The Artistry of Gifting


The Artistry of Gifting

In the book The Gift, Lewis Hyde described (among other things) how Bob Dylan benefitted enormously by having copyright-free access to traditional folksongs with which to hone his craft (and gain young artist income for performing them). The production of new art needs the free nourishment of old art in order to continue the cycle of cultural rebirth.

Bob Dylan just sold his entire catalog of songs (to Universal Music Group) for probably upwards of $300,000,000. Stevie Nicks (of the band Jefferson Airplane, etc.) had previously sold her entire catalog for $100,000,000. Yea Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread, the Summer of Love has withered into the Winter Of Our Discontent: COVID spiking, mass loss of income, mass foreclosures, mass you’re on your own healthcare (mass health don’t care), mass social contamination, exclusive celebrity indemnification.

Tom Lehrer (now 92), the wickedly funny satirist and songwriter, has put his entire music catalog — lyrics and sheet music — in the public domain. He grants everyone permission to do anything they want with his entire artistic/musical output, without cost and in perpetuity. You have till 31 December 2024 to download any or all of Tom’s songs, before he closes his website.

Who knew in 1959 that “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park” would morph into official U.S. government public health policy (for us homo sapiens pigeons) in 2020?

Jonas Edward Salk (1918-1995) was a medical researcher who developed the first vaccine against the polio virus. Before the Salk injected vaccine was introduced in 1955, polio was considered one of the most serious public health problems in the world. The 1952 U.S. epidemic, in which 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with some form of paralysis, was the worst polio outbreak in the nation’s history, and most of its victims were children. According to a 2009 PBS documentary, “Apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.” During 1953 and 1954, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000; by 1962 that number had dropped to 910.

“Salk never patented the vaccine or earned any money from his discovery, preferring it be distributed as widely as possible.”

Between 1954 and 1961, Albert Sabin (born Abram Saperstein, 1906-1993), a medical researcher, went through a tremendous effort to develop and test an oral vaccine against all three strains of the polio virus. To develop and prove the safety of Sabin’s oral vaccine, upwards of 100 million people — in the USSR, Eastern Europe, Singapore, Mexico and the Netherlands — were tested with it.

The success of that campaign by 1960 opened the door to testing in the United States, on 180,000 school children in Cincinnati. The mass immunization techniques that Sabin pioneered with his associates effectively eradicated polio in Cincinnati, and that technique along with the oral vaccine itself broke the chain of transmission of the virus, and has led over the last four decades to nearly eradicating the disease worldwide.

“Sabin refused to patent his vaccine, waiving every commercial exploitation by pharmaceutical industries, so that the low price would guarantee a more extensive spread of the treatment. From the development of his vaccine Sabin did not gain a penny, and continued to live on his salary as a professor.”

On 12 April 1922, Frederick Grant Banting (1891-1941), Charles Herbert Best (1899-1978), James Bertram Collip (1892-1965), John James Rickard Macleod (1876-1935), and John Gerald “Gerry” FitzGerald (1882-1940) — the key participants in the project (in Canada) to develop therapeutic insulin, a project initiated by Banting in 1920 — wrote jointly to the president of the University of Toronto to propose assigning the patent for the artificial production of insulin to the Board of Governors of the University in such a way that:

“The patent would not be used for any other purpose than to prevent the taking out of a patent by other persons. When the details of the method of preparation are published anyone would be free to prepare the extract, but no one could secure a profitable monopoly.”

The assignment to the University of Toronto Board of Governors was completed on 15 January 1923, for the token payment of $1.00. Following further concern regarding (drug company) Eli Lilly’s attempts to separately patent parts of the manufacturing process, Robert Defries (Assistant Director and Head of the Insulin Division at Connaught Laboratories, which administered the insulin patent) established a patent pooling policy which would require producers to freely share any improvements to the manufacturing process without compromising affordability.

“Tell me someone who’s not a parasite, and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.” — Bob Dylan

Some people are successful in life and lucky, but some are successful at life and are radiant.

Seisetsu, a Zen master in ancient Kamakura, required larger quarters to alleviate the overcrowding of his many students. Umezu Seibei, a well-to-do merchant, decided to donate 500 piecers of gold (called ryo) for that purpose. “All right, I’ll take it,” said Seisetsu. But Umezu was dissatisfied with Seisetsu’s response because a person could live a whole year on 3 ryo, and Umezu had expected an effusive thanks. So he reminded Seisetsu that 500 ryo was a lot of money that he had been donated. “Do you want me to thank you?” asked Seisetsu. “You ought to,” replied Umezu. “Why should I?” asked Seisetsu, “the giver should be thankful.” [see #53 in the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps (1895-1990)].

And that’s it, isn’t it?: you donate because you are grateful that you are able to do so. Gratitude is enlightenment, and that is the artistry of gifting.

The Gift is an excellent book, if you are an artist, or at least appreciate art, read it (try your public library).


5 thoughts on “The Artistry of Gifting

  1. Excellent review, Manuel. Dylan has always had a greedy, nay, nasty side. I suspect that unlike
    Trump he’s not 300,000,000 in debt, unable to borrow more until he shows some solvency. Think how much Salk and others could have earned from desperate parents willing to pay anything to keep their kids out of iron lungs. “Hang down your head Bob Dylan, . . , “

  2. yes, gratitude, generosity are wonderful…but not sure if i’m ready to accuse Dylan of greed as opposed to gratitude. he certainly had/ has a gift that few of us can compare to.

    he didn’t invent or perpetuate the predatory model of copyright law within which artists that generate commercial value operate. many artists lose the rights to their material which is owned in perpetuity by corporations that had nothing to do with the artistic venture that produced the value. in the modern era (post ww1), think Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, the Beatles…the list is near endless. (note: some of these artists lost parts not all rights to their artistic output). in the pre WW1, the list is even longer. when we see films, visit museums, the artists responsible have long been divorced from any profits their art has generated. i do hope he’s generous with his gains. but prefer he and his family at least gain something where many lost everything. ……..gxcxxx

  3. Young artists need to commercialize their work to eat and live, and that’s fair (in a very exploitative industry); but once they are financially secure, it is a matter of character as to how they regard their output: a commercial product versus a contribution to arts and culture. For many artists/musicians who had a hard struggle (and even for many who didn’t) there is a lifelong resentment against getting cheated and a resulting tough attitude about “making sure the bastards pay,” regardless of these artists’ actual financial situations. So, as to Dylan (as an example), I neither condemn nor congratulate him on his big sale; it just reflects who he is, and he has every right to be how he wants to be. It is my choice how much to admire or envy/disapprove of that commercialized persona (I don’t, either), and it is also my choice on what sources of art and culture I will rely on to help me gain insights on life (do I really need to quote/borrow extensively from profit-seeking commercialized stuff?, do I really need to fawn over celebrities? do I really need to be awed and impressed by winners of ‘big prizes’ and titles?), and recycle through my own experiences into whatever ‘work’ or ‘art’ I produce (all art is derivative), however insignificant that may be. My beliefs are embedded in my own personal work and art, and I don’t commercialize it because: it has no wider appeal (I don’t have that kind of talent), and I don’t want to dilute myself (kiss ass) to try making it so (as if I could). But, I wouldn’t mind having some “best sellers” so as to be able to pass on some spondulix to my kids.

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