16: The bread problem, part 1

Bread loaf

The “starving artist” has long since become a cliché, even in our “advanced” civilization. Art is not always or essentially an ascetic endeavor, so why do we so easily assume artists to be nutritionally challenged? The answer lies in our intuitive understanding of what we might call “the bread problem”.

Bread and circuses

Bread is a shorthand for expressing the need for bodily sustenance. Everyone needs to eat, and so we call earning a living “getting our daily bread” or “making dough”. However, some have recognized that human beings need more than mere material upkeep to live a life worth living [1]. Even the slave or prisoner gets his daily bread. What more could we need?

The old Roman answer to this question was “circuses”, that is, entertainment. The idea of “bread and circuses” is that, once our basic needs are met, there is little else to do but to amuse ourselves in manifold diversions and spectacles. Indeed, it is as if such amusement is the very reason we needed bread in the first place. Who would want to miss the latest gladitorial showdown or Netflix original?

If ancient Rome was anything like our present world, the average Roman might answer, perhaps peeved at the daftness of the question, “a fool.” To the coliseum-goer, the pleasures of wine and warriors, the ecstasy of dynamic dramas, and the spectacles of performative sexuality are the pinnacles of human civilization, the flowers blooming atop it’s grand edifice. In the words of Frank Zappa in Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt, “Isn’t this what living is really all about?”

Bread and Circe

For the genuine artist, I’d wager the answer is a resounding “no.” However, the case has been made that artists are, in fact, in a business rather akin to Roman revelry. One such notable advocate is Nietzsche, who may be generally said to take art as the practice of covering over the ugliness of life and nature with beautiful, often false, interpretations.

This perspective is summed up in an aphorism from Twilight of the Idols:

This is an artist as an artist should be, modest in his requirements: there are only two things he really wants, his bread and his art – panem et Circen… [2]

To clarify the pun, Nietzsche has here replaced circenses (Latin for “circuses”) with Circen (Latin for “Circe”). Circe was a sorceress known for her knowledge of drugs (she was called “polypharmakon” in Greek) and her ability to turn people into animals. Putting this together, the artist, for Nietzsche, is a producer of enchantments and agent of metamorphosis.

In other words, the artist makes things appear other than as they are, or turns them into things they are not. The artist does this in order to make things beautiful and, therefore, bearable. This is necessary because life is often ugly and unpleasant or, to borrow the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. [3]

So, to make life worth living, the artist transforms ugliness into beauty, even when it entails concealing the true nature of things. It follows from this that there is a tension between art and truth,and an implicit rejection of the old Platonic equation of truth and beauty. Thus, the “bread and Circe” paradigm of art is, in fact, similar to its namesake “bread and circuses” approach.

In each case, there is a flight from the painful, ugly truths of existence, albeit through alternative routes. In the “Circe” case, suffering and ugliness is transformed into something more bearable through a metaphorical drug treatment: art acts as a drug that does away with these truths by transforming how they appear to us.

For Nietzsche, this is possible because there is no distinction between how things appear and how they are. How they appear is how they are, so transforming their appearance is akin to transforming their very being. [4]

While more compelling than the “circus” approach to the “beyond bread” question, it still leaves something to be desired, at least for those who seek truth. Indeed, Nietzsche himself remarks that “the poets lie too much.” What else might satisfy our need for something other than “bread alone”? To understand this, we must first understand the need we are to meet.

The unique need

The artist, unlike the coliseum-carouser or Circe-like sorcerer or sorceress, recognizes and immediately feels a need that cannot be satisfied by drink, drugs, or drama. Such a need is common to all human beings, but responses to it are manifold. Where the circus-goer covers this need in costume and columny, the artist embraces it bare-skinned and beautiful.

It is precisely this difference in orientation that distinguishes the artist from the average. The artist cannot help but recognize the unique character of his or her own existence and the demands it places it upon him or her, and only him or her.

Recall the Nietzsche quotation above and note the possessive “his” - or equivalently, “her” - in that passage. The artist’s bread and art belong specifically to the artist. However, this belonging is not in the sense of possession as one owns property, but rather in the sense of “being proper to”. The work of the artist bears a special and essential relation to the artist him or herself. [5]

The belonging of the art to the artist and vice versa is rooted in the very need to be satisfied by it, which is at once unique to each of us and universal to all of us. That is, each of us has the human need to reconcile the possibility of our own death, the possibility of the impossibility of existing at all.

Each of us, faced with our own frailty and finitude, must find a way to bear the fact that, always and at all times, we can die. The Roman spectator addresses this by losing themselves in an orgy of drunken emotion, while the practitioner of Circean sorcery hides the fact behind veils of beauty. In contrast, I argue, the genuine artist affirms his or her own unique possibility of death by doing the work that only he or she can do.

