We OWE You Good Art

I owe you.

I had a bit of a paradigm shift recently. Since I aspire to make a living doing what I enjoy—writing stories—then I must make good stories. Obvious, right? Well, I’m not talking about the practical aspects: if they’re not good, no one will give me money and I won’t be able to live off of my art. What I’m talking about is a moral aspect: I owe it to you.

This might seem a little backwards. You might say, “Wait, I haven’t even paid you yet. You don’t owe me anything.” And yes, I want your money for my time… if I’m to eventually live off of my art alone. But, there’s something else going on here, a moral dimension in parallel to the economic one.

I owe you. All of us who aspire to live on art alone owe it to you to make good art.

Why? Glad you asked.

I saw this magic water resistant spray called Neverwet, that blew my mind:

My first thought was, “Wow. Things get more awesome every day.” Then: “I have no practical value to add to the technological world of today and tomorrow.” And finally: “I’m glad that there are people who understand this stuff, and are excited about this stuff to become people who understand this stuff.”

At that point I felt gratitude and humility towards those people, from mechanics and electricians, to farmers and engineers. The people who make stuff work for all of us.

I’m reminded of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. In the recent past (recent in the evolutionary sense), we were all hunter-gatherers.  All of us were fully employed in the business of survival. It wasn’t until the discovery/invention of agriculture, when one person could produce food for many, that some of us were freed up to do other things… such as priests, kings, soldiers, artisans, poets, carpenters, metalworkers, or anything else that’s not directly related to the production of food.

And that’s where it all started: any invention or idea that can produce value for many, whether it’s food, or something that makes life easier (the wheel, the sewing machine, the computer, food processor, etc.), buys us time… more time that doesn’t have to be spent on survival (food and shelter). In this context, time is virtually more life.

Our entire way of life, the world over (every country and every people that is even a smidgen above wandering hunter gatherers), is supported by scientists, engineers, and the people who produce: whether it’s food, or minerals and resources from the ground. Without these production chains, we wouldn’t have had enough time to develop and refine art, music, philosophy, law, etc.

To bring this idea forward today. In hobby arts and crafts, how much goes into putting something like Hobby Lobby within easy reach? Keeping the shelves stocked? Keeping the supplies available? For the professional artist, how much is done now on the computer, in digital art? All of that is owed to the pioneering computer scientists and computer engineers who make that capability possible.

To make it personal for me, consider the independent writer using things like the Kindle, Amazon.com, and print-on-demand to make books available directly to readers? Without these companies, and without the people who invented these items (and the entire manufacturing industry behind them that produces them), such a thing would be impossible.

Producers (agriculture and industry) make the rest of our lives possible, and the more efficient the producers, the less of them there has to be. They improve our quality of life by facilitating the time for education and other endeavors beyond survival. The existence of people such as artists and musicians, entertainers of all sorts, is one of the fruits of this production.

This is not to say that art has no intrinsic value. Production buys us time to enrich our lives, and art enriches us, providing joy in return for the investment of invention.

So, if some of us aspire to make a living by  art alone (musicians, writers, artists, etc.), and not produce anything that contributes to the survival of your fellow person (such as growing food, or inventing warp drive), then we owe it to everyone else to make *good* art. We owe society a return on investment for supporting a world in which we spend our time creating, rather than hunting for our meat and looking for nuts and berries.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t get paid or compensated for the value of your art (not necessarily the effort of your art). You should. Without compensation, this whole argument falls apart. Specifically, I’m grateful for living in a society where compensation for art is enough to survive, prosper, and enjoy wealth (however you define that). That such a playing field exists earns gratitude towards the people who make it possible.

The interesting effect of money and economics is that if your art doesn’t enrich enough people, then you probably won’t survive on that alone. From this point of view, the money received is society’s recognition of return on investment in supporting an environment that artists can “do art” full time.

(Oh.  And before anyone gets offended: No, I don’t believe that people with day jobs can’t or don’t make good art–I know there are other factors, like connections, marketing, access, just starting out and not yet known, etc. I’m speaking theoretically here. And, I also don’t believe that monetary compensation is the defining metric on what makes good art. It might better be a measure on what makes popular art. Whether those are the same or not is up for discussion.)

What I’m driving at is a bit of a mental shift. While I fully believe that people should be compensated (paid) for the fruits of their efforts—artists and creatives earn what their fans pay—when we aspire to live by art alone, instead of creating art for the sake of money, it’s an interesting change of perspective to create art as an act of gratitude. That its even possible to live through art alone is a privilege owed to so many others.

So, thank you founding fathers and the Enlightenment that birthed them: they set the stage. Thank you farmers and food producers in the agricultural industry. I don’t have to spend the majority of my day growing, gathering, or hunting food to survive.  Thank you textile and home industry. Otherwise I’d have to figure out that too. Thank you mathematicians and scientists who discover what’s possible, engineers who bring possibility to actuality, and industry that makes magic, from mining to transportation to production. Otherwise I’d be writing this blog in the sand with a stick. Thank you police, firefighters, emergency responders, and doctors who keep the home front safe. Thank you military men and women for preserving our way of life and freedoms to be who we are… and our freedom to create.

For you, I will always strive to make good art, because I should earn the privilege of being able to live on what I enjoy most: writing. Because I owe you.

Until next week,


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