Art as Right Livelihood?

Possibilities for putting the power of art to work for real change

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 17
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

The following article questions whether art, as it is normally practiced in our society, can be considered "right livelihood" in the Buddhist sense of a livelihood that is non-harmful and serves the whole. While Drummond focuses on artists, from my perspective his basic argument applies equally well to a wide range of other occupations (including magazine editing) since he is essentially questioning the ethics of a certain kind of specialization. The issues involved are complex, but well worth facing. I would welcome additional material on these issues.

Drummond Reed is a film maker, playwright, and carpenter living in Seattle, Washington.

I DON’T RELISH the notion of destroying anyone’s idea of right livelihood, especially if they’re doing something they really enjoy. But I’m moved to write this because, as I’ve become more involved in alternative culture, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. It’s perhaps best typified by a comment from a fellow participant at a workshop on how to keep food on the table while working for social change: "I wanna help change the world, not spend all my time rebuilding rear ends!"

That there might be any connection between the two I don’t think ever occurred to him. I think this is symptomatic of the attitudes many of us have about social change. It’s the eye-catching, heart-thumping aspects of it that appeal to us, not the dirt-under-the- fingernails nuts and bolts. This is especially true when it comes to our choice of livelihood – for many of us the single most important contribution we will make to the course of the world.

Politics, social activism, journalism, and education have all been popular "socially conscious" occupations for this reason, but recently it seems that art is outdistancing them all – judging, at least, from the number of artists or would-be artists I’ve met myself. Why is this? I think it’s because art seems to be the way to paint our cake and eat it too. Its personal rewards are tremendous – independence, creativity, self- expression, fame (even the possibility of real financial success) – while it maintains an ideal ecological profile: pollution-free, capital-free, energy-free, self-reliant, skill-intensive, quality-intensive, and personal-growth oriented. What could possibly be a better way to make a living?

No one has asked that question more sincerely than I. Floundering on the unfamiliar sea of economic necessity after leaving college in 1976, I soon seized upon film making as my lifebuoy. I couldn’t imagine a better way to use my writing skills, do creative, challenging, high-paying work, and still help improve the world by making high-quality films with a strong social impact.

Seven years later my vision has changed considerably. Experiences I’ve had, particularly working in Alaska planning a film about the exploitation of its natives, have served up powerful contradictions between the values I’d like to express in my films and the values I do express by being a professional artist. Contradictions so deep that not only did they require a reassessment of art as right livelihood, but a rethinking of some of our broader assumptions about economics in general. What I’d like to share here is some of that thinking.

My most disturbing conclusion was that while most artists think they are contributing towards positive change through their livelihood, in most cases what they’re really supporting is the status quo. The reason has almost nothing to do with the quality, meaning, or beauty of their work, only with the larger economic context in which it takes place.

To explain this, I need first to make a distinction. Let’s define the product of all economic activity that directly supports life systems as primary wealth, and the product of all other economic activity as secondary wealth. By "directly supporting life systems," I mean simply those goods or services that we need for survival: food, clothing, housing, transportation, energy, etc. (There’s no need to draw fine lines as to what fits here – this argument will wash with very broad strokes).

Just about everyone would agree that professional art, as it is normally produced and used in our society, is secondary wealth. (Even those who consider artistic expression to be a basic human instinct, as I do, must admit it can’t be a genetic imperative to sell one’s art for a livelihood.) Other obvious examples of secondary wealth might be video games, professional sports, recreational drugs, high fashion, pulp magazines, etc.

The first thing to note about these two is that they are not interconvertible. Primary wealth can often serve as a component of secondary wealth, as in, for instance, gourmet cooking. But secondary wealth cannot stand in for primary: no matter how many sauces, spices, and souffles you create, you’re not producing any more food. A second observation is that primary wealth supports secondary wealth. We must be able to survive first in order to produce (let alone consume) the finer things in life mentioned above.

An extension of this universal priority would be to say that a family, a nation, or the whole human race should have enough primary wealth to provide for all its members before it produces significant amounts of secondary wealth. No one should be starving to death while others have such a bounty of necessities they can support a strong secondary economy.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the world right now. Much has been written in the first four issues of IN CONTEXT as well as elsewhere about the vast inequalities of wealth on our planet and their tidal effects on every other global problem, especially the threat of nuclear war. In the last issue Robert Gilman termed the worldwide hunger and pain that results from these disparities "structural violence," and suggested it may not be possible to solve other world problems until something is done about this first.

What can be done about it – in particular, what can an artist do about it? One common answer is direct financial aid: donating excess wealth from his/her work to Care, the Hunger Project, or another world service organization. Many people with a social conscience do this and, despite the inefficiencies of transportation and middlemen, it is effective. A more fundamental approach might be to practice personal voluntary simplicity, reducing the demand behind all exploitive economic behavior (see Duane Elgin’s book, Voluntary Simplicity, for an extensive treatment of this theme).

