Servile Art vs. Liberal Art

First, I want to thank Daddy Warpig, Remi, and Dorrinal from Geek Gab. They made co-hosting the show one of the most entertaining and rewarding experiences of my fledgling literary career. My hat's off to their listeners for keeping me on my toes with thought-provoking questions.

On to the main topic. I joined a conversation over at John C. Wright's blog about how to adequately pay writers (which is, as you'd imagine, a subject of great interest to me).

Taking a page from Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, I argued that the value of writing is beyond material compensation.

I was somewhat surprised that other commenters found this claim controversial. On further reflection, my failure to clearly distinguish my position from that of groups like Authors United (who argued incoherently that books aren't consumer goods), probably didn't help the audience's disposition.

To start again on the right foot, I agree that books are commodities subject to market forces. An equally vital observation is that writers don't produce books; publishers do. (Some may object: "What about self-published writers?" Note the dual job description. When an indie writer writes, he's a writer. When he publishes what he wrote, he's a publisher.).

So the question at hand is, what's the writing itself--the creative act--worth? As usual, Aristotle points the way to an answer. He distinguished between work done in service to something else--the servile arts, and activities performed for their own sake--the liberal arts.

Since servile work is all about utility, it's pretty straightforward to appraise the results and compensate the worker accordingly. (If I produce a pair of shoes, my compensation should be based on the fair market price of shoes.)

But dispensing a just reward for art performed as its own end gets tricky. Oscar Wilde declared that art is useless. A Modernist filtering that statement through his utilitarian bias would conclude that art is therefore worthless. In fact, he'd have it backwards. There's a good reason that wage slaves live for the weekend, and that industry keeps churning out labor-saving devices.

In the words of philosopher Peter Gibbons:

Everything that makes life worth living comes directly from intellectual and contemplative pursuits--activities performed during leisure time. The vast majority of people need to work to finance their free time, but the means used to attain something derive their value from the desired ends. Therefore the servile arts are subordinate to the liberal arts.

If the intellectual pursuits responsible for art, culture, and the things that make human life, well, human exceed the value of servile work, how can we adequately compensate the dreamers and music makers?

We can't.

As a product of the intellect, art is informed by a spiritual principle. Since no material reward can match the value of a spiritual good, applying the shoe standard above results in a false analogy.

Not even trying to reward artists for their art is a manifestly unjust and culturally suicidal non-option. The only thing for it is to embrace the tension and do the best we can. Casting off our grey materialist shackles and acknowledging the invaluable worth of art will sweeten whatever we as consumers can offer artists, even if it's only a widow's mite.

Not convinced? Consider the art of a society based on the idea that men are defined by work:

And the art of a society informed by the belief that men are defined by reason and free will:

I'm content--grateful, even--for my IPs to be rewarded according to the market value of the media they appear in. I'd gladly write for free (in fact, I spent the last several years doing just that). I've done my job if my stories entertain someone; not necessarily if he's gracious enough to toss a dime in my hat (though I won't spurn his generosity).

This post shouldn't be read as a program to increase royalties or justify government regulation. It's a plea for artists and patrons of the arts to ask big questions. What makes life worthwhile (insert obligatory Conan quote)? Do people live to work or work to live? Is the worth of work (and the man who performs it) based solely on the monetary value of what's produced?

Human beings are free, rational beings. It follows that the more intellectually informed and freely performed a deed is, the better it exemplifies human nature, and the greater its worth in human terms. Note that there's a matter of degree here. All work done by humans is at least partially informed by reason and performed with free will.

So it isn't just artists whose work is invaluable. To some extent, it's everybody's.


  1. Milton Friedman said, as did his predecessors, all corporations exist to enhance shareholder value. Value, of course, is not necessarily monetary. Morality, beauty, love, esteem... these all enhance value. If money was the only reason to work, why would we ever spend it?

    1. Well said.

      Making money can't be the final end of anything, since the value of money depends on the value of the goods you can get with it.