It’s a pleasure to see Lewis Hyde receive such well-deserved attention in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, in a lengthy profile, “What Is Art For?” by Daniel B. Smith. Hyde has long been a friend of the commons; he even guest-blogged here at Onthecommons.org several years ago. He is a poet, philosopher, translator and essayist who travels in some rarefied literary and artistic circles, yet remains deeply committed to the commons and the values it embodies. One gets the distinct sense that the commons is a taproot for Hyde’s idiosyncratic yet profound writings.
Hyde first attracted attention with a book that he wrote when he was 38, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, published in 1983. (The new subtitle on the 25th anniversary edition: “How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.”) The book is one of those rare books that cannot be easily categorized; that draws upon diverse source materials; speaks to the whole person in a fresh way; and has a dramatic impact on how one views the world. The Gift has attracted a cult following over the years, especially in artistic circles, because it helps to sort through how the precious gift of creativity can coexist with the impersonal imperatives of the market.
The Times article does a nice job of tracing Hyde’s development over the past twenty-five years, and his far-ranging, ecumenical sensibilities. The piece also explores his ventures into public life and politics. It notes, for example, his early recognition (among artists) that copyright protection is a monopoly privilege that ought to give something back to artistic communities that incubate creativity. Hyde worked for legislation that Senator Chris Dodd introduced, “The Arts Endowing the Arts Act,” in 1994. The bill proposed auctioning off 20 additional years of copyright protection and using the proceeds to build a permanent endowment for the arts and humanities. In the end, the bill never passed, but four years later, Disney and other large corporations got a 20-year extension for free — a giveaway worth billions of dollars.
For nearly ten years, Hyde has been at work on a major book about the cultural commons. As samples on this work-in-progress suggest, the book (still untitled) promises to go much deeper than previous efforts in exploring the tensions between self and community, private property rights and the commons, and markets and the commons. On his website, Hyde writes:
I am at work on a book in which I hope to offer a modern and American model of our cultural commons, that vast store of unowned ideas, inventions, and works of art we have inherited from the past. At present this legacy suffers from a kind of public invisibility, a lack of political, economic, and juridical standing. The free market is surrounded by full and well-elaborated speech, but the commons is not. It is therefore hard for us to reckon the value of our common assets, and hard to know how best to protect them, keep them lively, and continue to engender them. It is hard to be good stewards of a wealth so few can see or seem to care about.
One of the more intriguing themes that Hyde is developing is how the history of the commons and the creative self are intertwined:
Along with a history of the commons I plan to write a parallel analysis of how we have imagined the creative self. We have a long tradition that takes creative work to be the fruit of individual genius working in isolation. Henry Thoreau in his cabin is the American type. But might we not as easily say that the creative mind is itself a kind of commons? A remark that Goethe made toward the end of his life gives a sample of a more communitarian tradition of artistic self-imagining:
“What am I then…? Everything that I have seen, heard, and observed I have collected and exploited. My works have been nourished by countless different individuals, by innocent and wise ones, people of intelligence and dunces. Childhood, maturity, and old age all have brought me their thoughts,… their perspectives on life. I have often reaped what others have sowed. My work is the work of a collective being that bears the name of Goethe.”
In his essay, Created Commons, Hyde explains that he “takes Goethe’s image and applies it to Thoreau to show how, despite his fabled independence, we would not have his work were it not for the remarkably rich community and communal institutions that surrounded him in Concord.”
It takes some chutzpah to confront the central myths of American culture — especially American individualism and our belief in being “self-made.” But that’s what Lewis is doing. He takes on a core premise of copyright law — that our individual “originality” justifies exclusive and near-absolute property rights in creative works — and shows, as a matter of historical fact, how our stories about self-made individuals are only partly true. He points out, for example, that such “self-made” figures as Thoreau, Jefferson and Franklin may have been singular individuals, but they were also products of their peer communities and predecessors.
In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Benjamin Franklin: “Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin? Every great man is a unique.” Hyde’s response: “Well, it’s crazy! There’s a long list of masters who taught Franklin! And yet the Emersonian song is the one that sticks in everyone’s head.”
Lewis, please hurry up and finish your book: We’d like to hear how the story ends!
Now that The New York Times Magazine has splashed its profile of Hyde across six pages, the only question is whether he can continue to be a “literary cult figure.” Let’s hope not. It’s time for Lewis Hyde to enter and change the mainstream.