Until recently I would have thought this represented the most that anyone, including artists, could do in terms of local solutions to this global problem. However, the more I began thinking in terms of primary and secondary wealth, the more I began to see that Robert Gilman was right – it is a structural problem; a problem of world economic structure such that it matters not just where you spend your wealth, or how much you spend, but equally what you produce. In fact, an artist’s contributions through donations and simple living may be negated by the very means he/she uses to earn them.

The reason is as simple as supply and demand, but with a twist. The demand for secondary wealth is as variable as the vagaries of human want – that’s why the price of gold and diamonds can rocket all over the charts when the supply has been steady for decades. But the demand for primary wealth is as constant as the human race. So predictable, in fact, that an entire industry – commodity futures – exists just to speculate on the slightest fluctuations in supply.

On this stage each one of us acts as individual consumers and producers. Obviously excessive consumption of any kind aggravates all world scarcities; this is the rationale behind voluntary simplicity. But what about production? If one produces primary wealth, the supply is increased, and the price must fall – for everyone. It only makes sense – the more food there is in the world, the easier it is for everyone to eat. Producing secondary wealth, though, will not necessarily have this effect, because an increase in supply doesn’t mean a decrease in demand at all (the American film industry is an outstanding case in point). Meanwhile, nothing happens to the primary wealth supply. The two are not interconvertible, no matter how much secondary wealth you create (or how beautiful, exciting, etc. it is). But secondary wealth does compete with primary wealth for resources, capital, and labor, driving up the cost to primary wealth producers. So the price of primary wealth actually rises – for everyone. The artist has actually reinforced the problem.

And it doesn’t stop there. There are problems with the production of primary wealth as well, problems of quality. By this I mean the deficiencies of contemporary industry discussed ad nauseam in progressive circles: pollution, energy-intensiveness, capital-intensiveness, corporate irresponsibility, waste, worker dissatisfaction, etc.

Most of us tend to believe that if we’re not personally employed in an offending industry, and if we do our best to avoid using those products or services, we’ve removed any support we may have given such activity. As I mentioned earlier, art appears to be an ideal way to make a living without contributing to these problems.

Again, a primary/secondary analysis reveals the misconceptions. The secondary wealth portion of the offending industrial output, like commercial television and Barbie dolls, is easily boycotted. But the balance is good ol’ primary wealth. We can’t avoid consuming it, at least as much as we need to survive. Yet – here’s the kicker – if we don’t produce it, somebody else must. And they’ll do it according to their values.

One of my friends asked me, "But what if I patronize only appropriate businesses for all my primary wealth needs? Won’t this support people doing it my way?" "That", I replied, "is the very best thing you could do with your primary wealth dollars – spend every penny with businesses that produce goods and services in accordance with your values." Then I asked him how many businesses he knew of that fit this description. Food and housing were pretty well covered by co-ops (this is Seattle). Transportation? Energy? Clothing? Utilities? Primary education? "Why aren’t there more appropriate businesses covering these areas?" he asked. All I could reply was to paraphrase Andrew Tobias in The Funny Money Game: "Because socially responsible people are out doing something more socially responsible."

Not only that, but ask what other effect these secondary occupations are having. Who can afford to purchase our work? Not those practicing voluntary simplicity and right livelihood themselves, or anyone else living close to the margin. It’s generally those with comfortable excesses of wealth earned from mainstream occupations, often the very ones we’re avoiding. Even if our art is good, what have we directly encouraged them to do with that money? Earn more, and spend more, on secondary wealth.

Once again, we’ve reinforced the very "system" we’re running away from! The good intentions of our words and pictures are being betrayed by the underlying reality of our actions.

Ouch! That hurts! It’s not a very welcome thought, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’ve never found it easy to swallow either, if that’s any consolation. But for the life of me, as many times as I’ve been over that logic, I’ve never been able to undo its conclusion.

What it boils down to is that no one is going to do the work of feeding, clothing, and housing the world in a humane, sustainable manner unless we do. As in all matters of moral conscience, the means become the ends. You can’t promote non-violence with violence, decentralization with centralized power, or simplicity with spending. What I’m saying now is that you can’t promote changes in the primary wealth system by producing only secondary wealth.

So often have I returned to this dictum in my thoughts that I’ve dubbed it "The Primary Wealth Ethic":

Every individual believing in humane, sustainable values must be, in a reasonably direct way, responsible for producing, in accordance with those values, at least as much primary wealth as they personally consume.

It’s just an applied version of Jerry Rubin’s rubric, "If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem." We all must consume primary wealth, and our moral responsibility for the present conflict this creates must extend proportionately.

This ethic, I feel, should be the first and most universal criteria of "right livelihood". This doesn’t mean that, for example, each of us has to grow his/her own food, but that we be somehow responsibly connected to how our food is grown. If we look creatively, we will see that there are hundreds of ways that all of us can use our present talents, skills, experiences, and desires to help improve the primary economy and receive great personal satisfaction at the same time. I consider this the most exciting and challenging area of growth for our culture right now, especially as awareness of the primary wealth ethic spreads. The whole field of appropriate technology grew out of this awareness.

