Art as Gift Introduction

Art as Gift was an Art and Theory Reading Group project that ran from January to May 2017, the aim of which was to examine the idea that we experience works of art in terms of presence – as something given, i.e. as gifts. Two principle theorisations of the gift informed discussions:

  1. The gift as part of a process of exchange, as set out by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss in: The Gift (1950).
  2. The impossibility of the gift, as set out by Jacques Derrida in his book: Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money (1991).

Project Organisation
Derrida’s text was the main focus of the group’s discussions, meetings were organised around discussing each of the four chapters of “Given Time” in turn. To support these I wrote a series of detailed blogposts on each chapter. The project culminated in a public presentation, informed by the thinking developed within the group.

Timetable
Reading Group 1 – January 26
Introductory presentation by Derek Hampson, then discussion
Text: ‘The Time of the King’ in Given Time (1).

Reading Group 2 – February 23
This meeting will focus on reading and discussing chapter 2 of Given Time: The Madness of Economic Reason: A Gift without Present (34-70). Suggested themes for discussion will be posted on this website.

Reading Group 3 – March 30
This meeting will focus on reading and discussing chapter 3 of Given Time: “Counterfeit Money’ 1: Poetics of Tobacco” (71-107). Suggested themes for discussion will be posted on this website.

Reading Group 4 – April 27
Final meeting, dedicated to reading chapter 4 of Given Time: “Counterfeit Money” II:Gift and Countergift, Excuse and Forgiveness (108-172). Suggested themes for discussion will be posted on this website.

Art as Gift Symposium – May 13
11:00am at the Lace Market Gallery, Stoney Street, Nottingham. The artist and critic Peter Suchin (Art Monthly) will address the question: “What is Given in Marcel Duchamp’s Given?”

Click on image below to download “Given Time” as a pdf

 

 

Art as Gift Overview

Starting 26th January 2017, the Art & Theory Reading Group met once a month for four months, at Wollaton Street Studios, to discuss Jacques Derrida’s Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money, examining the implications for artistic practice of its ostensible theme of the gift.

Given Time is structured around Derrida’s deconstructivist analysis of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s 1925 essay The Gift, a study of gift-giving rituals in tribal societies, and Charles Baudelaire’s short story Counterfeit Money (1869).

In advance of each meeting I wrote a commentary on one of the book’s four chapters, in the form of a series of blog posts. If you are reading this on this site’s Home page you can scroll down the page to read these, (in reverse chronological order), otherwise use the Art as Gift Post Index on the right to navigate to a particular post.

The project culminated in the Art as Gift Symposium, in which the artist and critic Peter Suchin (Art Monthly) discussed the question “What is Given in Marcel Duchamp’s Given?”

Derek Hampson
(Convenor, Art & Theory Reading Group)

Read my detailed commentary on chapter one of Given Time here

Transcription of my introduction to Peter Suchin’s presentation.

The End

This post is part of the Art as Gift Project

Baudelaire’s gift (170-172)
Derrida ends Given Time, signalling the unknowability of the secret of what either Baudelaire, the narrator or the friend meant to say or do, in Counterfeit Money, through his repeated use of “perhaps,” as the condition under which the events occur. This is the secret that enters literature, constituted by the literary institution and revealed by that institution only to the extent it loses all interiority, all thickness, all depth. It is an unbreakable secret, it is not subjective, it is superficial, without substance.

“It is spread on the surface of the page, as obvious as a purloined letter, a post card, a bank note, a check, a “letter of credit” – or “a silver two-franc piece.” (170)

A further conclusion is reached, “there is no nature, only effects of nature.” The meaning of nature is referred back to it from a simulacrum that it is thought to cause, in this case literature. The narrator, as nature, represents a nature that does not so much give as lend, and lends more than it gives. It extends credit, this for that (tit for tat), as the narrator lends wings to his friend’s mind. Derrida expands on this lending of wings by asking us to recall the story of Icarus, as told in Baudelaire’s poem The Complaints of an Icarus. Asking if that story would be the “whole story, all of history? In any case…a certain history of philosophy.” There follows an account of the poem.

