Ask almost anyone in the Western world to name a great artist (or any artist for that matter) and you can bet that Picasso will make the cut. It's been over forty years since his death, yet his iconic status has not diminished in the least. Integral to his enduring legacy (especially for today's artists, writers and creators) are his concise and powerful thoughts on art and art-making.
Recently the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum @GuggenheimBilbao took to Twitter to remind us of Picasso's brilliance as a philosopher of art - and of life:
"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away." -Pablo Picasso
Picasso speaks to all of us, no matter whether our gifts are "creative" or not. For those of us called to create, his words take on a special urgency. The twin notions that art is a "gift" and that the artist/creator is a "gifted" individual have captivated many a great mind - including the poet, essayist, scholar and MacArthur fellow, Lewis Hyde. His classic The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property is ESSENTIAL reading for every artist/creator regardless of discipline. The book was re-released on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary as The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. No matter the version, Hyde will transform/shift/just plain rock your "creating" world! Consider this:
Art is a gift, not a commodity. . . . We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude. . . .When art acts as an agent of transformation [we may] speak of it as a gift. . . . Moreover, with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when the gift has worked in us, only when we have come to its level, as it were, that we can give it away.
Hyde, like Picasso, emphasizes the importance of recognizing and honoring the gifts that come to us regardless of our personal will or actions - our talents are bestowed upon us, not created by us no matter how much our dominant "self-made" contemporary worldview might disagree. But far from being mere puppets of forces beyond our control, a certain type of collaboration takes place as the gift is received with gratitude, nurtured, and then shared. Long before the author Elizabeth Gilbert galvanized us with her TED talk on creativity and her recent follow-up publication, Big Magic, Hyde beautifully expressed the condition of "reciprocity" between the gift and the gifted:
A gift that has the power to change us awakens a part of the soul. But we cannot receive the gift until we can meet it as an equal. Once the gift has stirred within us it is up to us to develop it. There is a reciprocal labor in the maturation of a talent. The gift will continue to discharge its energy so long as we attend to it in return.
As all artists and creators know (and as Hyde makes clear) "attending to the gift" is easier said than done. There are jobs to be done, children and elders to be cared for, bills to be paid and so much more. Even when we feel that we've put everything else on hold for our art, the gift comes and goes on it's own timetable. Inevitably, the autonomy of the gift itself must be recognized - we can welcome the gift, but not coerce it.
Even with the understanding that the gift is not really "ours," and that we may only be able to attend to it sporadically, we are nevertheless living a noble and deeply meaningful existence when we create. Our longing to make things with meaning may be a signal to this ineffable force called a "gift" - a force that from time to time welcomes us into an eternal dance of receiving and giving. Hyde expresses this with unparalleled eloquence:
Men and women who dedicate their lives to the realization of their gifts tend the office of that communion by which we are joined to one another, to our times, to our generation, and to the race. Just as the artist's imagination 'has a gift' that brings the work to life, so in the realized gifts of the gifted the spirit of the group 'has a gift.' These creations are not 'merely' symbolic, they do not stand for the larger self; they are its necessary embodiment, a language without which it would have no life at all.
When you find yourself doubting your vocation, wishing that your gift would lead to more money, wondering whether you're making a product instead of art, or just plain depressed or burned-out, turn to Lewis Hyde's The Gift. - you will be illuminated and rewarded with renewed wisdom, strength and courage. May your copy be as well-loved and as well-read as mine has been!
I'm Mary Antonia Wood, Ph,D. I share both contemporary & ancient insights on the origins & realities of artistic expression. Creators of all types will discover enriching & practical wisdom about their vocation as expressed through the lenses of philosophy, mythology, archetypal & depth psychologies, neuroscience and more. Take a look.