There are many things that everyone, including artists, can do to contribute to the reshaping of the primary economy. The most direct, of course, is to work in the primary economy. Many artists have found this to be highly rewarding both personally and artistically. Ken Kesey comes to mind as one whose work of running a farm and raising a family has only complemented and not obstructed his writing genius.

Another way open to anyone is financial empowerment – raising excess income that is then donated to or invested directly in appropriate primary wealth production. If we are to fulfill the primary wealth ethic this way, then we need, through our donations and investments, to account for at least as much appropriate primary wealth production as we ourselves consume. If this seems like it would have little impact, imagine the cumulative effect of 500,000 American artists doing this. Or of a single artist as financially successful as, say, George Lucas, investing his Star Wars millions in solar energy and permaculture. How better could one turn one’s "vision" into reality?

These are important, and probably familiar steps we can take. What I think we haven’t been aware of is how those with secondary skills and inclinations, such as artists, can use those skills directly for the primary economy. Having given art such a bad name so far, what I’d like to do is rescue it by giving my own list of ways in which artists can fulfill the primary wealth ethic:

1. By working towards a greater integration of primary and secondary wealth. Earlier I mentioned gourmet cooking as an example here. In fact there is a corresponding "art" to every field of primary wealth (they all involve the human senses). In clothing, it’s fashion; in housing, it’s architecture; in transportation and energy, it’s environmental design. Robert Pirsig explores the prevailing schism between these arts and their sciences in great detail in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, concluding that we need to recognize the fusion of both impulses in the same human spirit and work from there to re-humanize technology.

Every artist can respond to this (and coincidentally find a larger market) by searching for ways to reintegrate their work with its corresponding primary function(s). One example I recently witnessed all over the streets of New York: murals painted on heretofore unused, ugly building surfaces. This has the additional advantage of encouraging a similar reintegration on the part of the consumer, who needs less secondary wealth because his/her primary wealth better suits his/her needs.

2. By creating artwork specifically for the market of primary wealth producers. In the same manner as an artist is fulfilled by producing his/her work, art can be highly fulfilling to the "consumer" – a real motivating force after the traditional "hard day in the fields." Yet to do this, it must be accessible to those whose work the artist wishes to reinforce. Producing art specifically to touch the lives of primary producers is a conscious choice available to artists sensitive to the primary wealth ethic.

What I am saying is that art, just like science, is not "value free." Every creation has a moral dimension inherent whether that artist meant it or not – that’s what this whole article has been about. Two ways an artist can embody this moral support for primary wealth production are: (a) create work that is financially accessible to those practicing voluntary simplicity and right livelihood (not necessarily mass-produced, but at least not so scarce and expensive only a small elite can afford it), and (b) create work that is intellectually accessible, i.e. deals with experiences and analogues that we can relate to instead of obscure, cliquish fads or techniques.

3. By teaching creativity, sensitivity, and personal growth. These are the essential components of all artistic activity, and I’ll go out on a limb here to suggest they’re also the essential components of a humane, sustainable culture. Artists should have something to teach based on their experience of these qualities. Zen masters have been doing this for centuries using the traditional Japanese arts of origami, archery, and calligraphy – theirs is an example to look to for methodology. However, as Robert Pirsig lampooned with his title, too few artists can relate to using their creative skills in primary wealth technology where we need them so badly. As he suggests, broadening their own primary wealth production and knowledge is a good way to learn and then teach this.

4. By directing moral power. This suggestion applies more narrowly to the "message" arts like fiction or films. Though less direct than many of these other steps in promoting specific primary wealth change, there’s no doubt great art can exert devastating moral pressure on social and political obstacles, or directly inspire people to action. An historical example is Uncle Tom’s Cabin; more recent, Missing, Gandhi, or Lynn Littman’s current Testament. This has always been the business of great art; in this nuclear age it is all the more pressing business.

5. By raising human consciousness directly. I hesitate to even include this because it’s so nebulous practically every artist would try to include their work here. What should be included is only artwork so compelling, so overwhelming, and so powerful an example of the beauty and magnificence of the human spirit that it is beyond question the greatest contribution its creator could make to the human condition.

Art such as this, though very rare, is an inspiration to the entire race. In raising the consciousness of every receptive individual and bringing us all to a higher moral plane, it does more than the artist could ever do alone to resolve our earthly problems. My own examples would be inadequate here – we can all look back on our experience and find those seminal works which forever changed our lives. A few individuals, Mozarts and Shakespeares and Da Vincis, are called to this work, and the world is far better for it. Each artist must decide if this is his/her truth. The point of writing this has only been to challenge that conviction with the other realities in which we all live.

So, you see, art itself it not the problem. Art is beautiful, meaningful, fulfilling, inspiring, and alive – all those things we want the world to be. The problem is relying on art alone to create such a world, or assuming that being artists somehow frees us from the need to deal directly with our own primary wealth production. This only aggravates the underlying structural problems. Recognizing this, and enlarging each of our individual spheres of responsibility to compensate, is how we can start to put the power of art to work for real change.