Icarus, “an” Icarus refers the poem’s subject to the author, to Baudelaire, a writer who “is not able to sign…unable even to give his name, to give himself a name, to give a name to his end.” (171) How therefore, asks Derrida, can he know how to give? As one who writes, he has no place of burial and therefore no proper name, he is depersonalised and thereby sinks into the abyss. The poet does not sign; he complains that he cannot even pity himself. A gift is not signed; it does not calculate even with a time that would do it justice, Baudelaire makes no concessions: his “modernity” marked by a “striking insolence,” extends no credit to the sublime. Which Derrida characterises as “speculation” and “counterfeit money” that one would like to substitute “for the hopeless, cruel, prostituting, killing of “love of beauty.”

Derrida concludes Given Time with a reading of The Complaints of an Icarus, as a downfall [chute], a story of the end, a falling off, “its absolute humility, and just the lowest possible:”

[…]
My consumed eyes see only
Souvenirs of the sun.
[…]
Beneath some unknowing eye of fire
I feel my wing breaking;

And burned by the love of beauty,
I will not have the sublime honor
Of giving my name to the abyss
That will serve as my tomb.

 

The Judgment of Nature

This post is part of the Art as Gift Project

Confessing an infinite debt (164-170)
Derrida now focuses on the narrator’s refusal to give forgiveness to his friend, for doing “evil out of stupidity,” asking what does the narrator mean by such words? (165) The friend is not condemned for having an evil intention, but for the “limits of his intelligence.” (166) Generally we do not condemn someone for such reasons. The limit of one’s intellect is considered to be innate, given by nature. The focus becomes the intention behind the friend’s actions – “lodged in stupidity.” (167) The question then becomes about stupidity, which Derrida surmises, in the eyes of the narrator, is the will of the rational animal (logon ekhon) that does not want to be able to use its reason. He has the reason, the capacity to act responsibly, but chooses not to be responsible for his irresponsibility. He does not understand the implications of his actions.

This understanding can appear as the beginning of remorse, which presupposes a link between awareness and confession. Derrida denies this, saying “confession does not consist essentially in making the other aware of something.” (168) One does not confess in order to inform. The consequence of this is that “the eidetic purity of confession stands out better when the other is already in a position to know what I confess.”

The friend did not do what he ought to have done in order to know that he was mean, to make it known, and to confess it to himself. Stupidity is not a natural state, but rather a relation to an intellectual power inscribed in us by nature, “a kind of universal good sense.” The friend fails to honour the contract that binds him to this gift of nature, by doing this he shows he is not worthy of this gift. He has therefore failed to acquit himself of his debt to nature, a natural debt.

Within the structure of Counterfeit Money the narrator takes the place of nature, through which we witness “something that resembles the birth of literature.” The “I” of the narrator in supplanting Baudelaire as the true signatory of the story leads to the “naturalization” of literature, it leads to an interpretation of literature as nature.

Baudelaire in creating the narrative of Counterfeit Money, puts on stage a narrator who is both like nature and is judgmental, exhibiting the “fiction of a naturalization of literature,” inscribing naturalization “in an institution called literature.” In the process inviting us to “suspend…the old opposition between nature and institution.” (170)

Derek Hampson

Three Motifs of Reverie

This post is part of the Art as Gift Project

Taking time (157-163)
Derrida continues his analysis of Counterfeit Money, pointing out that the narrator, at first, tries to make excusable what his friend has just confessed to him, i.e. that he gave the beggar a counterfeit coin. This search for excuse occurs in the mind of the narrator, in a reverie which is broken by the friend speaking, which leads to the narrator’s judgment of his friend; “I will never forgive him.”

