But not for the same lame reasons as everyone else

By Joe Malik on December 23, 2009

I’m sick of Christmas — not because I hate holy days. Not because I’ve succumbed to the stupid, reactionary cynicism that seems to accompany standard anti-Christmas rants. Not because I despise the meaningless consumer rampage that seems to define this particular holy day. Not because I can’t escape R&B covers of old European Jesus jingles.

Nope. I’m sick of Christmas because I’ve realized the beauty of gift giving has been eaten alive. This year I promised myself I would only give gifts I made by hand. But I failed. I bought a bunch of stuff. Except in the case of one person, I wasn’t sure if what I made would satisfy. A painting, a sculpture, a song, a poem, or an iPhone — take your pick. Shit.

Art for Christmas — what a joke.

Or is it?

The problem of art for Christmas is part of a year-round dilemma that all artists face — the recuperation of meaning by the commodity peddlers — the swallowing up and repackaging of all objects of desire, and ultimately of desire itself. Everything finds its meaning, one way or another, in relation to the buying and selling game — capital, Babylon, call it what you like.
All art, even when it’s given away as a gift, is positioned, judged and labeled in relation to the world of commodities. Just like everything else.

Really, does that picture your 6-year-old drew you stack up to a new laptop or a flat screen? OK, maybe it does in some cases. But let’s be honest. Most of us would rather have the flat screen. Of course we humor the kid, and say it matters more. But eventually it ends up in the closet with glitter pictures and reindeer made out of pipe cleaners.

The gift of art, at some Paleolithic point, was an alternative to the economy of the commodity. It was issued within what anthro-pologist Marshall Sahlins called the “economy of the gift.” The gift economy doesn’t resemble the orgy of exchange we call Christmas. The gift economy is, in fact, quite the opposite.

Within this context, the “gift” of art derives its meaning from its power of communication and connection — of love, of deep understanding of the recipient, and the imbuing of the gift with the artist’s imagination, time, understanding and soul. It is a direct offering, a free gift, with no expectation of return. Positive reciprocity — given “breast to breast” as the Sufis say. The artist receives the gift of inspiration, transmits it through painting or sculpture or bead craft, and simply gives it away. The recipient may or may not reciprocate as far as the artist is concerned. Or they may reciprocate with appreciation, understanding, joy — maybe a hug. Whatever is returned, it’s enough in the gift economy. Creating art while attaching the precondition of receiving money or adoration or some equivalent — whether it’s for Christmas or for that big spring gallery opening — forces the “gift” part into the background, and all meaning, sooner or later, fades.

The economy of the gift — it’s the opposite of Christmas.

Happy Holy Days.