In our recent discussion about art and commerce, I made a point of expressing my distaste for one way that some artists have sought to earn a living recently–giving away their art in order to sell merchandise. I concurred with Tony Comstock in finding that business strategy ugly at best.

You might think, then, that I would hate Camille Paglia’s recent WSJ column, “How Capitalism Can Save Art.” But you would be wrong.

Paglia’s is concerned about a lack of “creativity and innovation” in studio art. She accuses artists of living in “an airless echo chamber” of liberal political orthodoxy and of perpetuating a pseudo-provocative avante garde. In short, Paglia’s complaint about contemporary art is that it fails to engage generously and openly with a wide audience.

This might seem a problem altogether different than the disappearance of art into marketing that I identified. Indeed, one might argue that the problems are diametrically opposed. Yet I would argue that the same failure lies at the root of both fine art’s stagnation and popular art’s selling out: the failure of the work to be a gift.

Cover of "The Gift: Imagination and the E...

Cover via Amazon

Lewis Hyde has best traced the nature of art as gift in his beautiful book The Gift (the book has had various subtitles over the years; for my money the best one is the original, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property). Hyde argues that any art must contain an element of gratuity, a value which exceeds the monetary. When artists do their work, they often feel that something in it arrives from beyond them: inspiration, the Muse.

That element of givenness, Hyde says, remains with the work of art even if the work enters into the capitalist marketplace—for the art buyer receives something from the work far beyond the purchase price. What price would we take, after all, for our first experience of a beloved book? A work of art can thus be both gift and commodity. However, this balance can be upset: Hyde insists that “a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.” Harlequin romance novels, he notes, are market researched from cover to cover, thus losing the gift of art due to their commerce-driven manufactured status.

Reading Paglia from this position, we might be tempted by her polemical title to think that she proposes artists subsume the gift to the profit motive. However, this would be a profound mistake. The core of her proposal for the rescue of art lies here:

“We need a revalorization of the trades that would allow students to enter those fields without social prejudice (which often emanates from parents eager for the false cachet of an Ivy League sticker on the car). Among my students at art schools, for example, have been virtuoso woodworkers who were already earning income as craft furniture-makers. Artists should learn to see themselves as entrepreneurs.”

What Paglia proposes here is not, on my reading, the sort of entrepreneurship which satisfies itself with selling a T-shirt or a knick-knack. Instead, it is the sort of business acumen demonstrated by the tradespeople of previous generations—smiths and woodworkers, potters and builders. These entrepreneurs did work that was beautiful as well as practical, even if it was never intended for a gallery. That it has sometimes showed up there many years later is a testament to the gift that the work always possessed. For Paglia, the contemporary inheritance of such work appears not just in traditional fields such as woodworking, but in industrial design and “the applied arts”—fields which unite beauty and usefulness.

You’ll note that Hyde’s criteria for art, unlike many common conceptions, does not insist on a work being without use: a cup, a shovel, or a smartphone could be works of art provided that they provide joy beyond their monetary value. So there is no moral or aesthetic imperative that an artist shun commerce and practicality. However, whatever commercial steps the artist takes must work in harmony with the nature of the gift itself. A well-made chair is an expression of the artist’s gift as a commemorative T-shirt is not.

Although Hyde remains vague about the source of the artist’s gift, a Christian can easily identify it through the theology of vocation. On this, I cannot improve on Wendell Berry: “The old and honorable idea of ‘vocation’ is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted.” To say that artists ought to remain faithful to their gift is thus to propose that they choose vocation over salesmanship.

This is a demanding path, but since it means doing a work for which we are “particularly fitted,” it should also be deeply satisfying. A person with a vocation for art is not necessarily particularly fitted for political commentary or marketing clothing. Though we all must find our daily bread somehow, it behooves us to try to find good work, work that fulfills our vocations and does not work against our gift. Artists who follow Paglia’s exhortation back to the applied arts may find a way to do just that.

Posted by Matthew Miller

Matthew Miller writes from St. Louis, where he is pursuing his PhD at Saint Louis University.