Because of lack of time Derrida then proposes to explore just three motifs from within the narrator’s reverie on the possibilities of excusing the endless unforeseen possibilities opened up by his friend’s actions:
1. Excuse
The desire to “create an event” overrides the “criminal enjoyment” that the friend might take in his false gift.
2. Limit and limitless
The gift of counterfeit money appears to make the impossibility of the gift possible. The effects of counterfeit money, wealth – prison, are incalculable, as must the gift be in order to be a gift; “one can give only in the measure of the incalculable.” The incalculable, in terms of money, is also the infinite, the limitless possibilities that monetary speculation promises. Here Derrida uses Aristotle’s concepts of chremastics and economy to explore the good limit of economy and the bad infinite of monetary exchange. Economy, the law of the household (oikos), circulates within its boundary, yet requires the khrema (of chremastics) for anything to occur such as an event. The gift must go against nature’s generosity, “one may give with generosity but not out of generosity.” (162) The narrator’s speculative reverie produces the interest of Counterfeit Money as a phantasm, the illusion that limitless speculation gives.
3. What is seen breaks the contract of friendship
In his desire to excuse his friend the narrator credits him with a variety of motives that might lead him to give a false gift. Derrida characterises this effort of the narrator towards the friend as contractual. The narrator advances credit to the friend drawn on a “reserve fund” of friendship, which the narrator then sees he does not deserve. Derrida asks what proves to the narrator that the friend does not deserve forgiveness. His answer, the narrator sees the friend’s true aim in his eyes, which shine with “unquestionable candor.” (163) The place of the narrator is the place of credulity and the place from which moral judgment is proffered, in a judgment without appeal.

Derek Hampson

A Terrible Scene of Friendship

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

The enigma of the text (152-156)
Whether or not the friend gave the beggar a counterfeit coin is the interest, the enigma of Baudelaire’s Counterfeit Money, and as such is indecipherable and resistant to interpretation. This is the secret of the text, a secret which is “unbreakable.” There is no chance of ever knowing if a counterfeit coin was given – there is therefore no sense in wondering what actually happened, whether on the part of the friend or the narrator. As fictional characters they have no “consistency, no depth beyond their literary phenomenon.” The inviolability of the secret they both carry depends on this “essential superficiality of their phenomenality.” They are “two-to-speak” [this form of words makes them a single entity] holding the possibility of non-truth “in which every truth is held or is made.” This also says the “(non-) truth of literature,” which ensures the possibility of literature.

Derrida then compares literature to money, which as long as one can reckon with its phenomenality [its appearance as money], as long as one can count with and on cash money to produce effects (alms, purchase, speculation), as long as money passes for (real) money, it is not different from the money that, perhaps, it counterfeits. There is no way of detecting the difference, between the real and the counterfeit, as long as it is framed by its conventions or institutions. Beyond this frame other possibilities, other contexts of truth and reality are opened up.

This would confirm that everything was being played out for the narrator – the friend would not have done any of this if it had not been for his friend the narrator. Everything happens to the narrator, everything is dedicated to him:

  • The time of the story is given to the narrator
  • The narrator recounts a story whose meaning is dedicated to him

This situation leads to a murder, the narrative gives and kills time. The relationship between the friends is that of a merciless war – in which each acknowledges that the other is right, exchanging the phrase “you are right.” Derrida calls this exchange a “specular reversal” (155), which he writes as “you are right”/”you are right.” They tell each other that they are right to tell each other they are right, which Derrida says could mean three things:

  1. We are right, which confirms that we have reason, we belong to the species of the rational animal (logon ekhon)
  2. We know how to count, we are men of knowledge and calculation and also good narrators.
  3. Our calculation has prevailed, we have controlled by reasoning with the other.

Yet their being subject to reason, in giving each other reason, leads them to the breaking of the contract [of friendship?] between them. In giving reason to each other they have given nothing. The gift does not obey the principle of reason, it is without foundation, Derrida claims that the gift is a “stranger” to morality and to law.

If you give because you must give, then you no longer give. (156)

The gift and the event share the same conditions; “being outside-the-law, unforeseeability, “surprise,” the absence of anticipation or horizon, the excess in regard to all reason.” Leading Derrida to conclude that “nothing ever happens by reason.”

Derek Hampson

The Credit of Literature

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

The relationship between the narrator and the friend is uncertain, questionable, did the friend truly give counterfeit money or did he lie to his friend in a false confession? As Derrida says we will never know the answer to this question, which says something about the place of belief in writing, which frames Baudelaire’s writing. Derrida describes this frame as a four-sided border, a “dislocated frame of a triptych,” (150) which excludes a fourth term.

The narrative is framed in such a way that we, the readers, are like the narrator, in debt to the friend. But we are also his creditor, we extend the credit of belief to him that he gave the counterfeit coin as he said. There is no way we can intervene in the scene in order to ascertain the truth or otherwise of the narrator’s claim. The dual, dialogic nature of the friend’s “stroll tete-a-tete” excludes the reader’s access to the secret, as it excludes the author himself. (150-152)

Derek Hampson