Starving artist syndrome. Or superior creation under the wing of economic security. ….
One can bring the matter between aesthetics and economics within the scope of a single hypothesis. It is that pecuniary motivation- roughly, the desire for money income- has a marked tendency to pre-empt the individual’s emotions. Only as it releases its grip is there opportunity for artistic or, for that matter, any cultural or intellectual interest not immediately related to income. As Alfred Marshall stated in his Principles of Economics: “The business by which a person earns his livelihood generally fills his thoughts during by far the greater part of those hours in which his mind is at its best.”
If the artist and their family live under the threat of hunger, cold, or exposure, this preoccupation will be total. By the same token, to remove the threat of physical hardship will be, other things equal, to weaken the role of pecuniary motivation and allow other influences to enter the pattern of life.
The fear of hardship, we may assume, will play somewhat the same pre-emptive role as hardship itself. And fear is not confined to physical hardship. As most people are constituted, they will be perturbed by any serious threat to existing levels of well-being. They defend accustomed living standards with considerable tenacity. Accordingly, if people are so circumstanced that they live under the threat of reduction in income, of being plunged into some dark and half-imagined abyss, pecuniary motivation will be strong. The gods are waiting to hurl the unwary to their doom; they can only be propitiated by unremitting vigilance. The secure person, in contrast, can turn their thoughts to other matters.
Until comparatively recent times, the preferred model of a non-socialist society was one of marked uncertainty. Production was for a common market made by many sellers; in this market, prices moved freely in response to changes in consumer taste or need, or changes in cost and output. Income, at least in the form of profits, salaries, or wages, were inherently insecure. Favorable profits, for example, would attract new participants. This was possible because entry into any business was assumed to be inexpensive and easy.
The resulting increase in supply would lower prices and therewith profits, and, in practice, the uncoordinated response of numerous new entrants could easily cause profits to disappear. Profits could also disappear as the result of unexpected or inexplicable shifts in consumer taste or changes in technology, which gave other producers a sudden and substantial advantage in cost. Wages and salaries shared the uncertainty of the income from which they came.
The uncertainty of this model, it should be noted, was not only intrinsic but a virtue. It was what punished sloth and kept producers on their toes. This is almost exactly to say that the system was designed to make pecuniary motivation as nearly pre-emptive as possible. It was meant to be artistically barren, for it rewarded a full time concern with making money, and it drove its participants with the omnipresent possibility of failure.
If we go back not that far, in agriculture of the Canadian and American variety, there were many small producers supplying a common market under conditions which, in the past at least, were characterized by marked uncertainty, with earnings sometimes disastrously vanishing for many participants. Without stopping to consider the reason, we could expect the
armers to be beyond the reach of the aesthetic response. That the successful attorney should have a concern for say, painting or sculpture does not surprise, at least within the context of Thorstein Veblen and the conjunction of taste and the pecking order and the role of art within it. But not the cattleman. He was the man for whom the calendars and Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers were drawn.
As this fictional cattleman has his income increase, he may develop an interest in a better car or truck, maybe a recreational aircraft, and certainly an array of better consumer goods. That he should develop a serious concern for painting or sculpture or even for architecture is not expected. The farmer of old, and even many today, have too many worries. They cannot be frivolous or eccentric. Unlike the more secure lawyer, it is taken for granted that his pecuniary concerns are pre-emptive.