What is the real price of a free gift: can a gift ever be given without any obligation attached to it?



Arguably, obligation is an inherent attribute of the gift. The authenticity surrounding the free gift, one devoid of reciprocal tendencies, has been widely debated within the discussion of the gift. The following investigation calls into question the idealistic form of the gift and analyses the implications of its acceptance. This inquiry will investigate the role gifts play between donor and recipient, the concept of the gift as a manifestation of the self and the place of the gift within a consumerist society. To further contextualise the gift, this investigation will take note of the way in which the idea of the gift has been applied within art practice.

Gift items have become symbolic indications of a relationship status within our society. They help to establish a community in which people participate with one another (Verhezen, 2009). Ironically, the idea of this engagement in activity goes against the founding principles of what a pure gift signifies. Derrida (1978) argues that for a gift to be truly pure it must not be reciprocated. Debatably, without reciprocation gifts become isolated objects, completely detached from any social involvement. Furthermore, Laidlaw (2000) emphasises the idea of a pure gift as an unrealistic one. Mauss, on the other hand, takes an arguably more open view to the idea of the pure gift, as he feels its very nature is deep-rooted with obligational attachments (Laidlaw, 2000). It may be interesting to consider the presence of the free gift and the role it plays within the gift exchange relationship.

Dilnot (1993) discusses gift giving as an act of equilibrium where both parties experience joy from the exchange. On the other hand, the act of gift exchange within a relationship is arguably an unbalanced one. The inconclusive difference between the pure gift and the self-gaining act is invariably changing: making it difficult to determine who in a relationship sets to gain more from the action (Randolph, 2003).

According to Klein (1997), the one who inaugurates a gift exchange burdens the recipient with an unsigned agreement that the gesture will be reciprocated at a later date.  On acceptance of a gift the individual is then compelled to enter into an unremitting cycle of gift exchange (Mifsud, 2007). According to Marcoux (2009), for some, the acceptance of a gift from another can be a humiliating experience. Moreover, Mauss (1990) describes how within the relationship of an exchange individuals cannot fall behind, but must give back ever more lavish gifts. Both parties in the relationship are entered into an almost ‘game like’ arrangement where one holds the cards only to lose them in the next round. The pressure to constantly keep up with the social demands of gift giving and being unable to escape such a cyclic affair puts obligation at the heart of this arrangement. Reflecting on these points it therefore may be said that, a very erratic and unbalanced relationship is established with the initiation of a gift item.

On the other hand, Belk (1977) explains how after a relationship has been established, the reciprocal act of gift giving can help maintain and solidify a relationship. In addition, Battaglia (1992) notes how gifts help create new milestones in a relationship that draw both donor and recipient into a shared future. From both Belk’s and Battaglia’s observations it may be perceived that although obligation is present within the nature of gift giving, it may play an integral role within social relationships, that without it may perish. Furthermore, figuratively speaking, if the practice of reciprocating a gift was to be banned, making the gift truly free in its most idealistic sense, individuals would become socially bankrupt (Verhezen, 2009). Taking this point into consideration, the free gift, in the radical sense of the word, arguably plays no part in social relationships, as its existence would be almost futile. Reflecting on this, Mauss’ exploration of free gift exchange, as an act based on obliged reciprocation appears to hold more significance within society.


To further explore the idea of the free gift and its role within exchange relationships it may be beneficial to consider Mail Art. The Mail Art movement (1976- 1995) was founded on the frustrations surrounding selective gallery culture and sought to create a more open way of distributing artwork (Held, 2000). The key to this movement lies in the fact that like Derrida’s pure gift all work sent is nonreciprocal. What is perhaps so intriguing about Mail Art is its ability to initiate relationships through given objects; yet simultaneously avoid the ability and necessity for reciprocation. This is inherently dissimilar to a conventional gift exchange. Gift exchange without a cyclic sequence could be described in terms of commodity exchange where no social relationship is involved (Gregory, 1982). Although considering this, Mail Art objects do not entirely fit the alienable profile of commodity objects, as they are not totally removed from social obligations. The Mail Art arrangement still creates an unbalanced relationship between the sender and receiver. Affirming the argument discussed earlier in this text, the artist sending the mail item arguably takes the upper hand, as the giver in the context of an exchange always acquires an edge (Klein, 1997). Furthermore, the aspect of burdening the receiver is also apparent, as they are morally obliged to do something with the gift. The very fact that the fate that Mail Art objects, in the present day, have become a consuming and widely debated topic within the art world, illustrates the firm social obligation attached to these apparently anonymous items (Held, 2000).  On reflection, although Mail Art does not demand reciprocation between both giver and receiver, these items still assume social initiation from their practice. Arguably, Mail Art is an authentic example of the idealistic stance of the free gift, although notably does not fit its isolated nature.


