Whither the Arts?

7 Jul

I am not by nature a pessimist. Especially not when it comes to the arts. After all, I quite a very well paid job at the age of 36 to spend six years writing and acting full-time (not counting the bartending). I did, a few years ago, invest a significant amount of capital to purchase and run a small press specializing in science fiction. I have always approached the arts professionally — by which I mean as a more-or-less full-time job with the expectation of making some kind of living. I do not consider myself a hobbyist nor what I do any less valuable than any creative work.

How can I be a pessimist when I look around at my friends — some my age, some much younger — and see them striving to write, paint, sculpt, act, clown, sing, dance as professionals or on their way to being professionals. Most of them are at their most happy when they are doing their work. Like me, they work at something they love but they do not expect to be paid with kisses and hugs. They have rent to pay, children to feed, wine to drink. All of that takes money.

Even the issue of money does not make me a pessimist. I have friends who have made bundles of it in the arts; others live modest lives or even lives of genteel poverty. I worry about the latter, especially as they grow older. There was a time when they might expect to pay for their elder years with royalties from a life’s work. That seems to be going away, though, in Canada at least, they can expect some form of public pension. For now.

This is not a personal lament. I’ve worked hard at other things besides the arts. I’ll be comfortable in my dotage and twenty years from now I’ll either be dead or in a home somewhere. So even the future doesn’t make me a pessimist — for myself.

But I have a niece who would like to be an actor, a nephew who wants to be an artist, a grandson who someday will write software, I expect. The grandson might be able to make a living doing it — but I’m not even sure of that, with automated code writers, piece work and benefit-less labour becoming more and more common.

I read a blog today where a self-publishing guru claimed everyone can be a writer. I suppose that is true — it is a basic skill taught to most 12-year olds, putting one word after another in more or less grammatical sentences to tell some kind of story with a beginning, middle and end. But can everyone be a good writer, a professional writer? I expect not. Can everyone who holds a brush be a painter? Can anyone who steps on a stage be an actor? At some level, I suppose. But at a transcendent level, at a level that actually changes another person’s perspective? I’m not yet convinced. And when the professional artist goes away — when the person who devotes all of their heart and soul and time into creation disappears — we will truly have lost something. No matter how talented you are or how lucky, without the third leg of perseverance, true greatness is an unsteady prospect.

When everything can be copied without end, when imitations can be considered as good as the original thing, when the price of everything plummets toward zero, is it cynical to say that nothing has real value?

Which I guess would make me a pessimist — if I didn’t think there was an alternative.

What is it? Not sure yet but I’m working my way towards an answer. I expect the first step is for us all to realize that the current struggle over issues like copyright and Internet freedom are not about real freedom at all, merely about which set of billionaires (media conglomerates on the one hand versus content aggregators and distributors on the other) are free to get richer at the expense of both creators and consumers.

Early thoughts yet. Any takers?

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One Response to “Whither the Arts?”

  1. T R Napper July 8, 2014 at 2:36 am #

    These are good questions. In the US and elsewhere (including Australia and Canada) social mobility is in decline. Meanwhile, the ability to earn a full-time wage from writing is also in decline. Where does this leave us? Does writing become a rich kid’s game? Thomas Piketty’s new book show that levels of inequality are nearly as high as they were 100 years ago – does that mean we are heading back into the age of writers having to find a rich patron?

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