Art as Gift Symposium – Introduction

May 13th 2017, The Art as Gift project culminated in a symposium which explored the significance of the concept of the gift for artistic practice. The artist and critic Peter Suchin (Art Monthly) was asked to address the question; “What is Given in Marcel Duchamp’s Given?” This question refers one of contemporary art’s landmark works, Marcel Duchamp’s Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas…, to Jacques Derrida’s analysis of the gift in Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money.

Prior to Peter’s presentation I gave a short overview of Derrida’s thinking on the gift, a transcript of which is set out below.
Derek Hampson, convenor, Art & Theory Reading Group.


The theme for today’s symposium has emerged from the Art & Theory Reading Group’s Art as Gift project. The aim of the Art and Theory Reading Group is to bring artistic practitioners together, to read works of contemporary theory and to discuss their relevance or otherwise for contemporary practice. In this case Jacques Derrida’s 1991 book on the concept of the gift; Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money.

The Art as Gift project has been in two parts: reading and discussing the four chapters of Given Time, over four meetings, one meeting per month beginning January, 2017. This activity was supported by the ATRG website which contains my summary of Derrida’s text in a series of blog posts [below]. The second part of Art as Gift is today’s presentations and discussions on the relevance of Given Time’s theme of the gift, for contemporary art. This will be approached through one of contemporary art’s landmark works, Marcel Duchamp’s Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas…, by the artist and critic Peter Suchin, who has been asked to respond to the question “What is Given in Marcel Duchamp’s Given?” This question, frames Duchamp’s work (and Duchamp himself) in terms of the gift as something given.

Before I hand over to Peter, I will give a very brief introduction to the understanding of Derrida’s thinking on the gift, which has emerged from the Art & Theory Reading Group’s reading of Given Time.

Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher who is best known for developing a form of analysis known as Deconstruction. This is an approach to interpreting texts through a very close reading, one which examines the absolute minutiae of what is written, uncovering hidden, unexpected and paradoxical meanings. It is also worth noting that this interest in paradox is something that Derrida shares with Marcel Duchamp

In Given Time Derrida explores the concept of the gift in terms of its paradoxes, starting with its basic paradox, stated near the beginning of the book:

“For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me…there will not have been a gift” (GT,12) This leads Derrida to say: “The simple identification of the gift seems to destroy it” (GT, 14)

If the donee recognises that what is given to them is a gift they will feel under an obligation to return it, the gift then becomes a debt to be repaid. If the donor recognises what they give is a gift then they give back to themselves self-congratulation on their generosity, a metaphorical pat on the back. This shows a further paradox of the gift, it can be both good and bad, generosity appears as good, while the gift as a debt appears as bad. This dichotomy also finds expression in language. The Indo-European root word do, meaning “to give,” can be seen in donation, the act of giving, but also the Greek dosis a dose of poison: “dose,” for us, indicates a dose of medicine, which on the face of it is something beneficial.

Derrida explores the conditions which must be in place for there to be a gift. The gift must be unforeseeable, by donor and donee, structured by chance, luck, apprehended in a “perception that is absolutely surprised by the encounter with what it perceives.” Yet a gift also appears to stem from a desire, an intention to give, leading Derrida to ask: “What would a gift be in which I gave without wanting to give?” (GT, 123) The gift must surprise both donor and donee, yet it appears impossible for there to be a gift without the desire, the intention to give a gift. This again is a paradox of the gift, which leads Derrida to describe the gift as “the impossible.”

Derrida also relates the gift to nature. A common understanding we have of the gift is as a talent, a natural gift. As natural it is something freely and generously given to us by nature, it reflects nature, which Derrida describes as “what gives form…by bringing things into the phenomenality of light…(a) donating production.” (GT, 128). We commonly think that artists have a natural gift, they make things, they produce, they give form to things, in a manner which reflects nature, both freely and generously, but also we must not forget the paradox of the gift; a gift, to be a gift, must not be recognised as a gift.

I will now hand over to Peter, who, as I said earlier, will address the question: “What is Given in Marcel Duchamp’s Given?”