For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you
— Don McLean
What is art worth?
I think like any question, it depends on who you ask, and, of course, on the context of it.
I never really asked that question for myself as a kid, or as a teen, or even into my adult years until very recently, because, outwardly, I took its worth for granted.
And unconsciously, I took its worthlessness for granted.
I started writing stories in my middle school years (when I run across just about anything I wrote back then, it’s a reaction somewhere between wincing and a rolling of the eyes). I recall the moment, while I was in eighth grade, sitting at the kitchen table plotting up what looked like would be a novel-length story, and that was it: I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
I reached a point in high school where I would sit at the kitchen table and would write, longhand, stories pouring out of me, page after page. In my short college experience, I became an English Major, and studied American Literature.
For some reason — be it the guidance of some inner compass or a sense of Baby Boomer entitlement, or both — it never occurred to me that the universe didn’t delight in what I was doing and wouldn’t go out of its way to help me realize my dream. The act of creating was so magical — and still is — that I couldn’t see that it wasn’t revered by everyone, and everything.
Well, it wasn’t, and it’s not.
The unstated message I got from my father during my college years (and internalized without realizing it) was that creativity was worthless unless money could be made from it.
A few years after this, I began to get a real picture of what the publishing industry was about. Assuming you could get a three book contract, you would have do the lion’s share of the marketing, and demonstrate you could make a lot of revenue for the publisher. Understandable, really, but with the writer getting only a single-digit percentage of the return, it meant, practically speaking, that you would be working to make money for someone else, and because there were so few opportunities you had to consider yourself fortunate if you could get into the position to be exploited.
It finally became obvious, even to me, that unless I became a Big Name, it was going to be a worthless endeavor.
Even after seeing all that, it was still what I wanted to do.
Looking back, the logical thing would have been to establish some career in something less “speculative,” and write on the side until I started to make a name for myself. The problem with that, for me, was that nothing else interested me enough to pursue it.
All the Intangibles Money Can Buy
If you think it through, in a sheer, pragmatic sense, the worth of the arts is largely intangible. The value of a novel, a piece of music, or a painting always has to fall after the value of basic necessities: water, food, shelter, etc. When things get tight, the arts go by the wayside first.
You can eat a book, but it’s not a good idea.
But on the intangible side, in the arts there are riches whose value are priceless. A book that is a recipient of the Newberry Medal for young people’s literature, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, I consider a personal benchmark of what I would hope to achieve as a writer. And I owe Madeline quite a bit more than the meager royalties she made off of the many times I’ve bought this one book of hers.
The world doesn’t see that. Money doesn’t see that. All money cares about is money, and without money, survival is very, very tough.
And, unfortunately, there’s another side to the issue that I must concede. Most people reading this probably know who Fyodor Dostoyevsky was, and even if you don’t, almost all of us have heard of Crime and Punishment, even if it was a matter of having that torturously difficult book inflicted on us in college. We would never have heard of Dostoyevsky if he hadn’t achieved a level of popularity in his time (the first part of Crime and Punishment was serialized in The Russian Messenger, one of the most influential literary magazines of the day). We wouldn’t have heard of Twain, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which Hemingway called the first two-thirds of it the greatest American novel ever written), if Twain hadn’t made a name for himself so that his genius could be seen and remembered.
Likewise, Vincent van Gogh, due in part to his early experience as an art dealer, had become a marketable name in the art scene of Paris, and Don McLean, for one, wouldn’t have been moved by his genius if this had never happened.
Clearly, it isn’t just talent that makes someone a success in the arts, a success that history will remember. It’s the ability for that talent to sustain itself while making money.
Road Kill on the Literary Superhighway
The myth of (and mystique surrounding) the writer’s life had lead me to believe that my humble talent would win out eventually, and that I would be recognized and succeed on pretty much that alone.
It really seems like it should be that way. But it just isn’t.
There have been times that I’ve felt I have something to offer that’s a little bit special, and that I would be beaten down before I had a chance to find my voice. For me, Don McLean’s “Vincent” captures these feelings very well. I am certainly no Van Gogh or L’Engle (and will never claim to be), but there are times I can see and feel a beauty that I want find the words to share, a beauty that I really don’t think most of the world grasps, let alone appreciates; a beauty that the world in its mindless, all-consuming rush-hour drive to serve and appease the Gods of Money would flatten into bloody road kill without the slightest regard or hesitation.
Humanity, you are worshipping the wrong damned thing.
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Copyright © 2015, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.