In its generally
accepted meaning, the word gift refers to the principle
of ceding possession of some good in a way that implies freeness
or gratuitousness [la gratuité]. In this respect,
it is tied to disinterestedness, a notion that has been central
to artistic creativity and beauty since the time of Kantian aesthetics.
For the anthropologist Alain Caillé, however, gift giving
can be defined, above all, as “any provision of goods and
services carried out, without guarantee of reciprocation and with
a view toward creating, maintaining, or regenerating a social
bond.”(1) Now, this emphasis on the value of social ties
(to the detriment of the gift-object that makes them possible)
has been and remains one of the characteristic features of participatory
art. We may thus ask ourselves to what extent gift giving has
become one of the artistic procedures to which artists have appealed,
and particularly so when they have an eye toward finding alternatives
to the primacy of economic value and to fetishization. And yet,
is not gift giving--as an act lacking in all reciprocity--not
“the very figure of the impossible,”(2) as Jacques
Derrida has underscored in his effort to deconstruct the ideal
can be raised with regard to the Musée Précaire
Alibinet (Albinet precarious museum) created by Thomas Hirschhorn
in the Landy neighborhood outside Paris in partnership with the
Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. Each week for a period
of two months, a work taken from the collections of the French
National Museum of Modern Art was presented in a makeshift space
built for the occasion with the help of the local housing project’s
residents, so that they might be given access to a culture that
is often alien to them. The newspaper Le Parisien thus
offered “Dali, c’est gratuit” (Dali
for free) as the title for an article about this noble attempt
at sharing, which Yvane Chapuis designated as “the love
of art.”(3) Consequently, this altruistic undertaking, aimed
at everyone gaining access to aesthetic creations, affirmed its
universal character without ever questioning it and left aside
the fine business of cultural communication this piece represented
for the institutions involved.
Despite the “violence
of transgression” evoked by Hirschhorn, his project seems
to be situated more on the side of reconciliation, in the tradition
of the relational aesthetics articulated by the art critic Nicolas
Bourriaud. In 1998, the latter brought together, under this heading,
various “interactive, user-friendly, and relational”(5)
artistic practices that belong to the “interstices of society.”
He thus underscored that “this term interstices
was used by Karl Marx to describe trading communities that were
outside the framework of the capitalist economy, because they
were shielded from the law of profit: bartering, sales at a loss,
autarchic forms of production, etc.”(6) While gift giving
is not mentioned here, it could be added to this nonexhaustive
list of alternative practices that make an end run around the
This is the case
with Rirkrit Tiravanija, who often places cooking utensils at
the disposal of the public so that they might prepare a meal and
thus transform his installations into sites for sharing. A sophisticated
piece, like Dom-Ino, presented in the Chantal Crousel
Gallery in 1998, borrowed from Le Corbusier’s 1914-1915
prefabricated frame and turned out a version in wood. The three
platform floors harbor a kitchen and a living-room suite, then
mattresses, and finally a sort of rooftop terrace. The viewer
is invited to enter the structure. But does such an invitation
amount to giving the work use value, as against exchange value
and the abstraction thereof, in the tradition of Marxist theories?
And in this case, does not the creativity here attenuate the idea
that gifts contain, in themselves, a critique of “instrumental
interest,” as Caillé mentions?(7)
An indirect answer
may be offered by looking at the practices of Didier Courbot.
Courbot’s interventions in the public space occur in the
form of modest but generous gestures, like repainting a pedestrian
crosswalk or repairing a bench. His Needs series (1999-2001)
captures in color photography the uncompensated actions he has
performed to meet small needs--an indication that his performances
have at once a utilitarian and a symbolic dimension.
These two schemes
are, moreover, not so distinct, if we are to believe Pierre Bourdieu.
The French sociologist explains that the economy of symbolic goods
(which is thought of in opposition to interest and calculation)
is an illusio: it is a “collective self-deception”
inasmuch as “at the basis of generous action, of the (apparent)
inaugural gift in a series of exchanges, there is not the conscious
intention (whether calculating or not) of an isolated individual
but that disposition of habitus which is generosity,
and which tends, without explicit and express intention, toward
the conservation and increase of symbolic capital.”(8) According
to Bourdieu, charity or any other kind of devotional activity
ends up concealing relations of force and, with them, a form of
is to be found again, however, in certain emblematic practices
of relational aesthetics, such as those of Félix Gonzalez-Torres.
His piles of candy, offered to people with sweet tooths, carry
a heavy load when they match the weight of his AIDS-infected companion
(Portrait of Ross in L.A., 1991): the gradual disappearance
of such sweet pleasures becomes here the metaphor for the impending
loss of his own beloved. This tension between bitter personal
experience and the casual attitude of visitors testifies to an
ambivalence of gifts not taken into consideration in the reflections
A similar sort
of violence, moreover, was expressed in a much more strident way
in the performances of some 1960s artists, such as the Messe
pour un corps (Mass for a body) Michel Journiac organized
on November 26, 1969 at the Daniel Templon Gallery in a co-production
with the Martin Malburet Gallery. In celebrating the Eucharist
with slices of a sausage made from his own blood, the artist effected
a sacrilegious substitution evocative of the death of God and
of the indomitability of the body, “an absolute that desire
and death reveal.” (9). In this ritual form, the détournement
of the Christ-like gesture took an eminently tragic turn.
form of sharing is to be found again in the collective events
Lygia Clark organized as part of her art courses at the Sorbonne
University in 1973. For her Anthropophagical Dribble,
students held in their mouths colored spools they were asked to
unwind slowly in order to cover the body of one of the participants,
who was laying down on the ground. The gradual unfolding of the
performance led to everyone becoming entangled together with this
“dribble.” Another action performed the same year,
Cannibalism, suggested that a student wear a suit with
a stomach-level pouch filled with fruit. Blindfolded, all the
people placed around him were to take a bite from the food then
let it go and pick it up again.
