The Tax on Things We Value, But Can’t Measure

Please enjoy this wonderful guest post from my friend Paul Myette. Paul is a high school history teacher and a writer who graduated from the Bread Loaf writing program. He’s putting the finishing touches on his first novel, which he works on every morning before his wife and two kids wake up. 

When I read Amanda’s recent post about the artist’s tax my first thought was, “Yes! This is about me.” I wanted to run down to the harbor and throw things off the side of a British ship because that is how we handle unfair taxation in Boston. Instead, I wrote Amanda a really long email, which she encouraged me to turn into this post.

You see, if I want to worry about hours I spend working without compensation, my writing time shouldn’t be my primary concern. Not even close. The profit-free time I spend writing doesn’t come close to the free hours I put in at my real job: teaching.

Photo by Austin KleonLet me stop here and reassure you, this is NOT going to be a post wherein a teacher complains about not getting paid enough for the hours spent correcting papers.  I went into teaching with eyes wide open and I chose my fate.  

Allow me to continue.  What intrigued me about Amanda’s post was the connection it made me see between these two things, writing and teaching.  I realized that, to me, the issue is less a tax on artists than it is a tax on things that confound capitalism — a tax against that which cannot easily be measured.  

Art is Lousy Business

What do art and teaching have in common?  There is no way to gauge their worth.  Even if we could accurately measure the effectiveness of an individual teacher (we can’t…but again…I’m not here to write about the common teacher gripes), what we can’t measure is the economic value of teaching.  What does my job contribute to the health of the stock market or the price of gold? I don’t know. Nobody knows. I can’t even begin to imagine a metric that could determine that.  

Likewise art.  Yes, we can place a value on a Monet because it is old and has been deemed culturally relevant and we know how many are available and how often they come up for sale.  In the same way, we can gauge the value of a new Stephen King novel because he is likely to sell X millions of copies as a baseline and Y million copies if the book is very good.  But the starving artist in the loft?  The unpublished novelist typing away in his basement?  These are unknown quantities and our culture does not see fit to compensate unknown quantities.  It claims not to know how. This is understandable, perhaps, but there is a cost.  

I’ll stop here and say that this problem exists in business as well, albeit to a lesser extent.  An unproven business idea will find fewer financial backers than the next venture from…I wanted to write Steve Jobs.  Err… you take my point.  The unproven business idea, if it does get off the ground, will also face stiff competition from whatever large corporation does something similar.  A mom and pop ice cream shop will struggle to compete with Baskin Robbins, even if they have a better product. Vying for market dominance (photo by Tito Perez)

 That said, a savvy entrepreneur can secure a loan for a new business if they can present a reasonable plan for their venture. What artist could manage that? The very idea of art hinges upon subjectivity. What business plan from a painter could convince a bank that people might find her paintings attractive? Because art is subjective and can’t be measured, it makes for lousy business.  

I know that plenty of naysayers have no problem with that.  Art is art and business is business.  If you want money, contribute something.  If you can’t afford to be an artist, put on your big boy pants and get a “real” job. 

I’d argue that art is a real job and that someone who works hard at it ought to have the same prospects of success as someone who works hard at a for-profit business.  (And someone who won’t work hard at either will have very little success.) But I understand that our culture doesn’t value art highly enough to subsidize it to any great extent.  Still, there is a price that we pay. 

Encouraging a Marketplace of Ideas

When we leave art to those who can afford it we risk eliminating an entire class of voices. And that is what we do.  Yes, anyone can write a novel or create a painting. But the devotion required for success in such pursuits makes them difficult to shoe horn in around another job.  Or it means great financial risk in the early going with no guarantee of success. I am lucky to have a “regular” job that I am passionate about, one that allows me time to pursue writing, too.  However, I cannot pursue a writing  project with the same abandon as someone who can afford not to work full time.  I can pursue it with much greater fervor than someone working three minimum wage jobs.   

