Thursday, October 07, 2004

Art and Poverty

A friend popped up the question: "Is it necessary that an artist must be poor, so poor that he does not even know where his next meal is coming from, to create great art?"

It is, undoubtedly, a profound question.

Actually, hiding behind a lot of flesh and fat, it is a marxist quest, an issue of dielectics.

It basically says: Are matter (food/resources:thesis) and aesthetics (art: anti-thesis) compatible (systhesis)? Can they go hand in hand? Is their synthesis possible? Will the existence of one weaken the soul of the other?

A Marxist would say that creating great art in the capitalist system is not possible. He simply would not take it as a great art. But, under the socialist system, he would argue, creation of true art is easily possible. The artist no more faces the dilemma.

In the marxist utopia, the perfect human being will be able to creat great art as well as a great piece of furniture.

Marxism is gone for now. So this angle is obsolete for discussion.

The other aspect of the issue is art, and great art. Who makes the difference between the two? Who are the judges? Who appoints them?

The Nobel Committe? The Booker Prize Judges?

I know only two things: art and kitsch.

And I am my own judge when it comes to art.

Back to the polemic. Personally, I don't think one need to be poor in order to create art, great or ordinary. Writing and art have mostly been the preserve of the rich and the endowed. Like romance, writing is the privilege of the rich, and not the profession of the unemployed and the poor.

Poor people also take to writing. Most fail. It needs perseverance. It is hard work. And those who start poor and succeed, become rich. Then they shouldn't be able to write again. But writers, rich or poor, write. That is their business.

Many a great writer wrote for reasons other than art. Dostoevsky wrote in order to keep up with his gambling debts.

Then, Dostoevsky said: "Suffering is the origin of consciousness."

Artists know uncanny ways to make themselves suffer. Born rich or poor, they know how to invite suffering. And suffer they do, and in return, gain a consciousness, an insight and a clairvoyance that makes their art timeless.


Poverty is not a sine qua non for art's creation. Suffering is.

Many writers invite suffering in order to practice their craft. Naipaul resolved not to do anything other than writing as a vocation (With an Oxbridge degree, he would have got a plum job). He suffered for this decision. He never did a job except for writing radio scripts for BBC for some time. So he suffered on. But he did not give up. At times, he was penniless. Then he got book deals and a couple of years later, made his millions.

This debate reminds me of Kafka's story "The Hunger Artist." In a circus, a hunger artist practices a dying art--the art of the hunger artist. He goes without food for months. People see him in a cage and get excited. Then one day he dies. His cage is replaced with the cage of a tiger. Now the tiger excites the visitors. Life goes on.

Like Kafka's Hunger Artist, the true artist is dead today. What remains is marketing and hype. Today's artists are bred and managed like brands.

And like Naipaul said--today's technological society does not need writers. It is a poignant truth.

We are today's Hunger Artists in the world of digital tigers.


Shakeel Abedi said...

I believe we are not there yet. But slowly reaching there.

Well said, Zafar!

Zafar Anjum said...


I like to belive that we are slowly reaching there.

But are people reading? There are more people watching TV and digitised entertainment than actually reading (though the number of books sold has increased, the number of authors has increased).

What I personally suspect is that people who are reading and buying books (other than libraries and teaching departments) are wannabe writers or English teachers or people who want to learn English as a global business language.

Some people still read for pleasure but their tribe is not increasing.

And of course there still are some true artists, creating art just for the pleasure of creating it.



Prakup said...

I am a writer by profession and a creative (even if I say so myself!) writer as well.

My problem is that the twain have nary a chance in hell of ever finding common ground. If my art must be at the cost of my livelihood, I cannot afford it.

On the other hand, the thought that my art languishes in the closet while my livelihood takes up all my time, is depressing to say the least.

Several times I have tried to find a 'job' that would allow me to indulge in my writing. But such jobs, if they exist at all, always seem to favour the monied and the already well-off.

How then can people like me find the time to indulge in creating 'art'. And, if the value of art is to be measured by how much it is worth when it goes under the auctioneer's hammer, then how long can one practically afford to wait before the indulgent writing becomes, certifiably, art?

And pray, who might the certifier be?

It is all one big muddle. Sometimes I shudder at the thought that my time might be better spent being an excellent copywriter/content writer/ article writer than a much-appreciated (though never-to-see-a-cent-during-my-lifetime) writer of fiction.

But the pursuit of the ideal shall carry on, other things notwithstanding.

Zafar Anjum said...

Prakup, your last line is the most revealing and the most relevant here. If you want to create art for money (intent, motive), then you are a craftsman. If you want to create art for the 'pleasure' of creating it, then you are an artist. That is how I make sense of the term art.

And if money comes in the process, good for you.

Are you ready for this?

Are you ready to nurture this love of creation for years without any profitable results?

If yes, then you are on the right path.