The Artist is a Trader, Miss Taggart

Is art a commodity? No, says Mike Cosper. Mainly, it is a gift. This was a major theme of the writing conference: “Word and Words.”

Fountain pen sitting on a letter

Hosted by Sojourn Community Church, the conference brought together a prestigious group of writers and teachers, including Gregory Thornbury and Mike Cosper.

In his opening talk Cosper encouraged writers to think not about what they can get, but what they can give. He supported his theme with an engaging Medieval fable of three daughters who must choose between keeping their possessions and sharing them. Magically, the keeping leads to death, but the giving leads to life. The story echoes the Christian principle that materials should be invested to gain lasting kingdom values:

…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven… (Matt 6:20).

Cosper did well to point out the spiritual value of creativity. Had he aimed only to distinguish material values from spiritual ones, his position would have been proper. Unfortunately, Cosper went a step further. His talk did not center on that correct distinction, but on another: on the common belief that commodities, commercial items, and trade are vulgar. It was trade that he rejected when he argued that “gifts are greater than goods.” In Cosper’s view, artists should not be traders, but givers.

I do not contest that the artist gives greatly of himself. But it is not merely a gift. The artist gives and he demands a payment—both material and spiritual. The material payment is the money for his time. The spiritual payment? Is there such thing? Read the following from the novel Atlas Shrugged, and discover:

Richard Halley, a composer, explains to an admirer:

Miss Taggart how many people are there to whom my work means as much as it does to you?…That is the payment I demand. Not many can afford it. I don’t mean your enjoyment… I mean your understanding and the fact that your enjoyment is of the same kind as mine, that it came from the same source: from your intelligence, from the conscious judgment of a mind able to judge my work by the standard of the same values that went to write it—I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired… I do not care to be admired by anyone’s heart—only by someone’s head. And when I find a customer with that invaluable capacity, then my performance is a mutual trade to mutual profit. An artist is a trader, Miss Taggart, the hardest and most exacting of all traders…”

Halley refers to his admirers as customers. He proudly recognizes the fact that he has produced in order to trade. He does his work not out of an obligation to others–not primarily for their benefit–but for his own. He works for the pleasure and pride of work well done, of achievement, of greatness.

Halley does indeed give a great gift to others. “The sight of an achievement was the greatest gift a human being could offer to others,” writes Rand. But it is not a gift to mankind. It is a gift to those worthy of it. Their judgment, their shared recognition of value, that is the artist’s spiritual medium of exchange.

Because their commodity–their trade–is spiritual, Halley knows that artists are the hardest and most exacting of traders. Cosper overlooked the honorable role of trade in the life of an artist. On a deeper level, he overlooked the role of individual self-interest in values.

What is so unappealing about the idea of an artist as a “worker worthy of his wages”? 1 Timothy 5:18 reminds us that work (even non-material work) is noble and that payment is just.

Is art fundamentally a commodity or a gift? Neither. If we are speaking of fundamentals, art is a human value, of the spiritual kind. So let the proper principle of all human relationships control this value. Let the artist be a trader.