About ten years ago I had a conversation over a beer (or a few) with the poet John Greiner, who is also a very close friend of mine. Actually some of the thought provoking conversations on art, philosophy, food and drink have been with John on a Friday afternoon in a bar in Manhattan. This particular lament was over the fate of the poet as an occupation. I had assumed that John was unhappy by the fact that it is impossible to make a living as a poet. This seems unfair from a values perspective to me. Poetry has always been one of humanities purest ways of communicating the personal, the natural, the political and the spiritual. If you were to judge a culture; its sculptures, paintings and poetry are of fairly equal importance. Doesn’t Homer tell us more about the ancient Greek imagination, and Dante of late medieval Italy than any business of that time? In 20th century life cinema has also made a lasting impression in the artistic landscape. All of these other art forms though have the potential of making the artist a lot of money. The artist Jeff Koon’s is a muti millionaire from his contemporary sculptures. Even playwrights like David Mamet are very wealthy due to royalties from plays. Steven Spielberg is a billionaire. There is an obvious difference with poetry, which is that the sales of poetry don’t fit into the capitalist incentive structure of these other arts. It is hard to build reputation with a poem, even with sufficient hype, that can be monetized. Sotheby’s doesn’t auction off the latest book of poetry. Poetry readings aren’t shown on prime time television. So, the inability of poets to make a living writing poetry is fair in a market system, but such economic theory rarely gets in the way of John and my utopian dreams of the purpose of art. What he said surprised me. He said that it is better that the poet can’t earn a living with poetry. TS Elliot worked as a banker and editor. Many poets work as teachers. John said that even though he is a poet, he didn’t resent not being paid much for his poetry. From what I remember, (sorry John if I get this wrong) he said that by not having a financial motivation, the writing was uncompromised by money. Also, working other jobs keeps you an active part of society, which feeds the expression in the poems. This conversation, which we have had more times throughout the years, has not only stuck with me, but in some ways inspired me to publish my own poems.
Since that time ten years ago, much has changed due to technology, which puts other more traditional types of writing in much the same boat as poetry has been. Journalism is no longer what it used to be, as newspaper revenues suffer, and staff is being eliminated. Writers are turning to new media, like blogs, where they are not paid. There is original thought, and a very democratic freedom to this expression, but for millions of people writing essays, commentary and criticism, it is for the pure love of doing it, not to make a living. Photography is another example. A high art, where photographers were rewarded well, has become a vehicle for amateurs. Or perhaps the amateurs are becoming professionals, but just aren’t getting paid for it. The open source movement in software design is even like this. All of this concerns me in some ways, as I have always said that the ability to sell art is important in validating art. This is not to say that the amount attached to the acquisition is equal to the quality, just that it is one way to show that the artist is dedicated to an audience. This is one of the biggest questions of our time. How do incentives affect quality, and how do they reflect our values as a society? I don’t know the answer to this. Perhaps John and I will solve this over a few pints when I return from Paris.