With these two
experiments, Lygia Clark was suggesting that giving and taking
were not antinomic. “I am one huge mouth that swallows,
devours, and grinds up everything,” she wrote. “I
am a small body; I want to occupy the whole space of the world.
. . . I give everything to the other, expecting in return his
impressions after he has tried out all my offerings.”(10)
From this perspective, what becomes apparent is “perseverance
in its being,” which Spinoza named in his time the conatus.
Taking up again this philosophical postulate, Frédéric
Lordon states that “to exist is to be self-interested. An
action has no other meaning than to be accomplished in the
first person--that is to say, whatever its nature, and in
particular when it takes the most oblatory forms, it is accomplished
by an agent who, in committing therein his existential activity
and acting through his own movement, necessarily acts
relative to himself, that is to say, in the end for
himself.”(11) Confronted with this conatus, the potlatch--giving,
receiving, reciprocating--would have been the first attempt at
the social level to repress the drive to seize and to hoard.
was as a matter of fact the name the Lettrist International chose
in 1954 for the title of its Bulletin d’information.
The group was of course making reference there to a practice that
had developed on America’s Pacific Northwest Coast, and
which Marcel Mauss had studied in the context of his much talked-about
1923-1924 “essay on gifts.” There, the ethnologist
described the triad of the potlatch’s components as a system
of “total services of an agonistic type”(12) with
economic, legal, religious, and ultimately mythical dimensions.
Now, the level at which the group led by Guy Debord wished to
act was very much the global one: “the obligation to reciprocate
constitutes the essence of the potlatch,”(13) Mauss had
written, and in the situation of the time this obligation consisted
in a complete overthrow of society. The revolution was the most
beautiful of all possible ways of spending. It extended, in a
concrete way, “the Copernican revolution”(14) Georges
Bataille had initiated with his essay on “general economy”(15)
where the glorious conduct of the potlatch was presented as a
tremendous counterexample to modern economics, which is based
on commodity production.
In our time, the
radicality of these first moments may seem remote. And with regard
to this (too brief) evocation, it may be pointed out that in contemporary
art gift giving has undergone changes that overlap in certain
respects with the gradual abandonment of the desire to create
a new community and favors, instead, a compartmentalized approach,
one conscious of the rules of the game of specialization. Thenceforth,
the potlatch, as a phenomenon of “social morphology”(16)
seems but a fading memory of an outdated outlook wherein the sovereign
power used to take on the outward appearance of self-abandonment
to the collectivity. Yet it remains the case that one of the foundations
of gift giving, wherein “it follows that to make a gift
of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself,”(17)
survives implicitly through royalties and authorial rights [le
droit d’auteur], as opposed to copyright. A similar metamorphosis
of gift giving into artistic creation thus serves as a reminder
of what Derrida had noted in the form of an aporia: “At
the limit, the gift as gift ought not appear as gift: either to
the donee or to the donor.”(18)
1. Alain Caillé, Anthropologie
du don. Le tiers paradigme (Paris: La Découverte,
2007 ), p. 124.
2. Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit
Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1992), p. 7.
3. Yvane Chapuis, “Avant-propos,”
Musée Précaire Albinet, Quartier du Landy, Aubervilliers
(Paris and Aubervilliers: Éditions Xavier Barras/Les Laboratoires
d’Aubervilliers, 2005), no pagination.
4. Thomas Hirschhorn, “À propos
du Musée Précaire Albinet, à propos d’un
travail d’artiste dans l’espace public et à
propos du rôle de l’artiste dans la vie publique,”
Le Journal des Laboratoires, 2 (June 2004). Reprinted
5. Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationnelle
(Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002), p. 8.
6. Ibid., p. 16.
7. Alain Caillé, Anthropologie du
don, p. 127.
8. Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations,
trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press and
Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000), p. 193.
9. Quoted by François Pluchart, “Entretien
avec Michel Journiac,” ArTitudes International,
8/9 (July-September 1972): 28. Reprinted by Julia Hountou as “De
la carnation à l’incarnation,” in Michel
Journiac (Strasbourg/Paris: Éditions des Musées
de Strasbourg/Éditions ENSBA, 2004), p. 83.
10. Lygia Clark, “L’homme, structure
vivante d’une architecture biologique et circulaire,”
Robho, 5/6 (Paris, 1971). Reprinted in Lygia Clark,
11. Frédéric Lordon, L’intérêt
souverain. Essai d’anthropologie économique spinoziste
(Paris: La Découverte, 2006), p. 34.
12. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and
Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W. D. Halls,
2nd rev. ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 8.
13. Ibid., p. 53.
14. Georges Bataille, “La part maudite
(1949),” Oeuvres complètes, vol. VII (Paris:
Gallimard, 1976), p. 33F.
16. Marcel Mauss, The Gift, p. 137.
17. Ibid., p. 16.
18. Jacques Derrida, Given Time, p.
Bataille, Georges. “La
part maudite” (1949), Oeuvres complètes.
Vol. VII. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Pascalian Meditations
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Press and Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000.
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Caillé, Alain. Anthropologie du don.
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Derrida, Jacques. Given Time: I. Counterfeit
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Michel Journiac. Strasbourg and Paris: Éditions
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