17: The bread problem, part 2

Round loaf

In part 1 of this series, we defined “the bread problem” as the tension between spiritual and artistic demands and those of bodily sustenance. We also looked into some possible, though ultimately unsatisfactory, solutions. In this second and final part of the series, we’ll dig into the roots of what makes the bread problem so difficult and consider how a viable solution might be realized.

Blasphemous trivialities

As discussed in part 1, the bread problem is rooted in the phenomena of time and death. Specifically, the trouble is that securing sustenance may require sacrificing the very reason we sought to survive in the first place. That is, making our daily bread often entails blaspheming our irreplaceable time upon the earth with the manifold trivialities of money-making.

Now, some may think that “blasphemy” is an overstatement or superstitious notion that has no place in an “advanced” society, ruled by those who are wise enough to know that there is nothing sacred in life. However, the word “blaspheme” is chosen not for hyperbole, but for description.

Blasphemy, in essence, is the covering over of something of value with a veil of worthlessness. For instance, “cheating” on one’s partner blasphemes the relationship insofar as it implies that it is less valuable than the clandestine affair. More importantly, it momentarily obscures the true value of the relationship, which is often enough revealed again in its loss after the blasphemous affair is discovered.

The origins of the word “blasphemy” suggest a connection with foolishness, in its combining the Greek words for “idiot” and “to speak”. Thus, a blasphemer is a kind of “idiot oracle”, that is, one whose speech does not reveal truth, but conceals it. In the case of the bread problem, we’re struggling to reveal and affirm the true value of our time and existence even as we are asked to foolishly hide it from ourselves in order to sustain it.

We may blaspheme our time by all manner of activities that hide its true worth and meaning. The all-too-common question of “what am I doing with my life?” contains an implicit understanding of this phenomenon, for it contains a sense that whatever the speaker has been doing has not truly been their life. The question itself reveals the distance between the inquirer and his or her genuine life in that it supposes that the “what” that is being done is not even known to the one doing it. Such a person is alienated from their own actions, and thus from their time.

In the context of the bread problem, the obscuring blasphemy takes the form of various trivialities. That is, we engage in matters of little to no significance, trivial things that are of less value than our unique time upon the earth. When so engaged, it is easy to feel that life itself is trivial, for our time has been understood to be trivial.

In other words, by doing trivial things that are unrelated to the “what for” granted by the unique call addressed to each of us, we hide our ownmost treasures from ourselves.

The market value of spirit

Borrowing the words of Franz Marc, the treasures buried by the blasphemy of trivial activities are spiritual treasures. [1] The value of such treasures is measured - so far as it can be measured at all - utterly differently than that of material ones. Moreover, the exchange of a spiritual value for a material one may itself devalue the former, resulting in an impossible trade or one of depreciated value. So it seems, the market value of spiritual treasures is precarious at best, if not outright paradoxical.

There are two factors at work that make it so difficult for spiritual work to yield material sustenence, for art to itself yield bread. One of these is accidental, and so may be ameliorated by good fortune. The other is necessary, and so requires the solution of a paradox.

The first of these complicating factors is the simple mismatch between what the market demands and what spiritual goods we are to supply. Our unique work is granted to us not from the market, but from elsewhere. If we start from an analysis of market demands, we invert the relation of end and means by determing our work according to the market, rather than engaging with the market as a means to the end of our work.

Accordingly, there may be little desire to buy whatever works we are called to perform or produce, leaving us without adequate bread. That many great artists and thinkers have received nary a penny for their work, instead often gaining ridicule until after their death, should suffice to demonstrate this point. However, there may be demand for our products, and sustenance so acquired - but this is never guaranteed and so is left to fate or fortune.

Regardless of said fate or fortune, the second complicating factor remains: the danger that the very act of exchanging one’s work for money blasphemes the work, obscuring its true worth and character. This risk is inherent in the orientation required for making any kind of material, monetary, or market evaluation.

To make any such evaluation, the appraiser must interpret the work according to considerations external to the work that are fundamentally different in kind. Specifically, the work must first be determined as an object of exchange and something that, in principle, can be quantified in a price.

However, to consider a work in such a way requires stepping back from the work itself and losing sight of the true value it expresses. The “gaze” of the buyer or seller is not the same as that of the enraptured witness of beauty. Monetary considerations trample into aesthetic revelations like a bull in a china shop.

Any true work speaks for itself, out of itself. For any work to be a work at all, it must be able to stand apart from its creator, who brought it to stand here in the first place. When the creator completes the thing and releases it into the world, it stands and shows itself as it is. Such is required for it to be recognized as a thing or a work at all.

