PRESENTS / Thoughts that count: Kevin Jackson unwraps the symbolism of gifts and the gifted in art

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ASK ANY harassed parent to free-associate from the word 'gift' as C-Day looms, and the resulting list will be much less likely to include 'gold', 'frankincense' and 'myrrh' than 'grief', 'fuss' and 'misery'. Only in the most cultivated households is the chance of anyone coming up with the word 'art' better than remote. Even today, though, when carpets are being buried beneath an ever-thickening pile of cryptic lumps sheathed in bright paper, and otherwise sharp wits are succumbing to the cherry brandy, a few moments of reflection will show that the connections between art and gifts are as deep as they are various.

At the most trivial level, works of art can be and are used as gifts: books, videos, CDs and the like are every bit as acceptable as aftershave or chocolates, and tend to be less noxious and fattening. Nor is this altogether a recent development. Many great paintings were commissioned as gifts to Church or state, and some (the precise 'gift' status of which can seem compromised by vainglory) immortalised the generosity of their donor by including him in the composition - for example, Piero della Francesca's 'Montefeltro Altarpiece', which depicts Federico da Montefeltro in armour and suitably pious posture.

More significantly, however - and many a tasteful Christmas card of the laden Magi reminds us of the phenomenon - the act of giving itself has often provided the subject-matter of paintings and other narrative forms. The theme of the Magi is a literary staple, and though not every version emphasises their role as givers (Yeats and Eliot had other concerns), they have become a convenient archetype for seasonal open-handedness, deployed in everything from a festive episode of Bottom to O Henry's 'The Gift of the Magi'.

Henry's short story begins with the plight of Della, a young woman so distraught with the misery of having only dollars 1.87 to buy her husband Jim a Christmas present that she decides to sell her luxuriant hair to a wig-maker. Shorn but satisfied, she rushes off to the shops and eventually finds just the thing - a platinum watch chain for his much-prized watch. When Della gives her parcel to Jim, however, she finds that he has sold the watch to buy her a suitable present - a pair of tortoiseshell combs . . .

If the faint whiff of a folk-tale hangs about this yarn, it may be because so many legends and scraps of popular wisdom, from Pandora's box to the joke about the screenwriter and the elf (punchline: when the elf shyly asks the hack to whom he has brought fortune and glory if he could possibly have a co- credit, the screenwriter yells 'Are you out of your goddam mind?') turn on the correct transference, care and reciprocation of gifts. Nor need the morals involved be simplistic, especially when the tales in question are adopted and adapted by artists of genius; King Lear, after all, is at heart a folk-tale about a King who gave gifts to his daughters in a foolish and imperfect way.

In fact, a surprising number of the most enduring stories of both Western and Eastern traditions are in some degree about gifts. The plot of Othello turns on the gift status of a handkerchief; Great Expectations is about a boy who once gave a gift of food to a convict, and then, later in life, made a grievous mistake about the source of a large financial gift.

Related or comparable plots crop up in Hindu epics, Icelandic sagas and elsewhere. The classic discussion of this literary area is in Marcel Mauss's pioneering anthropological study Essai sur le don (1924), the work which also made European readers familiar with the details of the potlatch, or mass gift ritual, of the tribes who lived on America's Northern Pacific coast. There are a couple of decent English translations, and the book makes particularly illuminating reading on the night before Christmas (when all through the house, not a creature is stirring, not even a Mauss).

One possible reason for the frequency with which artists have taken up such myths is hinted at by the several meanings held in the English word 'gift'. A gift is a talent, and to say that an artist is 'gifted' is to offer the appropriate and reciprocating gift of praise. Conversely, to speak of the squandering of gifts is to invoke the spectre of a kind of tragic waste peculiar to creative callings.

Hence Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift, the title of which refers both to the lucrative pieces of intellectual property that a tormented poet leaves to the narrator in a will - presents of mind, you might call them - but to the genius which had possessed him in life. When writers or painters turn their attention to gifts, it's often a fair bet that they are also casting the odd glance at the mirror.

At any rate, Bellow is not the only writer to have sought out some of the implications of this verbal ambiguity. One of the most interesting discussions on the theme of the last few years can be found in a non-fiction book by the American poet Lewis Hyde: The Gift, subtitled Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1979). A curious and sometimes fascinating mixture of anthropology, folklore, literary criticism and anecdote, The Gift sets out to justify Hyde's surprising contention that artists, who in modern times have to make their way in a market economy, are really much more at home in the pre-market economy of gifts.

Among the pieces of evidence Hyde summons in support of his case is the experience of inspiration. While there may be legions of artists who moan and howl about the torture and slog of creation, there are many others who report an uncanny ease to the process; and though our sceptical age is more likely to ascribe such sensations to the promptings of the unconscious than the visitation of a Muse, there is plainly more to these reports than self-flattering mystification.

But Hyde's next argument is odder, and rather more contentious. If inspiration is indeed a gift, he asks, what happens when an artist has to take its fruits to the market-place? A thousand folk-tales warn us against the abuse of gifts, and the sale of those things which arrived free and without bidding is traditionally one of the most heinous transgressions against the spirit of donation.

Plausible or not, Hyde's argument at least adds a new wrinkle to the familiar, and sometimes lofty complaint about artists who 'sell out', or 'prostitute' their talents in the market-place. Purism can be carried too far, and yet it is true enough that artists who spend too much time thinking about sales figures end up coarsening or even losing their talents. It's easy to identify such sorry declines, partly because of the sense we may feel that our relationship with a particular artist or work is no more a simple product of the cash nexus than is our relationship to a close relative. As Joseph Conrad once wrote: 'The artist appeals . . . to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition - and, therefore, more permanently enduring.'

On a less elevated plane, Woody Allen used to tell a joke about his grandfather. 'This watch is a family heirloom,' he would tell audiences, holding up said timepiece. 'My grandfather sold it to me on his deathbed.' Everyone deserves to make a decent living, but an artist with a wholly mercenary attitude would rightly be thought as unnatural a brute as Woody Allen's grasping ancestor. Gifts, that is, always come with an ethical burden of some kind for both donor and recipient, and narrative art matches and sometimes even exceeds mythology in dwelling on those gifts which go wrong, or carry a taint.

M R James's 'Casting the Runes' is about a curse which can only operate when someone freely accepts the gift of a document; Tennyson's 'Tithonus' gives voice to the myth about the man who did not realise that the gift of immortality was really a sentence of deathlessness ('The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts'); and the Velvet Underground's 'The Gift' is a macabre song about a man who wraps himself up as a present for his girlfriend and meets a sticky end. The list of deadly gifts is as long as it is unseasonably gloomy.

Better by far, then, to end on cheerful and uplifting invocations of the gift relationship: Robert Frost's patriotic poem for JFK's inauguration, 'The Gift Outright' ('The deed of gift was many deeds of war'); Dowland's elegant lyric 'Fine knacks for ladies' ('Great gifts are guiles and look for gifts again'); or, cheeriest of all, a pop song by Mari Wilson whose title and chorus echo a phrase that should be echoing in millions of homes tomorrow morning: 'Just What I Always Wanted'.