Plato and the profitable artist

Art and Money

SOURCE: Flickr user jovino

We like to think that the tensions between profit and artistic production are issues of the modern age. But consider this conversation from about 2400 years ago:

When a potter becomes rich, will he, think you, any longer take the same pains with his art?
Certainly not.
He will grow more and more indolent and careless?
Very true.
And the result will be that he becomes a worse potter?
Yes; he greatly deteriorates.
But, on the other hand, if he has no money, and cannot provide himself with tools or instruments, he will not work equally well himself, nor will he teach his sons or apprentices to work equally well.
Certainly not.
Then, under the influence either of poverty or of wealth, workmen and their work are equally liable to degenerate?
That is evident.

This, of course, is from Plato’s Republic, a tiny little treatise on purpose, poetry, philosophy, and civic duty. To Plato’s characters, the corruptive power of wealth and comfort on artistic focus and quality were given. To be great, an artist needed just enough resources to produce the work, but not enough resources to live well.

It’s as if Plato were sketching out the nonprofit arts sector (minus most of the overhead) — a magical place where the means of production could be secured apart from the marketplace…but generally not enough to pay the artist beyond their immediate needs.

There’s lots to argue about in the assumption. More to come on that. But in the meanwhile, it’s useful to recognize that the tensions we believe to be connected to the non-profit and commercial art world are just a bit deeper, and quite a bit older, than the tax laws upon which that system is built.



  1. Stephen Soderberg says

    Andrew, here’s a start. You really should go over and knock on somebody’s door in AU’s philosophy department & ask what a Platonic dialog between Socrates and an arts management teacher might have been like. This is not meant to be sarcastic, as you might think. I think there might be much gained by trying to define the profession you are teaching and advocating by trying to think like Socrates – and be brutal with yourself about it. Socrates took no prisoners. As one wit said of him: “The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.” But seriously, why not set up a debate between a grad student in philosophy taking Socrates’ role and one of your grad students as an arts management consultant. I think it would be a more instructive exercise than trying to update Plato’s arguments on the relationship between money and art into the 21st century.

  2. says

    I am a NON-starving artist is n Denver, gonna be that way by any means possible. I like to heat and eat, while making art. Had to say it.