easter morning. Without this gift, we may be convinced that our hearts, like Canal Street, cannot be changed. Because the "Deeper Magic" of the gospel is that the paradigm itself transcends the boundaries of its own making.
The greatest miracle of the resurrection of Christ is not just the body of Jesus taking on a new multi-dimensional, transformed DNA; the greatest miracle is that miracle itself reveals the potential of a greater and deeper miracle, surpassing our imaginative, and natural capacities. By definition, God's miracle breaks nature wide-open, and such an act is the ultimate transgression in love by the Creator toward God's own creation. The true gift, if fully understood and embraced, will transform us from within and make us beings of hope.
Books like Hyde's rely on the borrowed capital of this Biblical paradigm. Without the idea of a supra-natural source of a generative reality, Hyde's argument would simply be wishful thinking. Would we be convinced of the existence of a pure gift apart from the notion that there was The Gift that transcended the notion of a gift? If you enter a basement and observe the billiard balls moving about, you would assume that someone had been playing a game of billiards. A gift economy works, according to Hyde, much like the billiard balls. Someone had to have made the first move. And precisely because Hyde himself leaves open the connection between faith and generosity in many of the remarkable pages of The Gift, we can read the book and rejoice.
In a world full of strife and common struggles for survival, would such a premise be too far-fetched and unrealistic? Are any of these thoughts, whether it be a gift economy, art or trout, appropriate for such a time as this?
In the book of Isaiah, I noticed recently rereading the famous passage for Advent, we note that the prophet anticipated the coming of Emmanuel. "Unto us a child is born," Isaiah proclaims, "to us a child is given. And the government will be on his shoulders." (Isaiah 9:6) But we need to realize the context in which such prophesy is given: it is made in advance of wars, a warning of escalating conflicts, of bloodshed promised by both sides of conflicts. Isaiah's startling vision came during the conflict such as now in the Gaza. There were strikes and skirmishes then, threatening the destruction of nations and citizens alike. In short, nothing much has changed, we just have bigger weapons. The promise of the Gift, who will rule with justice and peace could not have come at a more crucial time, but we would think that such a message would not be heard in times of crisis, where everyday life was under threat, or even if given, that it would seem as fantastic as the Narnian world beyond the wardrobe full of fur coats.
So it is with the trout stream on Canal Street, or any conversation about the gift economy. It's precisely when the economic mortars are being flown about, when everything is in doubt, that we can truly consider these radical thoughts. Just like the cave painters who painted beautiful animals knowing that they are dependent, somehow, on the gift of life to survive, we, too, must paint precisely because our brief lives are precarious and vulnerable. And in such refractions made within the dark caves of our lives, we will be certain that our motives have been made not out of greed or more power, nor mere survival dynamic. The lines we draw are prayers, calling out for re-humanized and generative creativity.
Hyde concludes his book, reflecting on Ezra Pound's writings. Noting the difference between willpower and reception of a true gift, he notes:
. . .there are limits to the power of the will. The will knows about survival and endurance; it can direct attention and energy; it can finish things. But we cannot remember a tune or a dream on willpower. . . The will by itself cannot heal the soul. And it cannot create. (pg. 300)
We cannot, merely will the economy to mend, or will to bring trout and artists back to Canal Street. We must first begin to create an alternate gift economy, a generous river of creativity flowing out of the cities, a river full of gems of art and nature. This must also be accompanied by a hybrid model of economy, combining capitalistic society with creative society, and must consider things beyond survival and endurance and "finishing things." It must be more like a process of creation that once filled Canal Street, and it must look more like the extravagantly beautiful spots of a native brook trout than the counterfeit designs of Canal Street watches.
A friend mused recently to me: "we may not see a Wall Street boom again for a long time, certainly not in our life time." Because of the banking crisis and possible nationalization of them, we may end up with a long protracted recession at best (which would make US more like Japan, by the way.) Possibly so, but what if in lieu of a Wall Street boom, we "invested" in different capitals, capitals of the gift economy? What is we learned from artists and nature what it means to have sustainable growth that re-humanizes, rather than a expedited, de-humaized growth? Can we not see that native trout and generative art needs to be at our headwaters, flowing in to every tributary? Had we known that our 401-ks will be "201-k"s as one commentator recently put it, would we have reconsidered our investment in something more generous, more life giving than protecting our wallets?
As I was finishing this essay, I got a call from Denise Green, who I got to know via the TriBeCa Temporary. We were introduced by Tiffany Bell (an expert on neon artist Dan Flavin whose studio was next to my first loft at Worth St.). Denise's studio looks over Canal Street. She is an Australian born artist who was the last student of Mark Rothko (Rothko, the great abstract artist, committed suicide in 1970.) She called me because she felt she had to share something with me. She told me that she was delighted to receive a catalogue of the N.E.A., and Institute of Museum and Library Services funded Vogel collection, initiated by the National Gallery, in which her work was included. Vogel collection has been called "one of the most remarkable American collections formed in (the twentieth) century."
The Vogels were not Guggenheims with inherited endowments, nor were they hedge fund managers with millions of dollars to spend: remarkably, they were civil servants who worked at postal offices, who spent their hard earned money helping artists and collecting drawings, and as their influence grew, they collected major works by artists who are now renowned figures in contemporary art.
Denise said, "reading what you have been writing of late, I thought you would appreciate to know this story." I told her that not only am I very aware of this collection, but as a Council member of the National Endowment for the Arts, I had the privilege to approve and celebrate the Vogel collection catalogue, as they desire to give away their collections to museums all over the US. I admitted, "I did not know that you were part of the collection, though." She said "what serendipity! I did not know your knew about this generous collection, nor that you are part of the decision making at the N.E.A." Generative reality is filled with such a word as "serendipity." We are awakened to a greater reality, one that connects us to a deeper layer of meaning. Small gestures, generously made by the likes of civil servants turned major collectors, grow over time into a forest of significance, affecting thousands of lives.
Then, when I shared with her what I was writing on, she said excitedly, "Oh, they are building a memorial to 9/11 in front of my studio, and it's going to be like a stream, in memory of that trout stream!" I went to take a look. In between the construction materials surrounded by a metal fence, sure enough, the graduated steps of a memorial (which looks remarkably like Denise's drawing of steps in the Vogel collection) that would have water flowing through them are being set up. No, no presence of native trout, but perhaps there is a wellspring of creativity that flows deeply into our lives. There is a "Collect" of desires inside us, a longing for that reconciled city where nature and art serves humanity. For sure, the generous river of The Gift flows right into the heart of The City of God where agape (sacrificial) love is our true bottom line.