Lewis Hyde, in a terrific book called The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, compares the radical power of art to gift giving. All over the world, gift-giving rituals work in invisible ways to create community, strengthen bonds between people, and create obligations. In Southeast Alaskan native cultures, for example, anyone who receives a gift is obligated to give a gift to someone else in the community, and to increase its measure. So, if someone gives me 12 blankets, I am now obligated to give someone else 15 blankets, or something else of greater value. The ritual isn’t complete until I do so and under the rules of the ritual I have not fully received the gift of the 12 blankets until I’ve given the gift of something more.
Lewis Hyde says that this is the way art works. When you write a play, or novel, or poem, the same dynamic is set in motion in the larger community:
“A work of art is a gift that has the power to change us by awakening a part of the soul. But we cannot receive the gift of art until we can meet it as an equal.”
In other words, a work of art awakens something in us and activates us to pass it on in some way. This is why dictators consider it so dangerous. It sets in motion a life force that is viral and that can’t be controlled.
Hyde also says that most artists are brought to their vocation when their own gifts are awakened by the work of a master. “That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself.”
Most of us can point to the moment when we were awakened to art; to the moment that set us on the path to writing. Mine was in San Francisco in 1987. I was on a business trip and went to the American Conservatory Theater one night to see Angel’s Fall by Lanford Wilson. I was sitting in the Geary Street Theatre. The theatre was half full. The audience hated the play. They were leaving in droves. But I was mesmerized. When the teenage character delivered his monologue in act two about playing tennis, my life was changed.
I don’t play tennis. I don’t even like tennis, but I walked around for several days in a state of bliss, compelled to meet the power of that monologue — and the play — by rendering something powerful of my own. When I got back home, I started writing. I haven’t stopped since.
Lanford Wilson doesn’t know he changed my life. Angel’s Fall was a failure. The critics panned it. No one produces it. It’s out of print. But I wouldn’t be a writer today if he hadn’t written it.
I think many writers today suffer from the feeling that our work has been relegated to the sidelines, devoid of any political impact or muscle. It’s an understandable response, considering the overwhelming problems facing the world and the small place that literature and the arts seem to occupy in our society. And yet, I can’t help but think that we underestimate our work when we give in to these feelings. The act of putting pen to paper—and of singing and dancing and playing bongo drums in the nation’s parks—is a radical act. Every strike of the pen, every beat of the drum sends ripples into the world. Don’t forget that each person committing an act of art today was brought to it by someone in the past; and that they, in turn, will give birth to the next artist, and the next. Our work is a gift with an unknown impact, and it has all of the power and properties that Lewis Hyde spoke about.
As Eric Bentley the theatre critic says… “What happens to you personally when you encounter a work of art may seem like a rather small incident when compared with the invention of the atom bomb, but must you have an inferiority complex about it? The arts depend for their existence on our respect for such ’small‘ incidents.”