An underground classic about art explains philanthropy.

Who's giving, who's getting.
Feb. 11 2008 7:32 AM

What Gives?

An underground classic about art explains the immeasurable value of philanthropy.

See our entireSlate 60 special philanthropy issue.

The Gift by Lewis Hyde.

Lewis Hyde's The Gift is about the challenge of being an artist in a world of commerce. In the quarter-century since the book was first published, it has been passed along among writers, musicians, painters, and sculptors struggling to make enough from their art to pay the rent—and trying to maintain a sense of self-worth when they can't.

The book's message is delivered in a form of philosophical jujitsu befitting Hyde's career as a "scholar without an institution," as he dubbed himself. In the age-old tension between art and commerce, Hyde argues, commerce needs art as it does any product it can turn into a commodity to sell. But art can flourish without commerce. Art can stir the heart and provide courage for living, whether someone pays for it or not. The more art does so, the more it thrives. In the sort of paradox Hyde savors, the influence of a work of art increases the more the work is consumed.

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Art has these properties, he explains, because it's a gift—or, really, two kinds of gifts. In the inner life of an artist, the gift comes in the form of inspiration that he can't buy or will. In an artist's outer life, he gives a gift to his audience that's unconnected to its value in the market. The audience can't buy that quality, even if they pay for the work. And so even if an artist becomes wildly successful, the spirit of his work must qualify as a gift—it must be worth something besides money—in order to be art.

When art qualifies as a gift, it creates bonds between people in the audience that can strengthen the ties between them. It moves them to turn what they receive into contributions of their own, redoubling those ties. With this conception of the gift as the basic instrument of philanthropy, The Gift can be read as an accounting of philanthropy's unsung bounties. These attributes of gifts are especially useful to think about now, when the philanthropic sector is embracing the rigors of the market, which Hyde sometimes presents as a gift's antithesis.

Hyde talks about philanthropy tangentially—as a pragmatic afterthought, to promote the practice of "wealth moving in a circle," with artists helping others who come along by setting aside a share of their earnings from the fruits of their labors. But the core of his insights are about the connections between donors and recipients and about how successful gifts continue to give, in, yes, a circle, from the direct recipients to others to whom they pass a gift along (in one form or another) and back to the donors. While a gift can have market value, its worth is often—and more importantly—psychological and social. Even when its impact isn't immediate, it's likely to be what Hyde calls "a companion to transformation."

Donations for education are good examples. Whether it's a gift to a college scholarship fund or a contribution to a charter school helping poor kids bridge the achievement gap, you can see how Hyde's notions apply to donors, recipients, and other beneficiaries in the chain. A donation arrives as money, but the gift is the donor's belief in the institution and the students it helps finding lift-off. They can pass along the gift as bursts of learning, as the teachers some of them become, even as artists whose work stirs the donor and other people.

If you think of philanthropy as a one-way street, you've missed the central place of reciprocity in giving. There is nothing passive about being a recipient. Though the person in that role can't bargain for the gift, he has to make something of it for the exchange to be completed. That's what schools have in mind when they say they want to make donors proud and what students do when they rise to the opportunity. This kind of reciprocity is integral to the bonds that Hyde describes. He instructs, "We cannot receive the gift until we can meet it as an equal."

At the heart of Hyde's construct is a seemingly "irreconcilable conflict between gift exchange and the market." It's a viewpoint that sits uncomfortably these days in the world of philanthropy. Hyde erects a divide: A deal in the market is logical, involving analysis and barter and separate categories of sellers and buyers. A gift exchange is erotic, a matter that can't be bargained over and that thickens bonds within a community.

As philanthropic organizations become more attentive to businesslike standards—how effective are nonprofits? What is a particular donation likely to accomplish?—they increasingly use the language of finance to describe their goals. The talk is of a high social return or a major payoff in social benefits. Out of frustration with lax grant-making and a sense of urgency about imposing more discipline on the nonprofit world, they seek to bargain about the exchange of investment for performance. And this seems entirely at odds with Hyde's gift.

But while Hyde believes "there are categories of human enterprise that are not well organized or supported by market forces," he acknowledges that there are ways to reconcile the workings of the market and gifts. The business standards philanthropy is adopting are in fact one example. There is good reason for them. The best business thinking helps clarify which assumptions about a donation are sound and how to translate an admirable goal (increasing the number of low-income kids who go to college) into measures of progress (the number of high schools in low-income areas with college-placement programs, the share of juniors and seniors in those schools who take part in the programs).

There is a lot of private wealth not yet committed to philanthropy that's held by people who made their money in business. They're more likely to give a big part of it to philanthropic enterprises that operate with the rigor of outstanding businesses, because they trust that way of thinking.   

Yet Hyde's wariness about blending art and commerce—of "market triumphalism," as he puts it, which involves overwhelming a gift's spirit—helps us see what's jeopardized if a philanthropic donation is narrowly framed as a quid pro quo. When a return can't be bargained for and a gift has the potential to take on a life of its own, the worth of the exchange can dwarf its dollar value. The essential social bond, a sense of belonging, is often sustained. This feeling of possibility and the hope that sparks it are, among other bounties, a gift's immeasurable contributions.

Lincoln Caplan writes about the Supreme Court for the New York Times editorial board and is the author of The Tenth Justice: The Solicitor General and the Rule of Law.