The Food Chain: Art, Society, Rousseau and Bonfires

I was hungry today and thinking about food. This got me to thinking about the food chain. It.s a hierarchy of who eats what and who eats who. So, things like plants are at the bottom. They get eaten. On the next level are the things that eat plants. Like rabbits. Then there are the things that eat the things that eat plants. Predators. Next up are the predators who are eaten by other predators. And on the top of the food chain, there.s those things who eat but don.t get eaten. The king of the jungle. An ecosystem can support a lot of plants and quite a few rabbits. As you move up the food chain, there are fewer and fewer specimens. That.s because so much production is required to sustain them. A visual analogy of the food chain would be a triangle. At the base is all the lush vegetation. And at the top is the lion king. So these are my thoughts on food. Since the other thing I think about is art, the question dawned on me: how much is required to support the writer-artist? Or for that matter, anyone involved in the arts: composers, musicians, painters, sculptors, and so on.

Writers require a lot of free time. Time to let the mind wander. So they.re not engaged in other productive activities. Well, Verdi was an exception. He was actually more a farmer than opera composer. But I think he alternated and was not doing both at the same time. In my own situation, I think about how many books I.ve read in order to produce one book. I.ve probably read thousands. So far I.ve produced one journal article and am working on the first book. The time spent reading a thousand books could have been diverted to many other useful tasks. In my former career in construction, let.s say in any given year I would work on a couple of seniors care facilities, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of condo buildings. For the sake of argument, let.s say a couple of hundred seniors have a new place to live and are happy, a couple of thousand diners enjoy delicious meals and are happy, and a hundred people move into their new homes and are happy. Not to mention all the happy real estate agents, hospitality staff, nurses, and other people who are happy to be working at these places. That.s a lot of happy folks! And then you would multiply this by the number of years I.m working.

But then I retired from work to pursue the dream of writing this book on theatre. To me, it.s important. But realistically, how many people are going to enjoy the book? To be sure, not as many people as the number of people who are living in their care homes, eating out, and buying new condos. And truth be told, the number could be an order of magnitude less. By moving up the food chain (moving up the food chain is defined as lowering the production:consumption ration) could it be that society loses out?

I.m reminded of Rousseau.s First Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Science:

Take Egypt, the first school of mankind, that ancient country, famous for its fertility under a brazen sky; the spot from which Sesostris once set out to conquer the world. Egypt became the mother of philosophy and the fine arts; soon she was conquered by Cambyses, and then successively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and finally the Turks.

Take Greece, once peopled by heroes, who twice vanquished Asia. Letters, as yet in their infancy, had not corrupted the disposition of its inhabitants; but the progress of the sciences soon produced a dissoluteness of manners, and the imposition of the Macedonian yoke: from which time Greece, always learned, always voluptuous and always a slave, has experienced amid all its revolutions no more than a change of masters. Not all the eloquence of Demosthenes could breathe life into a body which luxury and the arts had once enervated.

It was not till the days of Ennius and Terence that Rome, founded by a shepherd, and made illustrious by peasants, began to degenerate. But after the appearance of an Ovid, a Catullus, a Martial, and the rest of those numerous obscene authors, whose very names are enough to put modesty to the blush, Rome, once the shrine of virtue, became the theatre of vice, a scorn among the nations, and an object of derision even to barbarians. Thus the capital of the world at length submitted to the yoke of slavery it had imposed on others, and the very day of its fall was the eve of that on which it conferred on one of its citizens the title of Arbiter of Good Taste.

What shall I say of that metropolis of the Eastern Empire, which, by its situation, seemed destined to be the capital of the world; that refuge of the arts and sciences, when they were banished from the rest of Europe, more perhaps by wisdom than barbarism? The most profligate debaucheries, the most abandoned villainies, the most atrocious crimes, plots, murders and assassinations form the warp and woof of the history of Constantinople. Such is the pure source from which have flowed to us the floods of knowledge on which the present age so prides itself.

Wow, art is bad!–look what happened to Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Constantinople! They were productive societies full of industry until the artists came along and ruined it all! I.m not sure I agree with the view of Demosthenes’ eloquence being a factor that could save Greece (I always have an impression he.s a bum) but other than that, Rousseau.s argument is interesting. Years later, the Florentine monk Savonarola years later would argue the same in bonfires of the vanities where priceless works of arts, cosmetics, books, and any other items of luxury would be gathered together and incinerated in the name of the common weal. I wonder: was Florence made a stronger place? And how would this be measured? Intuitively, I felt like I was more productive to society (but less satisfied personally) working in construction than being a writer. But how is this measured? By the heat of the fires?

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I don.t have a way of measuring productivity, but Joyce did. At least Joyce did in Stoppard.s play: ‘And what did you do in the Great War, Mr. Joyce?’. ‘I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?’. Joyce.s response essentially turns the question back on its head. Dang, Joyce is one self-confident artist!

The Joyce quote never ceases to amaze me and it captures very much the power of positive thinking. I feel from talking to those around me that hey, it.s unusual to have hung up the gloves at the age of 39. Maybe I should be slaving away, doing some more. More buildings, more boots on the ground, going after more contracts, putting the shovel into the ground. But what would you do? If you had a choice, and you loved to be Doing Melpomene.s Work, would you do it at the risk of being less productive to society? I feel I.ve made the right choice. Some days, like today, I wonder though. Moments of weakness perhaps. Because until next time, I will be Doing Melpomene.s Work. Hopefully putting some more fire into my work and not more of my work into the fire!

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