Art for art's sake, money for God's sake

In these days of mass copying of music, and probably of ebooks too in the future, all of which means artists work for nothing, I thought this epigram by a chap called Martial was somewhat apropos. He's from the Roman Empire, 80AD.

Martial was hugely popular in his own day, and very, very rude. (Those two points are probably closely connected). This is from Book 5, Number 16. He had this to say on the value of his popularity:


That I, who could write what is serious, prefer to write what is entertaining, you, friendly reader, are the cause, who read and hum my poems all over Rome; but you do not know what your love costs me.

For were I willing to appear for the Temple of the scythe-bearing Thunderer [i.e. join the treasury department], or to sell my words to anxious men accused [i.e. become a lawyer], then many a sailor whom I'd defended would send me jars of Spanish wine, and the lap of my toga would be stained with all sorts of coin.

But, as it is, my book is merely a guest and sharer of revels, and my page affords amusement for which I receive no pay. Not even the poets of old were content with empty praise; in those days the smallest present made to the Immortal Bard [Virgil, not Shakespeare!] was Alexis [a slave once given to Virgil].

"You write charmingly," you say, "and we will reward you with praises for ever."

Do you pretend not to understand my hints? You will, I suspect, make me a lawyer.


How very interesting that almost 2,000 years ago, people used intellectual property without paying for it, and then expected to make it up by saying nice things about the unpaid artist. Notice how he says things were better in the good old days!


This post was written while listening to Art For Art's Sake, by 10cc.

8 comments:

Stephanie Thornton said...

This made the history teacher in me smile.

We learn from history that we learn nothing from history. -George Bernard Shaw

Of course, then the writer in me cringed a little. Artists deserve to get paid for their work, be they musicians, writers, or painters. It's nice to know ancient artists bemoaned the same problems we do. And that they didn't like lawyers either.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie. Yep, it seems the internet made it easier but the problem's been there forever. Who'd've thought it?

Amalia T. said...

I wonder how he would have felt about copyright law.

Gary Corby said...

Rather in favour, I should imagine. But maybe not exactly as we have it. I don't know anyone who likes copyright in its current form.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I really enjoyed reading Martial for the online book club though I ended up missing it. This particular quote reminds me of the constant struggle some of my writer friends have in that eternal struggle between writing for love and starving or "selling out" and getting a "real" job. Also, I plan on using that line: "Do you pretend not to understand my hints?" with my kids!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Vicky. If I tried the line, "Do you pretend not to understand my hints?" with my kids, it would be what's known as a rhetorical question.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Maybe the artist's struggle is really eternal, or at least has existed since the first written word.

Gary Corby said...

Okay Susan, now I have an image of a guy standing in front of his cave paintings, and whining that people copy his work onto small rocks without paying him any clam shells, and then carry the copies to the other caves.