The motion of gifts
While setting up for the Berserker Residents offering, I discovered some leftover soda that a fashion shoot had left in a small room off the “court” – the grand entrance. I quickly set it up next to the brochures and flyers I laid out on the “ticket table” for patrons to peruse. I put some cups in the box next to about 12 cans of soda and six small bottles of water. They were all warm, so beneath he box, I put a sign that read “WARM AND FREE”. Next to that box I put a large gold colored chalice, under which I wrote “DONATIONS – CASH ONLY PLEASE”.
Since the Berserkers offering came two days after Howie Shapiro’s wonderful piece on them, and White Pines generally, we had the biggest crowd yet for any White Pines gathering – about eighty people. Most gratifying for me was the fact that at least three-quarters of them were interested neighbors who had read the piece and wanted to see what was going on. I had hired Sarah Bloom to take pictures, and my son Griffen to be my assistant.
As the remarkable evening progressed, I noticed something interesting about the soda and water. People were opening the cans and bottles, filling their cups and leaving the opened containers for others. And I realized I was witnessing an aspect of gifting in action – a dynamic I have identified as the basis of everything White Pines does. Instead of taking a can for themselves, people were leaving some for others. I realized that, if I had been selling the soda for $1.25 say, this would not have been the case. People would have taken their can of soda for themselves. Why not? They paid for it. But here – as it was being given away – they were led into the powerful movement of gifts. They were led to give it away themselves.
Lewis Hyde writes about the motion of gifts in his book, The Gift:
When a gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith . . . . Having accepted what has been given to him – either in the sense of inspiration or in the sense of talent – the artist often feels compelled, feels the desire, to make the work and offer it to an audience.
Here, I was witnessing the simple and pedestrian gift of liquid refreshment on a hot night, moving in circles. And later, in the glorious music room filled with the laughter of people I had only just met, I felt the “feeling-bond” Hyde writes about here:
Unlike the sale of a commodity, the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved . . . . It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.
Another observation, this time about how steeped we are in commodity culture. I use a wonderful online service called Eventbrite for my ticketing services. I recommend it highly. But I noticed this interesting detail, as I attempted to set up a ticket which a person could pay any amount for, or nothing at all: a donation ticket and you set the price. However, Eventbright will not allow you to donate nothing. In order to get such a ticket, you must donate at least one dollar. This was frustrating to me, since it seemed to negate the whole purpose of a donation: you donate if you choose to. A donation automatically includes its negative option – no donation. Or, in White Pines parlance, a non-financial donation. I see a person simply being present for our offerings as a kind of gift, a point of view not shared by Eventbrite apparently. Still, it’s a great service. And speaking of donations – out of that gold chalice I described before I was able to pay my son for the two nights of work he had put in as my assistant.
How do gifts create motion? Well, consider the two foundational gifts White Pines has received, here, at the outset of our journey. The first was the gift of the Elkins Estate, and Dave Dobson’s unstinting generosity and support of our mission. What a gift! Really, what else do I have to offer my colleagues in the artistic community besides my crazy ideas? And based on the gift of the Elkins Estate, classes were taught, plays were read and events were offered. That’s the motion of gifts.
And then there’s the gift of the financial support of the Wyncote Foundation. They really go together, because without Wyncote, there is no White Pines. Wyncote gifts White Pines with financial support, White Pines pays the estate for residencies so they can pay the bills, the ensembles in residence come and make work, which they offer for free to those people who were sharing the soda that night. That’s the motion of gifts: an extraordinary matrix of outwardly expanding ripples in this big, beautiful pond we swim in.
Because of the bonding power of gifts, and the detached nature of commodity exchange, gifts have become associated with community and with being obliged to others, while commodities are associated with alienation and freedom.
Alienation and freedom: the two sides of the independent artist’s journey; the credo of the troubadour, traveling free and never putting roots down. It’s a great life for some. But there’s another, one based on community and obligation, the life of the citizen artist. It’s where White Pines is going.