Here are two excerpts from an opinion piece by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. The column, titled “The Real Humanities Crisis,” ran in The New York Times on November 30.
Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able [to] earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others—poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists—must either have a partner whose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.
But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer. Or rather, it has a great deal to offer but only for a privileged elite (the cultural parallel to our economic upper class) who have had the ability and luck to reach the highest levels of humanistic achievement… Short of that, you must pursue your passion on the side.
As a writer, I know all of that is true. Art has always been devalued by an overwhelming majority of people, not just here, but in every country, every culture. Typically, art is kept alive because artists are either too passionate to let it die, or too incompetent to do anything else.
Gutting goes on to suggest we remedy the situation by creating “an elite, professional faculty in our K-12 schools. Provide good salaries and good working conditions, and many humanists would find teaching immensely rewarding.” Sounds nice, at first. But could that work? And more importantly, should it?
Well, first, there’s an enormous gulf between pursuing one’s craft and standing in front of a classroom filled with wannabe writers or artists, trying to get them to understand the subtleties of thematic construction or free indirect style. Maybe teaching a master’s class would be better, but it’s still not writing, still a day job to support one’s art.
But more important is the idea that artists should be comfortable while they create art. I am of two minds about that.
I’ve made clear in these posts that writers and artists deserve to be compensated for their talent and the incredible effort that goes into translating their creativity from the mind to the page, canvas or stage. But I would not go so far as to grant them a life of complacency. There’s nothing like the fire that burns when one doesn’t know when the next paycheck is coming, or where it’s coming from.
What does a writer write about when she has a job she enjoys, that pays well enough to afford a nice house and car, and ensures the kids have good food, clothes, etc.? Take a look, for example, at books by writers who have been successful enough to live comfortably. Compare them to their earlier works. Many of the most highly-regarded novels in history were written by people who struggled their entire lives to make ends meet (think Joyce, Proust, Poe and others) or lived in times or places of political repression/upheaval (Bolaño, Saramago, Kundera).
Take a look at what fills literary journals today, particularly the ones that are produced by universities, where writers enjoy comfortable jobs and lives. You’ll see the writing that already dominates U.S. fiction: tales of bourgeois angst, filled with smarmy affairs and materialistic concerns, largely ignorant of the realities of American life for a majority of its citizens: poverty, race, violence; or of any existential, philosophical, political or even faith basis. Such a proliferation of these self-indulgent values, by the way, is just another way to maintain the schism between those cultural elites and everyone else. Do we want more of that?
Give the writer a well-paying job; let him become fat and happy? In other words, build a velvet coffin in which artists can comfortably allow their anger at the unfairness inherent in society to drain away while they watch cable after teaching for three hours a day.
Sorry, Professor Gutting, but maybe an artist needs to struggle.
 Why? So glad you asked. Mostly because they’re far too busy just trying to make ends meet, to support themselves and their families, and are inundated with the corporate invasiveness that accompanies a materialistic culture and market-based economy. They don’t understand how art fits into that life. Most people have had woefully little education in how to appreciate art. They don’t like much of it because they don’t get it. I find it interesting that more American families encourage their kids to participate in sports than art, even though I’ll bet paying jobs in the arts actually far outnumber those in sports.1a Maybe it has to do with the fact that sports are a better marketing vehicle for Big Media. Who would watch a writer write? (Well, the Italians do, but we’ve always been a little strange.)
1a Except in some sports-crazed states where you can get jobs like assistant towel carrier to the high school football team’s executive waterboy.