My consideration of gift theory within contemporary art practice is led primarily by an interest in anthropology as a theoretical framework:

“Theoretical frameworks provide a particular perspective, or lens, through which to examine a topic. Theoretical frameworks usually come from other disciplines – such as economics, the social sciences, and anthropology – and are used by historians to bring new dimensions of their topic to light. Theoretical frameworks, however, are even more specific than these broad subject approaches. Theoretical frameworks are specific theories about aspects of human existence such as the functioning of politics, the economy, and human relations. These theories can then be applied to the study of actual events.”

Actor-network theory as a theoretical framework
Despite the ease of theoretical frameworks in allowing analyses of events and objects to be developed, my interest lies more in the maintaining the difficulty of objects through allowing numerous viewpoints and perspectives to remain. Within anthropology, the use of actor-network theory (ANT) is one such framework which enables this to happen. Developed from science and technology studies (STS), actor-network theory is a mixed method analytical framework which combines elements of post-structuralism and material semiotics. In this way, it suggests that “entities take their form and acquire attributes as a result of their relations with other entities, [in other words, that] entities have no inherent qualities” (Law, 1999, p3)

The non-essentialist nature of objects from the ANT perspective, also demands that these objects perform themselves in order to enact their characteristics in relation with other objects. In doing so, it “[insists] on the possibility,  at least in principle, that [these characteristics and relations] might be otherwise. Some, perhaps many, of the essentialisms that it has sought to erode are strongly linked to topology, to a logic of space, to spaciality”. (Law, 1999, p7)

The problems with actor-network theory
However, the success of ANT in destabilising essentialisms, by understanding entities as being performed through networks, has led to “its own topological assumptions [becoming] naturalized”. (Law, 1999, p8) By naming actor-network theory as a particular way of interpreting materials, the theory itself became essentialised.

Thus, when John Law asks in his essay ‘After ANT: Complexity, Naming and Topology’: “What is a theory? Or, more broadly, what is a good way of addressing intellectual problems?” (Law, 1991, p1), his aim is not only to consider the method of academic enquiry, but also to undermine the development of actor-network theory as “a specific strategy with an obligatory point of passage”. (Law, 1999, p2).

After ‘actor-network’
Since the development of actor-network theory in the 1980s and its subsequent incorporation into other disciplines, there has been much work undertaken by STS scholars to address the problems of ANT. At the beginning of ‘Recalling ANT’, even Bruno Latour criticises the name he gave to his method by saying that “there are four things that do not work with actor-network theory; the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen!” (Latour, 1999, p15)

The problems in naming ANT for Latour, are not just embedded in its fixed nature, but also in what the name implies, as the fixation of social scientists on the opposition of the actor and the network (or agency and structure) appear to be borne out in his terminology. However, Latour denies that this was his aim, and also that agency and structure are the real oppositional forces, preferring to focus instead on close and distant readings.

Two dissatisfactions of social sciences
He states: “It is not exactly true that social sciences have always alternated between actor and system, or agency and structure. It might be more productive to say that they have alternated between two types of equally powerful dissatisfactions: when social scientists concentrate on what could be called the micro level, that is face to face interactions, local sites, they quickly realise that many of the elements necessary to make sense of the situation are already in place or are coming from far away; hence,  this urge to look for something else, some other level,  and to concentrate on what is not directly visible in the situation but has made the situation what it is. This is why so much work has been dedicated to notions such as society, norms, values, culture, structure, social context,  all terms that aim at designating what gives shape to micro interaction…

But then, once this new level has been reached, a second type of dissatisfaction begins. Social scientists now feel that something is missing, that the abstraction of terms like culture and structure, norms and values, seems too great, and that one needs to reconnect, through an opposite move, back to the flesh-and-blood local situations from which they started… And so on ad infinitum.” (Latour, 1999, p16 -17)

In Latour’s articulation of these “two dissatisfactions”, I recognise my own struggles in locating my artwork within the micro of my practice and the macro of the conditions of its production and reception. However, through applying the logic of actor-network theory to the art making process, it is possible to conclude that art as a social object, possesses the “property of not being made of agency and structure at all, but rather of being a circulating entity”. (Latour, 1999, p17)

Further reading:


“In the world of gift… you not only can have your cake and eat it too, you can’t have your cake unless you eat it”.

After reading about artists Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska using gift theory to contextualise their practice, I thought it would be useful to study some introductory texts about the gift to see how it might relate to my own artistic research.

Lewis Hyde’s ‘The Gift’
One such text, ‘The Gift’ (1983) by Lewis Hyde, fuses art, economics, anthropology and folklore, to explore gift culture and its impact on creativity. The text functions as a useful introduction to theorists examining the notion of ‘the gift’, as well as using these ideas to “illuminate and defend the non-commercial portion of artistic practice”. (http://www.lewishyde.com)

Hyde converges these two concepts, “the idea of art as a gift and the problem of the market”, by applying previous work on the anthropology of gifts, such as Marcel Mauss’s 1924 essay ‘The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies’ to a Western model of capitalism, particularly in relation to art. Hyde suggests that art which is turned into a pure commodity” is used up by the economic transaction, in the same way that capitalism “removes surplus wealth from circulation and lays it aside to produce more wealth”. In contrast, the gift which is allowed to move freely, always promises to come back and therefore, although consumed, is never “used up”. This is reflected, to a certain extent, in the model of social enterprise, which reinvests its profits back into the community.

Hyde establishes the distinction between the work of art as gift or commodity using the example of a series of romantic novels which have been “written according to a formula developed through market research.” (Hyde, 1983)

“An advertising agency polled a group of women readers. What age should the heroine be? Should the man she meets be married or single? The hero and heroine are not allowed in bed together until they are married. Each novel is 192 pages long. Even the name of the series and the design of the cover have been tailored to the demands of the market. Six new titles appear each month and two hundred thousand copies of each title are printed. Why do we suspect that Silhouette Romances will not be enduring works of art? What is it about a work of art, even when it is bought and sold in the market, that makes us distinguish it from such pure commodities as these?” (Hyde, 1983)

Two economies
Despite this calculated mechanism of production, it could be argued that were an artist to create these novels as a reflexive nod to market forces and participatory art practice, then they would still be a work of art. This implies that the same object and process can produce very different meanings and values depending on the context of its production and distribution. As Hyde himself later writes “Any object, any item of commerce, becomes one kind of property or another depending on how we use it” (Hyde, 1983).

However, despite this discrepancy, Hyde recognises that “works of art [can] exist simultaneously in two ‘economies’, a market economy and a gift economy… however”, he notes, “a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art” (Hyde, 1983).

The work of art as a gift
In understanding the work of art as a gift, Hyde considers the relationship of the artist to the artwork, by extrapolating on ideas of of talent, intuition and inspiration as gifts: “As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that ‘I’ the artist, did not make the work”. He uses the Grimm folk tale ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ to illustrate his point, with the shoemaker as the artist and the elves as his developing talent and inspiration. 

However, he poses, “If a work of art is the emanation of its maker’s gift and if it is received by its audience as a gift, then is it, too, a gift”. According to Hyde this is indeed the case, for example “when art acts as an agent of transformation” or when it “leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges”.

Further reading: