Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thought Experiment: The Starving Veterinarian

Imagine the following scenario. From early childhood, Bob is skilled at science and at working with his hands: he constantly takes things apart to see how they work. He has a Visible Man at the age of four that he can disassemble and reassemble. He kicks ass at "Operation!" Teachers recognize his abilities and encourage him; he stays after class to borrow books and spends long hours in the library. Biology especially fascinates him, because he loves animals, and in high school he interns at the local zoo. He majors in pre-med, but ultimately decides to go on to veterinary school, so he can continue working with animals. Although the applications are difficult, he survives the battery of tests. He goes through four years of medical training, aces his courses, even publishes some papers. But he doesn't want to be an academic: he wants to get out there and be a veterinarian. So the day he graduates, he starts applying to minimum wage jobs in retail and food service and, late at night, when everyone is asleep, he takes No-Doz and performs surgery on horses in his parents' basement.

Why do we find Bob's behavior strange? Or, more directly, why do we find the notion of the "starving artist" any less strange than that of the "starving veterinarian"? Why do we seem to think that an artist should be able to do his best work on no sleep for no money in moments stolen from a full-time job, while we would never expect the same from a veterinarian (or a publicist, or a stockbroker, or an accountant)? Why do we see an inherent contradiction in a person wanting to make art and also live comfortably, maybe even have a family, when many of the great artists of history have been aristocratic or literally patronized by kings? (Virginia Woolf thought that a woman writer needed "a little money and a room of one's own" to thrive as an artist; I don't think she'd be cheered to see that male writers today often don't have those things either.) And why does our culture persist in claiming to value artists while treating their time as literally value-less? The laws of capitalism are not the laws of nature; it is a choice to behave as though they are.

I know that things are tough all over, even for folks with "real careers."  And don't get me wrong: I don't think a good writer (or composer, painter, etc.) does his work for the money. But I don't think a good veterinarian does either. The difference is that the veterinarian is employed.


ldague said...

I hate to say it, but there's one sentence that sort of skews this thought experiment for me. "So the day he graduates, he starts applying to minimum wage jobs in retail and food service and, late at night, when everyone is asleep, he takes No-Doz and performs surgery on horses in his parents' basement." First of all, did Bob apply for veternarian jobs first? Let's assume he did and was turned down. My real problem is that the quoted sentence brings about an image of a crazy mad scientist veterinarian rather than a passionate vet who cares about the craft of veterinarianism but doesn't have the oppertunity to practice. Frankly, I think Bob might need to be institutionalized and evaluated to make sure he's not batshit crazy. The horse community will sleep easier at night knowing Bob isn't prowling the stables at night looking for the next victim of his gruesome experiments.

The Chawmonger said...

I guess the point I was trying to make with that bit of Burton-esque humor was that, when someone studies to be a veterinarian, there ARE paying jobs out there in the world for him to get, and it seems natural to us that there would be. But when someone studies to be an artist, well... not so much. My question is, if we as a culture value (for example) great literature more than Human Resources, why is it that a young HR Manager can do what he loves and still have health insurance, while a young poet can't?

(Also, as a side note, am I the only one who thinks "Human Resources" sounds like something from Soylent Green?)

ldague said...

I have to admit that I did get your point, but I chose to respond glibly instead of seriously. Why? Well, frankly I'm not really all that nice of a person.

Less glibly, I think there's a catch 22 involved here. I agree in idealistic principle that the a culture that values art should support artists. However, I think that doing so would wind up lowering the quality of the art itself. Coincidently, I've been conceptualizing a blog post for my blog that deals in some ways with this issue. (That's what those of us in the "The Biz" call a cock tease.)

Eric Taxier said...

It's almost silly to argue with the point made in the post. The best one could do is (1) speculate (like ldague, e.g., giving artists money = making art worse), which opens itself up to all sorts of criticism that has nothing to do with the original post, or (2) talk Practical: point out that sure, things are f*cked up, but there is no single (and simple) feasible solution, even though it's easy to point out our culture's hypocrisy. Where now, then?

ldague said...

Back to glib mocking?