on the proper livelihood of the literary artist

In my last post I talked about how the e-book revolution, despite the high level of automation that it is bringing to the publishing process, has multiplied the labor of authors by giving them more tasks to do. Since this is the opposite of the division of labor, which, according to Adam Smith, is responsible for all the wealth ever created by humans, we have to expect that, all other things being equal, it is a wealth-sapping process for the author. For whenever we change tasks, there is a loss of productivity.

But all of this concerns the writer as a producer—as an industrial or commercial phenomenon. All of the author-help sites and tools out there assume that the author’s primary goal is to make money, and so all of the advice is geared in that direction. But this is to ignore that historically, writing and publishing have not been primarily about business. Yes, it does cost money to write, publish, and distribute a book, even an e-book, but there remains the fact that writing and publishing are cultural activities: they are, I would say, still the primary means for the dissemination of ideas, and, in the case of poetic works, they constitute a form of fine art (literature, after all, was one of the seven classical fine arts). This means that writing and publishing do not and should not fall entirely under the laws and norms of commerce. Their value is not merely a commercial value.

The literary artist or scholar falls outside the bounds of conventional economic calculation. Ludwig von Mises, in his Human Action, says:

A painter is a businessman if he is intent upon making paintings which could be sold at the highest price. A painter who does not compromise with the taste of the buying public and, disdaining all unpleasant consequences, lets himself be guided solely by his own ideals is an artist, a creative genius.

And what goes for painters goes for authors of literary works. This is why the “profession” of artist has always been known as impecunious. And indeed the same might be said of scholars—those other authors who produce works for reasons not connected with revenue. I recall reading in Don Quixote that “scholar” and “pauper” were virtual synonyms. The observation goes back much further than that; consider these lines from Ecclesiastes:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.

We all need a livelihood, but the more that an artist is focused on gaining a livelihood from his art, the less of an artist he is. And hence the proverbial poverty of the starving artist.

What’s an artist—including a literary artist—to do? I have no answer. My own feeling is that the proper and best means of living for an artist is via patronage: to receive a living from one or more patrons who believe in one’s work. Harriet Shaw Weaver acted as a patron to James Joyce when he wrote Finnegans Wake, a work that surely could never have seen the light of day if purely commercial considerations had prevailed. Such a relationship can still be precarious, for patrons can themselves be vulgar and fickle. But the relationship is still an honest and voluntary one, which means that it is fitting for free people.

When I was growing up, and maybe even to some extent still, governments acted as patrons or financiers of the arts. But this is a much less satisfactory situation, I think, not only because favoritism and corruption enter so easily into political decisions, but because supporting artists—or buying art—is not the proper business of any government. At bottom it’s not right for a government to use its coercive power to extract the earnings of some people, and hand these to other people, such as artists, whom the tax-paying citizen might never want to support.

Whatever we might think of the taste of a patron, the money is his own to give away if he chooses, and that makes his transactions with the artist pure and blameless.

Am I soliciting patronage? Not directly (although if you’re interested in helping to fund a literary artist, let’s talk). Currently I’m supplementing begging and borrowing with earning. All of which takes time. Which in turn brings me back to the multiplication of labor. I do so many things now besides writing that I wonder whether my lifespan will be enough to produce some actual work. Luckily, many people are living a long time now; I just have to hope that I’m one of them.

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