Artists in a Market Economy

This post is a slightly belated response to a discussion that originated with Seth Godin (discussed here) and continued with a post and comments on Rachelle Gardner’s blog. The basic idea being debated is whether writers have a right to make a living from their writing. Godin says no.

I would agree that in one sense, no one has the “right” to make a living. We all have to work hard and well at our chosen occupations. But if we do that, I personally contend we should be able to make a living at them.

Michael Hyatt commented on Rachelle’s blog that writing is a commodity, and what the writer gets paid depends on how popular his writing is. Simple market economics.

That makes sense for ordinary nonfiction and for commercial fiction (although even there, I believe the writer deserves a bigger piece of the publishing pie, but that’s another post). But I would like to propose the radical idea that real literary art, like every other kind of art, is in a category all its own.

You don’t hear so much about “art” in the writing circles I travel in (primarily CBA). You hear an awful lot about “craft,” and people go on and on about how good writing doesn’t take talent, it just takes practice and persistence and following some basic rules. That may be true for writing that stops at the level of craft; I don’t believe it is true for writing that ascends to the status of art. (Another other post.)

The thing about art—the thing that makes it so difficult to fit into all these convenient formulas about the market economy—is that its ultimate value, its contribution to the sum of beauty and goodness in the world, is not proportional to the number of people who appreciate it within the artist’s lifetime. It may even be inversely proportional, although there are notable exceptions (such as Dickens, who was wildly popular in his lifetime).

The world has always had a hard time dealing with this reality. The problem of the starving artist is so old as to be a cliché. Various models have been tried throughout history—the gentleman artist, private patronage, government patronage, entrepreneurship, and the most prevalent contemporary model, agency (where an outside person or company takes responsibility for propagating the art and pays the artist a percentage).

Each of these models has its drawbacks, but they all (except the gentleman artist, who is probably gone for good) share one big, glaring flaw: Whoever pays the artist ultimately wants to control his output.

Whether it’s the Austrian emperor complaining that Mozart’s music had “too many notes,” the NEA refusing to fund an artist whose work isn’t politically correct, or Dickens’ readers demanding a happy ending to Great Expectations, outside control is inimical to art. An artist must be free to obey only his muse and the inherent laws of his art form if he is to do his best work. He must also have “world enough and time” to let his imagination run free, which means, guess what, no day job.

What’s the solution? Unfortunately, I have no idea. Unless someone can invent a specialized time machine that will bring the future profits from a work back into the present to feed the artist while he’s still alive, instead of enriching others after his death.

Or—here’s a radical thought—the profits of works that are selling now, whose creators and their immediate heirs are long dead, could be set aside in a foundation that would provide grants to living artists. Hey, I like that idea. I’m sure Jane Austen would be happy to support me, instead of just a bunch of publishers and filmmakers, with the posthumous profits of her work. (Jane paid for her own publishing and never made her money back while she was alive.)

But since the people who are living parasitically off the works of dead artists are not too likely to give up that self-appointed privilege voluntarily, I expect the majority of artists will have to go on starving, or else expending the best hours and years of their lives doing something that puts bread on the table so they can pursue their art in the wee hours of dawn or midnight while the rest of the world is asleep. Maybe this builds character. In my personal experience, it builds stress, exhaustion, and much less than one’s best work.

But what the hey—it’s Tradition!

This entry was posted in Writing.

8 comments on “Artists in a Market Economy

  1. Charise says:

    I thought Seth’s Godin was worded just to inflame. Using the word “deserve” was strategic and ridiculous. I did think the idea of the midlist author fading away was interesting (though not new as I first heard this discussion in 2003 at Mt. Hermon). YOUR point here of a different classification (and means of support) for those intent to ascend craft and approach art is interesting. I need time to consider. We’ll have to discuss more thoroughly over coffee. 😉

  2. Charise says:

    *Seth Godin’s comment* (oops!)

  3. Heh . . . tradition . . . Problem with that posthumous program, who decides who gets the grants? Who decides what’s literary art, what’s likely to be acclaimed in fifty years? Seems like you could wind up back where you started. Still, I suppose it would be better to have a few smart people deciding rather than the population at large.

    • True, O Inklingwannabe. It’s just another variation on patronage. But at least if the people deciding had no ownership of the funds, it might be a little more objective. You could have a diverse board of artists making the decisions.

  4. “Tradition” also depends on what country you live and vote in.

    The United States is all about making money and never asking for a penny from any government source. There are other countries who actually consider the arts, including writing, to have significant value. I grew up in Canada and every year the Canada Council (federal government agency) awards grants of $10,000 to $20,000 to creators of various arts, including writers, it deems worthy of their support.

  5. Just started working with Diana F. Bouncing around and checking out some of the others working with her too!

    Nice to meet you.

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