Consequently, the work of the artist as such is prior to and fundamentally independent of any market valuations about them, insofar as they stand on their own and owe the origin of their impetus to factors outside the market. If a work is to be given a market value, it must be understood in terms of the desires of those participating in the market, that is, the demands of potential buyers. [2]

There’s no love in fear

In view of the tensions between spiritual and material values, we find ourselves presented with a choice: heed the call, do the unique work we are called to do, and risk material deprivation and else besides, or ignore the call to secure sustenance and risk loss of meaning and purpose. In choosing our wager, we are confronted with the spectre of fear and the matching impulse to rational action to alleviate that fear. However, there is no love in fear, and love is ever the outward manifestation of spirit. In short, we are challenged to risk love, or else to chain it with bonds of reason.

In responding to the call, doing our work, and, in the process, uncovering spiritual treasures, we expose ourselves to various painful possibilities. In addition to the danger of lost bread, we also confront the risks of social ostracism and failure, not to mention the general discomfort that comes from exertion in any endeavor. The issue of material sustenance being covered above, let’s consider these other risks, which act as sources of fear.

It is well known that our world has a distinct preference for material values, especially those that submit to easy measurement, calculation, and prediction. Indeed, this predilection is so strong that merely voicing an interest in anything resembling a spiritual pursuit is wont to receive laughter, ridicule, or at least quizzical stares. Since each of us implicitly understands the general attitudes of our age, born into it as we are, we are apt to feel a distinct disincentive to any sort of spiritual endeavor, however humble it may be.

Accordingly, the call may require us not only to risk material livelihood, but also social relationships and acceptance. It is only natural to seek to avoid such discord and head off such things at the pass. However, many nonetheless end up feeling dissatisfied with their choice, as they’ve forgotten the value of their own time and existence in the process. Such are the fruits of fear.

Further, it is common to fear failure as a proof of our own lack of worth. Fortunately, however strongly felt, this fear is in fact misplaced and remains well within the purview of the individual to resolve. Where bread and social acceptance may fall out of one’s reach despite one’s best efforts, failure is in fact a necessary part of any meaningful work. This fact has been much belabored elsewhere and has risen to maintstream awareness, so I will not dwell on it here. Suffice it to say that all failures, as such, teach us something we didn’t know before, and so are valuable if only we learn from them.

In all of these cases, the decisive factor in overcoming the fear that buries our spiritual treasures is love. Love overcomes fear in its affirmation of the worth of our time and decisions independently of outcomes. That is, it flips the usual order of reasoning by valuing the action before the consequence. We heed to call and do our work because the work is good and worth doing, not because we are trying to control fate to produce “good” outcomes. Love is simply the affirmation of the value of our own existence, which is at once the affirmation of existence as a whole.

Place your bets

In light of the foregoing discussion, it should be clear that the bread problem is multifaceted and itself nontrivial. Accordingly, its solution is also nontrivial, in that it inevitably entails a variety of substantial risks. No endeavor is guaranteed to succeed in advance, and certainty is all the more precarious the less measurable and material the venture. Accordingly, anyone seeking a solution to the bread problem must make a wager.

Given the unique nature of the call granted to each of us, so too will the particular character of the bread problem be unique in each case. There is no single solution to the bread problem, but as many solutions as there are individuals struggling with it. However, there is one common element in any such solution, as noted above: love.

That is, love grants the courage to overcome fear and affirm the value of our lives and work, as well as the truth within the call itself. Love contains necessity within itself, saying: “the work must be done”. The call beckons to us with an imperative, while love gives the command and means to fulfill it.

Notes

[1] Franz Marc, “Spiritual Treasures”, in The Blaue Reiter Almanac, eds. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, trans. Henning Falkenstein (Boston: artWorks, 2005).

[2] This problem is not endemic to free markets, so far as they exist, or capitalism per se. A planned economy still has a market, it is just a market that is established and maintained through fiat rather than through the purchasing decisions of individual market participants. In such a case, the material value of an artist’s work would not be left to the aggregate judgement of all individuals with money to spend, but to the decisions of the handful of planning authorities who act as the arbiters of all monetary and material value in lieu of spontaneous and emergent price signals in the market. Insofar as advocates of planned economies are often self-styled materialists, it stands to reason that the market value of art works will likely be lower within such an economy, especially insofar as the existence of spiritual values are categorically and metaphysically denied a priori.