Within society gift objects are used to convey meaning and serve many social functions (Camerer, 1988).  One profound element of the gift is its ability to both embody and emanate identity. Laidlaw (2000) has said that a pure gift is a personal one. With identity so tightly adhered to the gift object it may be interesting to examine the crucial role this plays in the relationship between the donor and recipient. In addition, how its presence can be misconstrued and with this induce feelings of unease. Mauss (1990) describes the embodiment of identity within a gift as giving away a part of oneself. This line of thought is shared by other scholars such as Belk (1977) who describes the way in which gifts verify the donor’s own identity through offering it to others in a materialised form. Furthermore, Sherry (1983) describes how gifts come to be receptacles for the donor’s being, which then gives a piece of this being to the recipient. Moreover, Carrier (1991) notes how these personified gift items become forced onto the recipient who is then obliged to accept them. Mauss (1990) talks of how gifts acquire the conscience of the giver, which never ceases to perish. Following Mauss’ point the acceptance of a gift, it seems, is not an approval of a physical article it is in fact an endorsement of a personified entity. As such a typified article is allowed to enter the recipient’s life this then allows them to become connected to the donor on a more psychological level. As a rejection of a gift would be viewed as socially unacceptable, the recipient is essentially bound to this very personal initiation (Belk, 1976). Arguably, the fact that gift objects are so profoundly connected to their donor on an emotional level, means that they are never truly free in nature.

There also exists the argument that places the focus onto the donor’s efforts to define the identity of the intended recipient. In terms of consumer behaviour, individuals have been known to purchase gift items that oppose their own identities as so to satisfy the desires of the recipient (Ward and Broniarczyk, 2011). In this light, the donor’s gifts arguably act as symbolic objects that tell recipients how they are perceived (Belk, 1977). When choosing gift items individuals can be prone to combining their understanding of the other with their own preferences (Aron et al., 1991). What tends to result is a gift that brings dissatisfaction to the recipient (Gino and Flynn, 2011). This dissatisfaction arguably arises from having a misconstrued identity enforced on oneself. As a result, by accepting a gift one is accepting an identity and to refuse such a gift would signify a denial of this interpretation (Schwartz, 1967). Reflecting on these points, even with the recipient as a central focus to the gift item, the recipient is still summoned to an imposing identity.


Considering the influence of a personified gift object, a reflection on the work of artist Yoko Ono, and in particular her piece entitled ‘Cut Piece’ (1964), may be valuable in order to contextualise the impact of these objects. The performance, ‘Cut Piece’, asked members of an audience to cut pieces of Ono’s clothing and keep the scraps after the act (Bryan-Wilson, 2003). The significance of this act was to commemorate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reinstate the implications of these events. The significance of these tangible scraps meant audience members were tainted by the performance long after it had ended. Like a gift, Ono uses the material object to assure a future for herself, and the messages she wants to portray, in the memory of others (Bryan-Wilson, 2003). In this same way, gifts typify the donor and the memories attached to the relationship they share with the recipient. Furthermore, ‘Cut Piece’, touches upon a profound preoccupation we have about the endurance and deterioration of memory (Bryan-Wilson, 2003). On reflection, it may be concluded that individuals utilise gifts to actively safeguard their own existence in the world, which the recipient is then obliged to honour.

