Servile Art vs. Liberal Art

Brian Niemeir, Sci Phi Journal contributor has an intersting article up called Servile Art vs. Liberal Art about the value of different sorts of art, it is worth a read.

Taking a page from Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, I argued that the value of writing is beyond material compensation.

I was somewhat surprised that other commenters found this claim controversial. On further reflection, my failure to clearly distinguish my position from that of groups like Authors United (who argued incoherently that books aren’t consumer goods), probably didn’t help the audience’s disposition.

To start again on the right foot, I agree that books are commodities subject to market forces. An equally vital observation is that writers don’t produce books; publishers do. (Some may object: “What about self-published writers?” Note the dual job description. When an indie writer writes, he’s a writer. When he publishes what he wrote, he’s a publisher.).

So the question at hand is, what’s the writing itself–the creative act–worth? As usual, Aristotle points the way to an answer. He distinguished between work done in service to something else–the servile arts, and activities performed for their own sake–the liberal arts.

Since servile work is all about utility, it’s pretty straightforward to appraise the results and compensate the worker accordingly. (If I produce a pair of shoes, my compensation should be based on the fair market price of shoes.)

But dispensing a just reward for art performed as its own end gets tricky. Oscar Wilde declared that art is useless. A Modernist filtering that statement through his utilitarian bias would conclude that art is therefore worthless. In fact, he’d have it backwards. There’s a good reason that wage slaves live for the weekend, and that industry keeps churning out labor-saving devices.

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