Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Olympic Ideal (or, Day Jobs FTW)

From time to time I read complaints from professional artists of one stripe or another complaining that people giving their work away, or selling it too cheaply, is bad because it makes it harder for people to make a living selling their creative work. To which my immediate visceral response is always, “cry me a river, Princess.” 

This complaint irritates me on many levels. First, you may recognise it as the same whinge Engels has against the Irish in “The Condition of the Working Class in England” and every coddled economic sector has against “those dem furriners stealing our jobs”. I am down with the “Invisible Hand” and believe that price-fixing almost invariably has a net negative impact both on the world in general and on the sector that implements it. If changes in technology or society mean an activity becomes uneconomic, so be it. I won’t be upset if market forces sweep away the possibility of people earning a living by selling art. For that matter, I won’t kick up a fuss if market forces sweep away the possibility of me earning a living by doing what I do. I will just figure out some other way to earn a living.

Second, I actively believe the disappearance of a professional artistic class would be a good thing. Is this mere sour grapes, or the kind of crude class animosity epitomised by TISM’s iconic, “If you’re Creative, Get Stuffed”? Maybe. But obviously I am going to argue “no.”  Here goes. 

Professionalism is a Necessary Evil.
And like that other necessary evil, government, the less necessary it is, the more evil. I see the point of the division of labour; I recognise that it enabled the development of civilisation, by freeing a privileged caste from the necessity of spending all their time scrabbling for a living, and can see that it would not make sense for everyone to synthesise their own polypropylene and perform their own gall bladder surgery. I invoke the importance of the division of labour myself, on the frequent occasions when my superiors want me to be an accountant or an advertising copywriter rather than a scientist. 

But the ideal of humanity I aspire to is that of the jack-of-all-trades Renaissance man. I believe practically anyone can do practically anything, and that if they want to do it, they should do it. I don’t like people taking things that can and should be done in a million different ways and ring-fencing them with rules about the “right” way to do them. Professionalisation of activities that everyone can do is a sign of societal sickness. I’ve said before... or maybe that was my alter ego... this is one of the things I agree with Schopenhauer about:

Dilettantes! Dilettantes! – this is the derogatory cry those who apply themselves to art or science for the sake of gain raise against those who pursue it for love of it and pleasure in it. This derogation rests on their vulgar conviction that no one would take up a thing seriously unless prompted to it by want, hunger, or some other kind of greediness. The public has the same outlook and consequently holds the same opinion, which is the origin of its universal respect for the ‘professional’ and its distrust of the dilettante. The truth, however, is that to the dilettante the thing is the end, while to the professional as such it is the means; and only he who is directly interested in a thing and occupies himself with it from love of it, will pursue it with entire seriousness. It is from such as these, and not from wage earners, that the greatest things have always come.

I would not lament the decline in commercial brewing and resulting loss of jobs if everyone suddenly got into home brewing in a big way.  I would not lament the decline in commercial hairdressing and resulting loss of jobs if it was suddenly in vogue for couples to cut each other’s hair. I don’t lament the fact that there are no longer 30,000 sex industry workers in Omaha, as was the case in the Prohibition Era.

There are some things where having a professional caste is neutral; there is no real harm done by commercial brewing or hairdressing, for example. But there are some activities where professionalisation can be pernicious. These are activities where mass participation is a public good.

Take sport, for example. If the example of the highly-paid professional footballers of Biederburg FC inspires the young people of Biederburg to get out on the weekend and kick a football around, it is a good thing; if it inspires them only to sit at home and watch the football on television, it is a bad thing.

Or music. If the Biederland Symphony Orchestra inspires Biederlanders to buy their own nose-flutes and form groups for the performance of Biederlandisch folk music, then it is a good thing. If it sets up an unattainable musical ideal that Biederlanders feel inhibited from aspiring to, it is a bad thing.
Sport and music are recreational activities that are supposed to be fun and that everyone should do if they like. So is drawing pictures. And telling stories.

If writing by professionals inspires people to tell each other their own stories, it is good. If it doesn’t, it is not a good form of entertainment. A professionalism that inhibits people from telling each other their own stories by erecting a whole lot of artificial rules about how you should tell stories is a  pernicious thing that should be torn down.

I will harp on about writing for two reasons. First, writing is the art I practice myself, having let my drawing skills atrophy since I was 14 and never having been any good at music. Second, on the interwebz I detect a current of disdain among professional writers for amateur writers[1] that professional sportsmen would never have for amateur sportsmen, professional musicians would never have for amateur musicians, and professional painters more rarely seem to have for amateur painters.

You (a hypothetical professional) might say, “I have no disdain for amateurs. However, I want to be one of those high-fliers that inspire other people; an Ussain Bolt or Edith Piaf of writing.” That is an audacious ambition. And I am not one to discourage audacious ambitions. However, I still think it would be better if you had a day job.

You will always come to writing as a joyous relief from whatever else you do to put bread on the table; it will never be in danger of even temporarily becoming a tedious ‘job’, performed in a mental atmosphere discouraging to the muses.

       You will never be tempted to let something that could be a masterpiece into the world unfinished, just because by experience you know it is good enough to make you a gazillion dollars.

       You will not have long hours to fill with unnecessary saleable words, making the later books in your series bloated and rambling compared to the early ones.

Most importantly, an Ussain Bolt or an Edith Piaf of writing should have *something to say*. You should not just be an entertainer providing mental chewing gum. And the probability of you having something worthwhile and interesting to say to people will be greater the more things you do and the more you get out among people who do not live in a bubble of writing and reading and writing about reading and reading about writing.

You may well say, “Sheesh, I don’t want to be some great inspirational paragon. This is just the thing I love doing. I want to write, and don’t want to do anything else. Providing mental chewing gum is just fine by me.”

Fair enough. Everyone should be free to have a go at earning a living however they like. Go right ahead, being aware your role is not a particular noble or useful one. And follow the advice given in Pasolini’s immortal “Getta la Mama el treno”:[2] “A writer writes.”  The lesson of NaNoWriMo to me is that any regular busy person with a full time job and small children and a punishing role-playing schedule can write 50,000 words capable of getting four-star reviews on Goodreads in a month. You, a professional without all these distractions, should be able to write 2 million saleable words a year easy. Compete with these amateurs flooding the market on productivity. Be Pedro Camacho. Or, at the least, Robert Silverberg in the 1960s.  Do it, and you will make a good living. Don’t whinge about market forces making life hard.

[1]: To be fair, this disdain is more evident in the class of useless parasites that surround professional authors.
[2]: I may not be remembering the details of this film *exactly* correctly.


Unknown said...

Needless to say I mostly disagree :)

I just wanted to let you know it may take me a while to put together even a half-arsed response because I have a ton of stuff to do before I go on holidays on saturday.

Unknown said...

Apparently my Google account has been renamed "Unknown" :(

- Dave