Music and the Price of What We Cherish: Margaret Atwood on the Bonds and Obligations of Creative Gifts

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A decade ago, several years after I started writing The Marginalian (under the outgrown name Brain Pickings, in my twenties, while working four jobs), a musician friend gave me a book she said captured the animating spirit of my labor of love: The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (public library) by the poet Lewis Hyde, published a year before I was born.

Like a generation of creative people, I devoured it with a rare and rapturous sense of being seen in the elemental strata of my being. Here was shimmering affirmation that creative work gives something which cannot be quantified or commodified, and those whose lives it touches can give back to its makers in a way that is not a transaction but a bow of mutual appreciation, mutual respect, mutual cherishment. At the center of Hyde’s premise is that idea that creative works exist simultaneously in a market economy and a gift economy. “Only one of these,” Hyde writes, “is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.”

I found myself thinking about The Gift anew recently in the context of music and the abyssal disconnect between how much we value it in our lives and how much it has been devalued by the market economy we inhabit.

Music by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

“Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche declared. But set his characteristic drama aside and ask people across ages and cultures what art-form most helps them live their lives, and they will overwhelmingly point to music. It is, quite literally, the soundtrack to our lives — to our fallings in love, to our seasons of grief, to our workouts and our commutes and our parties and our most private moments. It is the sacrament we reach for when we want to feel what we feel more deeply, the daily pulsebeat that helps us move through even our most challenging days with more composure and resilience. It is the sunshine of the spirit. “This indeed is music,” Whitman exulted. “[It] whirls me wider than Uranus flies, it wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them.” Music, the most abstract of the arts, is the most concrete in how it unlocks us to ourselves, how it “opens a path into the realm of silence.”

Music is also something people make — living people, who put a foot on the floor each morning and set about making day: food and love and laundry. People who have a gift, in both senses of the word, and give if freely because making music is a lifeline for them — a fundament of who they are and why they live.

We know this. We feel it the moment we pause to reflect on the inner life of creative labor. And yet we have been complicit in allowing Silicon Valley — that handmaiden of late-stage capitalism — to make of this elemental sacrament a market commodity of lesser value than a latte, so that the artists who make it are the least rewarded creative laborers of our time.

Revisiting The Gift, I was delighted to discover a new foreword by Margaret Atwood, in which she shines a sobering gleam on this astonishing asymmetry between value and worth, inviting us to reconsider it.

Margaret Atwood

Observing that “gifts transform the soul in ways that simple commodities cannot,” she writes:

Gifts create bonds and obligations, and not everyone wants these or understands them… If you’ve got something out of it, as we say — if you’ve treated it as a gift, which by its nature has spiritual worth but no monetary value, being priceless — what do you owe its creator, who has been the instrument through which it has arrived in your hands? Your gratitude, via a word of thanks? Your serious attention? The price of a latte deposited in a beggar’s bowl e-tip jar?

The answer is never “nothing.”

So, today, this day, think of a musician or two whose music you cherish, whose gift has touched your life and helps you live it. Find their website. Find their BandCamp. Find the “donate” button on their Spotify. And give back not-nothing. It might help them put food on the table. It will help them feel the radiance we all live for — the sense that we matter, that we belong in the great scheme of beauty and understanding. It sill help you feel like something more than the consumer, the “user,” to which Silicon Valley has endeavored to reduce us.

Without the gift of music, life would be sub-life.

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