As such, arts disproportionately reflect the upper classes. Doubt this? How many novels can you name that were set in prep schools?  How many novels can you name that were written by or about a young American expat drinking his or her (his) way through Europe?  Not all of them certainly, but many.  

In this case, the same problem does exist in business: Those who can afford to take a risk are going to, and their ideas will find their way into the marketplace of ideas; those who can’t, will continue to work at something else and hope that their stolen hours here and there will be enough to make their dream come true.  

I turn things back over to the naysayers: “Whatever.  Not everyone lives their dream.”  Or to quote “Mad Men,” a favorite television show, “Not every girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.” 

Photo by Gerald Pereira

Fine. Except this: The marketplace of ideas is based on the premise that allowing all ideas to be expressed ensures that the best thinking will rise to the top. The theory becomes watered down when any ideas are kept out of the marketplace. Does the world need my novel?  No. (YES IT DOES! YES IT DOES!) Does it need a particular small business or painting or song?  Of course not.  But it needs all of those ideas to come to fruition so that the best will succeed and, in so doing, improve all of us.  When society is structured such that some people are unable to pursue their talents or skills, we are all the poorer for it.  

I’m not bemoaning my lot in life. I recognize that I’m very lucky to be able to structure my life such that I can get even the minimal writing time that I get.  But I do want to point out that the situation limits my artistic output and eliminates the output of many others.  

I won’t get into the question of whether anything should be done. Would I like to see changes here? Yes. If you planted me in the Oval Office tomorrow, would I make this my first priority? Probably not. Without discussing “should,” however, we can discuss “could.” We can consider what options exist. Let the conversation enter the marketplace of ideas. I will focus on only art, not to make the argument that it is any more deserving of attention (trust me…I want that ice cream maker to succeed), but simply because it was the point of the original post and I promised I wouldn’t get into the debates around teaching.  

Feeding the Artists

So…what can be done to ensure that the painters and writers and poets and sculptors and dancers can all pursue their dreams and still…you know…eat?


Let’s be realistic about this.  There are two places that revenue stream could come from: corporations and government. I do believe that there is some wonderful corporate sponsored art and that much of it is unfairly poo-pooed.  That said, if our goal is to contribute to the marketplace of ideas, the art must serve its own purpose and corporate art, by definition, must serve the goal of profit.  

As for government? In the age of sequester I don’t see Congress lining up to put lots of novelists and painters to work.  The Tea Party backlash alone would be a spectacle. That said…it’s been done. The WPA writer’s project paid would-be writers to do work for the country.  Out of that we got the American Guide Series, respected histories and travel guides to the states. We very nearly got a history of local foods as they existed just before our current food industry began to homogenize them. That project started in late 1941. History prevented its completion.

(The collected writings from this food project have been compiled by writer Mark Kurlansky in his book Food of a Younger Land.  Without forcing an argument these essays paint a picture of the changes in food culture in this country.  If you read Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman you want to read Kurlansky as well.)  

 Photo by Brian WrightThe WPA also gave us Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty and many others.  Certainly our culture saw benefit from this project. Because these authors were paid to work in their chosen field and nurture their talents and passions, they continued on to excellence and assumed positions of cultural importance.  I know less about other WPA projects, but I do recognize the Depression era bas relief carvings on bridges and public buildings when I see them. The model for government support of the arts exists.  I don’t expect that I’ll live to see its revival, but it’s worth remembering that it worked once.  It’s worth considering what we gained from that.  

Vote With Your Art

What is left is for those of us who love art to try to support it by whatever means we can. When we support those professions that can’t be measured we do some small part. For some this means patronizing a local artist and buying their paintings.  For some this might mean buying self-published books (editor’s note: for example, this self-published book!). For others it might mean shopping at a farmer’s market. Food writer Michael Pollan constantly asks those who value food to “vote with your fork.” “Vote with your art” doesn’t work quite as well as a slogan, but it gets the idea across, and might help spread the message that artistic endeavors have value…even if that value can’t be easily measured.  

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