The relationship between commodity and gift exchange is a dynamic one. Within society one has come to represent a value that is alienable and the other inalienable (Strathan, 1992). On the other hand, within modern society, the distinction between commodity and gift is seeing developments. Advertising and marketing campaigns, for example, have aided in the merging of these two exchange practices. In this light, the obligation to consume becomes fused with the task of giving. Gift giving within an economically fuelled environment debatably alters the whole nature of the gift giving practice. Within the study of social anthropology Mauss (1990) proposes a distinct difference between ‘gift exchange’ and ‘commodity exchange’; one is very much disconnected with social or personal considerations and one completely saturated by it. On the other hand, Carrier (1990) noted how within contemporary society gift exchange has become closely interwoven with commodity exchange. Furthermore, Carrier suggests how current day advertising leads consumers to believe they are operating within a gift economy when in fact they are amidst a commodity driven market. Randolph (2003) talks of how the gift has an enigmatic presence within the market economy, as people tend to romanticise its existence. The merging of these two exchange systems has brought about an alteration to the way in which obligation prevails the gift.


Dilnot (1993) describes how within contemporary marketing, commodities are being transformed into possessions of an inalienable nature. Although a few decades ago marketing took a very detached approach to selling products to customers, it now puts them at the heart of their concepts (McKitterick, 1957). Marketers feed on our desire to give and spread joy on an intimate level and transform those intentions into ones of consumption (Randolph, 2003). Waldfogel (1993) investigates the undeniable economic loss in gift giving where receivers are left worse off than if they had made their own consumption choice. In this light, the crossing of the market and gift economies in current day consumerism creates lucrative results for businesses but arguably leaves both the donor and recipient at a loss. A recent marketing display in the shop windows of UK high street retailer John Lewis illustrates this point quite succinctly (Mack, 2016). The line, reading, ‘Gifts as unique as you’, speaks to consumers on a very personal level. In addition, the photograph used shows a charmed couple besotted with one another and conjures up the type of feeling one might wish to achieve through buying a gift. Arguably, the promotion of gifts through marketing strategies modifies an act that should be based on admiration and liberty into one of obligation (Dilnot, 1993). According to Mauss (1990), the initiation of an exchange derives not from individuals, but from collective bodies who en masse enforce obligations. Considering both Dilnot and Mauss’ points, it may therefore be argued that the obligation to exchange gifts in society stems not from the donor or the recipient, but from the ominous presence of modern marketing strategies.


When considering the influence of marketing on gift giving behaviour, it may be interesting to recognise the significance of Pop and particularly Pop Art, which blossomed out of an age of consumerism. Warhol, and Pop artists alike, utilised the most recognisable mediated imagery of the Pop era and decontextualized them. This movement served to illuminate the overriding influence of advertising on an affluent consumerist society (Taylor and Ballengee-Morris, 2003). Whiteley (1985) notes how people’s desires were altered by the media in light of increased wealth during the pop generation and how this brought with it the external pressures to consume more. Lasch (1978) furthers this point by suggesting how advertising exists not only to promote certain products, but also to encourage consumption as a form of being. In our consumerist society, regardless of how affluent someone may be, we are invariably reminded about what we lack and how this can be resolved through consumption (Dilnot, 1993). What results is a society with a ceaseless appetite for more. It may be concluded then that advertising, whose fundamental function it is to create these desires, plays an important role in sustaining such feelings of obligation within our society. In this way, both the donor and recipient in a gift exchange fall victim to the charm of marketer’s strategies. In this light, it may be argued that the significance of a ‘free gift’ within our consumerist society is an acceptance, be it known or unknown, of the contribution made to an economically driven system.

To conclude, it can be seen through this investigation that the initiation of a gift is not an isolated act but bares repercussions that are evident in each of the areas explored. Ultimately, the real price of the free gift lies in the liberty that stands to be lost through its acceptance. Through the inception of a gift, one is entered into a cyclic relationship rendering the gift a very much-involved item. Even after considering examples where reciprocation is effectively banned, as in the Mail Art movement, an unbalanced and morally obliged relationship can still be observed. Furthermore, the embodiment of the donor within the gift means the item is never truly free in nature. By accepting such a personified item recipients become inadvertently connected to their donors on a very conscious level which brings with it emotional burden. Moreover, modern day gift exchange and its undeniable attachment to commodity exchange render the gift merely a consequence of an economically driven agenda. Advertising strategies feed on intimate desires to give and then transform these into ones of consumption assuring obligation remains at the heart of the gift purchase and exchange. Finally, obligation ensures connections and therefore a continuation of the gift giving cycle. If obligation were to be taken out of the equation gift giving and the gift would expire.



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