Death lies at the center of this for one simple reason: death is the one possibility open to each of us that is fully and wholly ours alone. No one else can die my death but me, and no one can die your death but you. Even if another may “die in my place”, they still die their death, not mine. Accordingly, the true calling of the artist is rooted in the irreplacable uniqueness of his or her existence and vouchsafed by the possibility of death.

At the same time, this possibility is the most unsettling and anxiety-inducing, and so prompts us with the need to reconcile it without denying it or hiding it from ourselves. Such a reconciliation is achieved through a special relationship with, and awareness of, time.

Time, transcendence, and spirit

The possibility of death reveals time as the horizon of all human potential. Each of us has “our time” and we understand that “our time will come”. Such understanding casts a light on our relationship with time. Particularly, it throws upon us the question of “what for?”, that is, “what am I to do with my time?”

These are the questions that are to be answered by the call and can only be answered on an individual basis, in the same way that death is always on an individual basis. However, the source of the call itself remains peculiar and mysterious, as it is heard not with the ears, but otherwise.

Finding the source of the call is neither easy nor especially important. Wherever it is heard from it is manifestly “beyond” us. Whether this “beyond” has any metaphysical implications is a question best left for a footnote in the book of one’s life, as answering it is largely an academic exercise. Rather, what is significant is the fundamental relation of the beyond to what it is beyond. This relation is called transcendence.

Transcendence expresses our relation to the “what for” that is granted by the call. The “what for” is itself beyond us, even as it provides a basis for our lives. On the one hand, the “what for” acts as a guiding star out ahead of us that lights our way, and so is beyond us. At the same time, our “what for” provides a foundation on which to build our lives.

Transcendence is, I argue, precisely what the genuine artist experiences that the average circus-goer does not. Specifically, the artist has, in the call to their art, been granted a “what for” that entails doing something with their time and in a particular way. In this, the artist comes to be him or herself. More granularly, the artist is called to make the invisible, visible. In other words, to make spirit manifest in matter, that is, in time.

The bread problem

In view of the transcendent call and, in the case of the artist, the claims of spirit, we can now fully formulate the so-called bread problem. In short, we may define the bread problem as the tension between the demands of bodily sustenance and the transcendental demands disclosed in the call. That is, our calling may ask of us things for which bread is not, nor can be, freely given.

To understand this more clearly, we can use a well-known example of the bread problem to demonstrate what is essential to it in general. Let’s take the notion of “selling out”, familiar to artists and lay people alike. “Selling out” is usually taken to mean the decision of an artist to subordinate their work to a profit motive, often in collaboration with money-seeking non-artists.

We intuitively understand what’s happened in this case: priorities have gotten mixed up. The more important value, i.e. the artist’s creative work, has been compromised and diminished in order to yield more of another value, in this case, monetary value.

On the face of it, this intuition is correct: the artist has made their end their means, thereby giving up precisely what distinguished them as an artist in the first place. However, if we look more closely we see that “selling out” is in fact a special case of the bread problem.

Specifically, “selling out” typically means sacrificing art for material excess beyond what is needed for the ongoing work of the artist. However, the bread problem is more fundamental than the tension between profit-seeking and creative work. Rather, the trouble is finding a way to eat without compromising the art, which remains even if the artist restricts his or her needs to the bare minimum and avoids excess. [6]

In the next installment of this two-part series we’ll explore what makes the bread problem so challenging and how an artist might resolve the conundrum.


[1] Matthew 4:4. Also, Deuteronomy 8:3.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 34.

[3] Admittedly, this line from Hobbes is taken out of context, for he was writing of the condition of humanity in lieu of society. Given that his description often enough applies to human beings living within society, I think it fair to apply to life in general, within or without society. The point being: life necessarily entails suffering.

[4] This, like the Hobbes reference, is a gloss that overlooks many subtleties concealed in the original quotation

[5] The insight of the uniqueness of the artist’s art may be retained from the quotation, even if the sorcery connection is revised or rejected.

[6] By the same token, there is no fault to be found with the artist who is well compensated, provided their work is not compromised in the process. That said, achieving such compensation without compromise is quite exceptional, being rather a matter of fate or luck than artistic merit per se. In such cases, there is also a danger that the luxuries bestowed upon the artist lulls them into “selling out” or, what’s worse, confusing their authentic self with a mere image of it. Moreover, many artists go unappreciated until after their death, if they are publicly appreciated at all. We might even hazard that this is, in fact, the norm for artists in general. Accordingly, the bread problem remains a tough chestnut.